Paul Graham, an essayist, programmer, and programming language designer, and author of several programming books wrote an essay entitled “Why Nerds are Unpopular“. As I read it, it was like looking into a mirror and seeing myself between the ages of 11 and 17. I think he’s nailed this phenomenon to the wall. But even more, I think he exposes a deep and troublesome problem inherent in every public school.
Around the age of eleven, though, kids seem to start treating their family as a day job. They create a new world among themselves, and standing in this world is what matters, not standing in their family. Indeed, being in trouble in their family can win them points in the world they care about.
The problem is, the world these kids create for themselves is at first a very crude one. If you leave a bunch of eleven-year-olds to their own devices, what you get is Lord of the Flies. Like a lot of American kids, I read this book in school. Presumably it was not a coincidence. Presumably someone wanted to point out to us that we were savages, and that we had made ourselves a cruel and stupid world. This was too subtle for me. While the book seemed entirely believable, I didn’t get the additional message. I wish they had just told us outright that we were savages and our world was stupid.
The essay is long, but is definitely worth a read if you want to get your mind around why it was that you could never quite “crack the code” of popularity. Or, alternatively, if you were popular among your peers, why so-called “nerds” never quite got hold of that erstwhile holy grail of social status.
In many ways, though, I believe that people leave high school and create that same reality wherever else they go in life. Think about the people you work with, go to church with, mingle with in social circles. Think of your neighbors, even people in your own family. What do they all have in common? That’s right, each is jockeying for some kind of position within a clique, or at the very least, to be acknowledged as a human being by…someone.
It’s like someone sat down at some point in history and asked the question, “What can be done to pit one person against another over superficial and meaningless attributes and definitions? What can I/we gain from such a phenomenon? How do I/we keep it going?”
The answer, indubitably, at least in part, was public school.
I will go into this more in future posts, so if you’re interested, drop your email in the subscription field so you’ll get the alert. Until then, go to your library and read some John Holt and John Taylor Gatto. Unplug from The Matrix and see your life as it really is…and as it really could be.