Let me recommend Paul Graham’s essay, Why Nerds Are Unpopular. It’s a very illuminating discussion of a painful subject:
If it’s any consolation to the nerds, it’s nothing personal. The group of kids who band together to pick on you are doing the same thing, and for the same reason, as a bunch of guys who get together to go hunting. They don’t actually hate you. They just need something to chase.Graham’s basic thesis is that nerds are unpopular because their interest in other subjects makes them unwilling to devote themselves exclusively to the struggle for popularity:
[P]opularity is not something you can do in your spare time, not in the fiercely competitive environment of an American secondary school. … I wonder if anyone in the world works harder at anything than American school kids work at popularity. Navy SEALs and neurosurgery residents seem slackers by comparison. They occasionally take vacations; some even have hobbies. An American teenager may work at being popular every waking hour, 365 days a year.He goes into some detail about how high-school popularity works, which is extremely interesting if, like me, you’re a nerd who never got the hang of it and always wondered what you were doing wrong. Graham deplores the whole system for its boredom, its arbitrary cruelty, and its wastefulness. He points out that instead of being sequestered with their agemates, teenagers used to be much more integrated into their communities. They worked. They were useful. Adjusting for circumstances, they appear to have been on the whole happier than their modern American counterparts. And he has small use for the convenient modern theory that teenage misery is a function of their rampaging hormones:
I’m suspicious of this theory that thirteen year old kids are intrinsically messed up. If it’s physiological, it should be universal. Are Mongol nomads all nihilists at thirteen? I’ve read a lot of history, and I don’t think I’ve seen a single reference to this supposedly universal fact before the twentieth century. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance seem to have been cheerful and eager. They got in fights and played tricks on one another of course, but they weren’t crazy. As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they’re made to lead.IMO, this does more to explain the Columbine shootings than any amount of nihilist or goth teenage culture.
Where I grew up, it felt as if there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do. This was no accident. Suburbs are deliberately designed to exclude the outside world, because it contains things that could endanger children.Yes! The last thing out of the box is hope:
And as for the schools, they were just holding pens within this fake world. Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids all locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren’t told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they’re called misfits.
Why is the real world more hospitable to nerds? It might seem that the answer is simply that it’s populated by adults, who are too mature to pick on one another. But I don’t think this is true. Adults in prison certainly pick on one another. And so, apparently, do society wives; in some parts of Manhattan, life for women sounds like a continuation of high school, with all the same petty intrigues.(via Abbi Ball’s Things to Come, where she adds her own reflections on the subject.)
I think the important thing about the real world is not that it’s populated by adults, but that it’s very large, and the things you do have real effects. That’s what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.When the things you do have real effects, it’s no longer enough just to be pleasing. It starts to be important to get the right answers, and that’s where nerds show to advantage.