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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Nerds and the trouble with high school

Some of this long piece by Paul Graham, on the misery suffered by nerds in high school, is US-specific, and some of it seems exaggerated. Mostly, though it rings true. For many of us, the early years of high school were made miserable by a mixture of the system, the attitudes of adults ... and, above all, the attitudes of other students. Perhaps our own unwillingness or inability to conform to arbitrary requirements for popularity also played a role.

The article makes the important point that it's not just a matter of adolescent hormones - indeed, smart teenagers can be, well, quite smart and sensible if they are treated more or less like junior adults. Sure, we were all inexperienced at that age, and we may have had a simplistic picture of the world, but that wasn't entirely our fault. Partly it was the fact that we were presented with a simplistic picture of the world. Nor was the problem that the world as a whole is as bad as the artificial setting of junior high school: by and large, that's not so, as Graham spells out. Much of the problem is that contemporary Western society, whatever its many virtues (and it certainly has these!), does a poor job of handling the adolescent maturity gap. By their teenage years, many kids are ready to take on some responsibility, to have active sex lives, and to hang out to an extent with the grown-ups, but the social system as a whole works against this.

There are good reasons for the current set-up, mainly that there is now just so much to learn to have even a minimal understanding of the natural and social worlds, and that training for any decent career requires a specialised base of knowledge and skills that takes years to acquire. As a society, we need to offer lengthy education to adolescents and young adults, but we also need to work out strategies to avoid the damaging adolescent maturity gap.

Have a look at Graham's piece and let me know whether it's true to your experience of high school. As I say, some of it seems US-specific - the jock culture over there may not be much worse than the Australian jock culture, but it sounds more relentless. It also takes a rather different form from what I experienced growing up in the beach-oriented ambience of coastal NSW, where such things as prowess in the surf and a good suntan were (even) more important than belonging to sports teams. Still, the picture is close enough to my own experience to be recognisable.

Here's a sample of Graham's thinking that contains a lot of wisdom, and reflects my own conclusions on all this:

Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren't left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.

Teenagers seem to have respected adults more then, because the adults were the visible experts in the skills they were trying to learn. Now most kids have little idea what their parents do in their distant offices, and see no connection (indeed, there is precious little) between schoolwork and the work they'll do as adults.

And if teenagers respected adults more, adults also had more use for teenagers. After a couple years' training, an apprentice could be a real help. Even the newest apprentice could be made to carry messages or sweep the workshop.

Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers. They would be in the way in an office. So they drop them off at school on their way to work, much as they might drop the dog off at a kennel if they were going away for the weekend.

What happened? We're up against a hard one here. The cause of this problem is the same as the cause of so many present ills: specialization. As jobs become more specialized, we have to train longer for them. Kids in pre-industrial times started working at about 14 at the latest; kids on farms, where most people lived, began far earlier. Now kids who go to college don't start working full-time till 21 or 22. With some degrees, like MDs and PhDs, you may not finish your training till 30.

Teenagers now are useless, except as cheap labor in industries like fast food, which evolved to exploit precisely this fact. In almost any other kind of work, they'd be a net loss. But they're also too young to be left unsupervised. Someone has to watch over them, and the most efficient way to do this is to collect them together in one place. Then a few adults can watch all of them.

If you stop there, what you're describing is literally a prison, albeit a part-time one. The problem is, many schools practically do stop there. The stated purpose of schools is to educate the kids. But there is no external pressure to do this well. And so most schools do such a bad job of teaching that the kids don't really take it seriously-- not even the smart kids. Much of the time we were all, students and teachers both, just going through the motions.

18 comments:

Robert N Stephenson said...

Interesting stuff, and I have a teenage daughter who I am unsure if she is nerdy or a crowd follower -- nerdy seems closer.

Somethings are funny though --

This comment -- The young of today have no repsect for their elders...

and this -- It concerns me that my son spend most of his time on the corner with his friens than working in the shop...

The first was found written in latin in an unearthed part of old Rome - early AD, the second was found in a collection of clay tablets unearthed in what was known as Mesopotamia.

So, while there is truth in the piece and what the author is suggesting we need to look back on histiry and consider - has anything really changed in regard to the youth of the world?

Russell Blackford said...

Now, Rob, this is a comment from you that I can relate to.

It's true that adults have (seemingly) always complained about teenagers, so you're right that we can't be too sure that adult/teenage relations are now worse than in, say, Roman or Sumerian times. I suspect they are, my (limited) personal experience of how they seem to work in less industrialised countries adds to the suspicion. But I can't prove they are.

Btw, one thing that seems to have improved in my lifetime is the cultural generation gap between parents and teenagers. There was much more outright mutual hostility when I was young than I see now. Maybe it's just my own milieu, but the parents and teenagers I see are far more likely to have similar values and interests than was the case in my time. But I think my time - late 60s/early 70s - actually was unique in that regard. It was the time of a real rupture in values.

These days, kids are far more net and computer savvy than adults, but they are more likely to show a friendly contempt towards us about this than to feel oppressed and to retaliate with outright hostility. And we adults uneasily joke about how the kids in our lives know more about such things than we do, since they grew up immersed in technologies that we still find a bit alien.

