A few weeks ago our family 'nerd-hood' was relived when my daughter's friend, Daniel, gave me an essay by Paul Graham, "Why Nerds are Unpopular" (http://www.paulgraham.com/nerds.html) which started me thinking.
Two weeks ago (http://departingthetext.blogspot.com/2011/10/labels.html), inspired by Graham's essay, I addressed the effects of labeling in and out of school and in adult life. Today I return to discuss the essay more directly. It is a powerful, provocative essay I strongly recommend you read. In it, Graham ruminates why nerds are nerds, and why they are so often persecuted by their peers.
The Nature of "NERD":
According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nerd):
The stereotypical nerd is intellectual but socially and physically awkward...Stereotypical nerd qualities have evolved in recent years, going from awkwardness and social ostracism to an allegedly more widespread acceptance and sometimes even celebration...Why Nerds are Unpopular - Graham sites several reasons for this:
"One argument...the smart kids are unpopular because the other kids envy them for being smart...[But] in the schools I went to, being smart just didn't matter much...Intelligence counted far less than, say, physical appearance, charisma, or athletic ability."
"Nerds serve two masters. They want to be popular...but they want even more to be smart. [But] popularity is not something you can do in your spare time... it takes work to be popular.
"The main reason nerds are unpopular is that they have other things to think about...books or the natural world, not fashions and parties... Few smart kids can spare the attention that popularity requires....
"Around the age of eleven...[parents and family take a back seat] kids create a new world among themselves, and standing in this world is what matters... Kids persecute nerds to make themselves feel better...People unsure of their own positions will try to emphasize it by maltreating those they think rank below...
"But ...Popularity is only partially about individual attractiveness. It's much more about alliances...By singling out and persecuting a nerd, a group of kids...create a bond between themselves.
This is where Graham's essay becomes really interesting. He blames schools for often turning a blind eye to abuses, and for creating vacuums of empty time and work - all of which leave kids to their own devices - in search of meaning and identity. He notes that,
"Bullying was only part of the problem...we never had anything real to work on. Humans like to work; in most of the world, your work is your identity. And all the work we did was pointless [his emphasis], or seemed so at the time... More often it was just an arbitrary series of hoops to jump through, words without content designed mainly for testability... And there was no way to opt out. The adults had agreed among themselves that this was to be the route to college..."He then continues by comparing teens today to teens in the Middle Ages. There was no high school or college - just apprentices. They were not left relatively unsupervised to create their own societies - they were junior members to adult activities and 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 adults have no immediate use for teenagers...[And] the real problem is the emptiness of school life.The truth, anger, and sadness in these words were quite moving for me and I think we need to take Graham's words further. For many kids there's often an emptiness in family life as well. We as adults often have so many hoops to jump through that as our kids become teenagers, we are there less for them. We are working two jobs, we're busy networking on our electronic devices, we can't find a common time to eat dinner and talk together, and we as parents often rationalize that our tweens and teens are fine on their own. And maybe we are, but the family unit is fragile and even though our teens need to become independent, they also need a family unity solidly with behind them, continuing to shape boundaries, rules, and identities.
- Help all kids comfortably define who they are - what their strengths, weaknesses, and passions are, and what their pursuits might be. We have to accept their gifts and embrace their differences, and help kids think out of the box. Maybe we have to remove the box entirely. [That is what many are doing with homeschooling - quite successfully.]
- Set aside family time - even though they need independence, they need the structure of family time and family rules. Eat meals together as often as possible, but at least once or twice a week with no television, no phones, and no outside distractions. Talk, laugh, support each other.
- Create opportunities and diverse environments in and out of school with larger masses, where even the smallest minorities can achieve a critical mass.
- Help bullied kids find and create 'safer' communities in and out of school.
- Model tolerance, acceptance, and self worth.
- Help schools become safer havens for our kids - maybe creating parent monitors walking outside the school at arrival and dismissal times; make sure there are teacher monitors during lunch and recess.
- Teachers need to make learning more fun and meaningful. Reading texts and teacher generated lectures must be balanced with group and individual projects, and multi-sensory, multi-media presentations. Many teachers ARE doing this already. They are bringing graphic novels into their reading lists, generating meaningful project units that integrate leadership and social skills with learning about our past and present world. They are relating subject matter directly to their students lives, and are even having kids act out events in tableaus or tableaus vivant ("living pictures") where kids mime events by acting in 'frozen scenes' of history.
- Help kids, teens in particular, find meaningful things to work on - in and out of school - be it through community service or meaningful, possibly community related school projects:
- Visit sick in hospitals - create songs to sing or scripts to perform (can be school project where the songs and scripts are related to a particular subject unit)
- Volunteer in community food shelters - or have the school offer (occasional) healthy, cost effective menus (through math, social studies and science projects)
- Organize charity drives
- Create and/or clean up parks and playgrounds
- Have the school / class visit with a responsible city official - talk about critical issues facing kids in the city - brainstorm as a class and create community relief projects.
And most of all, reassure them...It does work out.
And, for some lighter fun... check out: How nerdy are you? at:
As Graham puts it in his essay:
"Nerds aren't losers. They're just playing a different game, and a game much closer to the one played in the real world. Adults know this. It's hard to find successful adults now who don't claim to have been nerds in high school....It's important for nerds to realize, too, that school is not life. School is a strange, artificial thing, half sterile and half feral. It's all-encompassing, like life, but it isn't the real thing. It's only temporary, and if you look, you can see beyond it even while you're still in it."