From where I sit, things really do seem to have improved a bit in adult/teenager relations at some point in the last two or three decades. But maybe that's only from where I sit.

DM said...
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Jambe said...
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Jambe said...
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Jambe said...

I'm 22, graduated in 2006. It was a small school, 300 7-12. There was a "jock" clique but it wasn't cruel or bullying. I was a nerd and proud of it. I wasn't denigrated for being smart, and was friends with a few "jocks" who were also smart.

My experience with being taught was mostly negative. For one year I had a wonderful history teacher who arranged all the desks around the periphery of the classroom and wheeled his office chair into the center every day to look you in the face when discussing something. He was more collegiate than pedagogical. He had conversations with us and went out of his way to relate historical happenings to modern ones. You got the sense that the past sheds light on the now and the future; you saw that it mattered.

I also liked my shop teacher and art teacher. They'd give you a problem or a goal and a tool or a method and work with you as you sussed out how to apply it. You learned, slowly but surely, how to think for yourself. The specifics of solving a problem or of sculpting weren't important — the important stuff was learning how to approach a problem, developing a critical and inquisitive mindset, etc. That was the most invaluable thing I learned in high school (perhaps the only valuable thing), and ironically enough I got it from non-required courses.

My algebra teacher was horrible, telling me time and time again to "refer to my text" whenever I had a question that the text couldn't explain. My statistics teacher was drier than the desert sands. They failed miserably to make me interested. I still question why I should've been interested. After school I taught myself algebra so I could test out of required collegiate courses, but I'll -never- apply it in my work.

There's much talk of "expanding gray area" and other such fluff but no real-world data to suggest that relatively obscure knowledge is beneficial enough to warrant its teaching.

It's silly to suggest that school life is easier than being a working member of society. Self-sustenance has been an amazingly enjoyable cakewalk compared to the hideous torture of boredom and the near-constant regret and self-pity that arose from being unable to understand or care about maths or chemistry. School was the worst part of my life for six years and I still resent the state for forcing it on me.

The fundamental problem is that we're not taught how to think. Not even the most basic of courses on logic or criticism or debate is required in this country (and not by the state of Indiana). It's really pitiable. By graduation, people who haven't managed to learn to think for themselves are just sheep packed with numbers and facts, no more capable of critical analysis of the world around them than they were years prior.

/edit: the comment system has been rejecting my comment and clipping it for some reason. Odd.

mryana said...

From where I sit, there has never been such a wedge inbetween teens and their parents.
In a way, it's a sort of quiet crisis thatgoes unnoticed in the way of being swept under the carpet. Lots of hopes that all will turn out right and okay.
From various families close to me, I've not seen anything good amidst all the denial.
These parents wish they could start over. Kids are eternally addicted to electronics and give very little time to relationships with their parents.
Generation gap just way to large.

Hopefully things can change for the good of all.

Greg Egan said...

This is somewhat peripheral, but it strikes me as a sad triumph of crassness and infantilism in the wider culture that an otherwise perfectly civilised person such as the author of this piece would even use a word like "nerd". Why would anyone setting out to describe how pernicious these vapid US high school cliques are feel compelled to adopt their odious vocabulary?

Russell Blackford said...

Well, yes - and I probably should have put it in scare quotes myself.

Karmakin said...

We're actually starting to see really good progress on bullying, or at least how we're studying it. More and more we're talking less about the individual type of bullying...think of the stereotypical bully, your Nelson Muntz type. Those bullies are easy to deal with.

More we're thinking and talking about social bullying. Something that generally is done not by an individual, but often by a community, or a portion of such. This bullying is a lot more difficult to deal with, generally because the people supposed to deal with the problem are part of the bullying community.

It's also a lot more damaging to the psyche.

I think the gap is both wider and narrower. I disagree that technology has increased the gap. As Russell mentioned, it tends to be something more lighthearted than anything, with points of connection being more common.

But when speaking outside of family, the gap is wider, namely for economic reasons. Things are really bad right now, and I think that the gap between expectations and reality create a wider gap between generations on the whole.

It's the same thing. We like our parents but we hate the parents generation.

Finally, specialization is going to come to the point where you don't even need that much education anymore beyond the basics. Even at this point, for many of the jobs out there, any sort of education is basically redundant, as you're expected to follow certain guidlines/work flow, and if you can learn the work flow you can do the job, irregardless of what previous experience/education you have. And that's only going to increase.

You'll need..or you already do need, only a few educated/experienced people to create and maintain the workflows. For the labor market, we really are way way way overeducated.

Gabby said...

I don't see a single thing in this article that I would consider an exaggeration. This is very close to my experience.

BlueFairy said...

This article rings pretty true to me, although I feel that we nerds can be a bit too self-important at times, especially looking back at these times. As a nerd in junior high I was persecuted some, but in high school I was mostly invisible, as I had opted out of the entire social experience, and ignored others in favor of books whenever possible. Being unpopular actually becomes a badge of honor in certain circles after a while. 'You don't want to be those vapid, know-nothing "popular" kids, do you?' This strengthens a nerd's ties with the tribe, and just because the nerds generally don't then persecute the jocks (except in private mockery) doesn't actually make it a better attitude.

I found the connection between suburbs and an "artificial" reality especially interesting, and it resonates with how I feel after moving from suburbia to NYC. I'm sure the kids here also have social cliques, though.

The comments about the word "nerd" amuse me, both because being a nerd is presented in a positive light in the article, and because the use of the word would never seem offensive to me. I don't know about elsewhere, but in many parts of the USA, nerd (and/or its relative, geek) has been claimed as a positive label by intelligent, socially awkward teens to help them find like-minded friends and allies.

tildeb said...

I think there might be a bit of transference going on here: it seems to me that the general population is moving towards adolescence so that teens are no longer surrounded by adult role models.

As for the negative connotation around nerds, I think this was probably much more true two decades ago than today. My experience is that nerds (loosely defined as the intelligent and tech-savvy kids) are widely respected by their peers.

As for contempt towards adults, I think that that moodiness is more biological than social but easily overcome (again in my experience) by fair and equitable treatment as people with strengths and weaknesses, adequacies (if that's a word) and inadequacies, rather than as stereotypical teens. More often than not, that contempt is justified.

Robert N Stephenson said...

I deal with teens regularly - have a teen daughter and we run an open house hold so the plan can get overrun with the things at times.

I have a good relationship with them but it is still distant and that gap may never be breached by any means and I think the main reason is invincibility. The older we get the more fragile we find life but teens don't see the fragility, even when someone dies that they know. So teens do tend to be more recless, more direct at doing things and have limited respect values due to the speed of their thinking... teens can think very fast, even the morbid ones.

The idea of nerd isn't really one that sits in our family I guess. I mentioned nerds last night and my children just looked at me as if I was speeking another language. Both of them respecet really smart kids ans both help kids who struggle a bit. (I think they are good kids)

I have seen this attitude in their friends as well. We can of course blame many things on generation gaps or narrowing the gap and even shift from blame to setting up better lives for our children or the younger generation, but in the end we can never quite relate.

The ability to fully relate requires a fluid flexibility of thought that is prepared to accept the outrageous alongside the sensible and accept it in a speedy fashion. Damn hard to do, but being a little unhindged myself does help.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"This is somewhat peripheral, but it strikes me as a sad triumph of crassness and infantilism in the wider culture that an otherwise perfectly civilised person such as the author of this piece would even use a word like 'nerd'."

I hadn't given it that much thought, partly because I tend to self-identify as a nerd. The catch, of course, is that it's one thing to use "nerd" as a term of self-deprecation or self-description, but another matter for someone who doesn't self-identify as a nerd to use the term to describe other people.

Greg Egan said...

BlueFairy wrote:

The comments about the word "nerd" amuse me, both because being a nerd is presented in a positive light in the article, and because the use of the word would never seem offensive to me. I don't know about elsewhere, but in many parts of the USA, nerd (and/or its relative, geek) has been claimed as a positive label by intelligent, socially awkward teens to help them find like-minded friends and allies.

While I can sympathise with bullied 12-year-olds with no control over how they are labelled trying to "claim" these ugly and derogatory terms and treat them as badges of pride, their entry into the wider language still strikes me as depressingly crass and childish.

The suggestion that they've become generally neutral is highly debatable; when used by a writer/speaker who wouldn't use them on themself, the intent is often to disparage intellectual interests or achievement.

These terms also carry a truckload of bizarre (and often damaging and offensive) assumptions out of the playground into the OpEd pages; you don't call a Nobel-prizing winning physicist a "nerd" as a neutral synonym for "intellectual" or "scientist", you do it because you're contemptuous of his/her achievements, and wish to imply that they come correlated with all kinds of unpleasant downsides.

Robert N Stephenson said...

The term nerd is not a term of indearment. I was labelled a nerd when a kid and in an effort to become unnerdy I failed all my school subjects, dressed like the cool kids and eventually got kicked out of school - but I was no longer a nerd...

the term causes damage even when used to determine the social set the person is in.

I didn't want to be a nerd, I just wanted to be accepted. No kid wants to be a nerd - the term has been softened to allow bullies freer reign over the school yard in a sense. It is now permissable to pick on the smart kids because their derogatory name is widely accepted.

So, I actually agree with Greg... wierd that...

Kirth Gersen said...

"These days, kids are far more net and computer savvy than adults, but they are more likely to show a friendly contempt towards us about this than to feel oppressed and to retaliate with outright hostility."

Very insightful, this, and I think bang-on for a lot of kids. Having spent 1995-2001 teaching high school in the U.S., I saw the demographics shifting. Tech-savvy kids are no longer outcasts, and the "jocks" and "nerds" are often the same group of kids now -- the ones whose parents take an interest in their lives and encourage them to DO things. The outcasts were the kids who did nothing -- no academic work, no sports, no activities of any kind apart from maybe TV, a Gameboy, and getting high from huffing hair spray, snorting ground-up Ritalin, or whatever. For those, the first group is likely to display exactly the attitude you suggest, and the latter are the ones who remain hostile.