Paul Graham’s Nerds
One of my friends and gaming buddies linked our group to an article programmer and tech nerd guru Paul Graham wrote just about a decade ago expounding his beliefs on nerds and school culture. It’s entitled “Why Nerds are Unpopular,” and is based on Graham’s experiences in high school in the 1980’s. She wanted to open up a conversation. I wrote a reply that was as long as Graham’s. In doing so, I found that the essay was, while not necessarily quoted, references to it were here and there around the internet. So I hope I live up to Graham’s other article on “How to Disagree,” because I found I could not sit with his method or perspective. I found Graham’s opinion to be limited and universalist. It’s still an interesting and thought provoking read:
Graham’s view is that nerds are unpopular because they have better, more intelligent things to think about (that’s what makes them a nerd), but that the way schools are set up and popular kids are encouraged creates an environment where their poor treatment is perpetuated. Boiled down, that seems a potentially fine opinion. However, Graham bases his theory entirely on his own experience and admits to dismissing the contrasting experiences of others on an “RE:” page. A more robust view is impossible with this treatment. Graham assumes his experience to apply to everyone, and at anytime. I wrote this to my friend:
The thing that got me was that he assumes his experience to be both universal and static, and in his RE:Why Nerds are Unpopular, he pretty much dismissed nerds who had other types of experiences, especially ones with positive experiences, so I felt the need to deconstruct his universality and use what he absolutely does not – literature, references, citations, data, anything besides personal authority – to show that there’s a variety of social patterns at work and that the system is way more complex for several reasons, even if we keep his definition of what makes a nerd a nerd. There’s more hope for positive outcomes than Graham’s nihilistic and pessimistic view of what the median or average experience is.Truth be told, I limited myself to interactions between the “nerd” and “popular” kids because it’s worth a whole essay on itself to look at the social hierarchies within the nerd or popular circles themselves, both back when I was at high school and the ones I see as an adult. I gave this only lip service in the essay. I would not be able to do it justice here, nor the experience of being a geek or nerd in a system different from Graham’s. Personally, it can be just as harsh, but at times it can be liberating too. My point is to challenge Graham’s dismissal of these other systems.Graham also made the mistake of writing “I’ve read a lot of history, and…” (without citations of course.) I facepalmed. I got some fiero out of responding to that part. Enjoy the mini Renaissance lesson in the middle.And, of interest to me, is how geeks fit in to this equation. The fact that there is evolving definition (that is not necessarily the same as nerd, author’s inserted note) is key, so I hope you stay tuned. The landscape of experience has the potential to change further. If you could make it through Graham’s essay, I hope you can be patient through mine.
In response to Paul Graham’s “Why Nerds Are Unpopular” follows after the break.
In response to Paul Graham’s “Why Nerds Are Unpopular”
I will try to demonstrate that Graham’s theory cannot truly be universal with counter examples from the literature in education, sociology, philosophy, and history, and raise doubt to his observations on his own experience as the true norm in the United States. Even where there are gaps in research, I hope it provides interesting views on school societal structure. I will use examples from my own school experience to illustrate the ideas, but the work will not be based solely on them, a trap which Graham falls into. School culture and fixes are a heavy topic, but with respect I will hit on a few key points relevant to the argument at hand. I will discuss Graham’s definitions of popularity and nerd, which are loaded and potentially troublesome despite his empirical observations being sound and relevant. I also apologize for awkward grammar as I finished several paragraphs on a late night manic binge.
Graham raises some interesting points in his essay but I find he has fatal flaws in his argument. It’s not the argument itself that’s bad, indeed he brings his own experiences to the conversation in an interesting way for both (1) nerds and (2) schools (as things that don’t work/need help, etc). Graham however assumes that his experiences are the norm for everyone and thus his observations on (1) and (2) apply to everyone. This needs to be addressed before actually going into what he’s saying because it’s what he rests his own authority on, and he uses it to create a universal statement.
Paul Graham gives indications of growing up in a suburb, and he sort of seems surprised by some of the emails he gets in response to his experience. However, he holds very firmly that his experience is not unique but true for not just others across the country in 1981 when he was in high school, but for today as well, “What I’m talking about in this essay is the situation in the average American public secondary school,” (from the Re:Nerds…) and that in his suburb, Gateway (his school) was the good school. However, I feel part of this may hinge on an insular feeling of suburban American life as the “norm” that may cloud Graham’s view. He believes his friends, who also went to good schools and who also identify as nerds, and others who have written to him, who say the opposite are wrong. I feel it is wrong to dismiss these opposite points without some sort of analysis. Graham however provides no analysis. He is neither data nor research driven, but based entirely on his sole experience.
Graham gives us clues to his school population. He opens the essay by labeling the tables in his cafeteria according to popularity, a task that would actually limit the school population to the size of a room, albeit a potentially large one. His group graded classes from A-E, with only one table D, Graham’s table, though there were multiples of the other tables. According to the Digest of Education Statistics, the average secondary school size (middle or high school) is 693 students in 2009-10. This has remained relatively unchanged – with slight fluctuations – from 1993-4 when the average secondary school size was 695. Even the states with the smallest average school sizes are in the 300’s, and North Dakota is an outlier in that year with an average of 222 students split over the secondary grades. Even here we’re looking at classes that are too large to comfortably fit a cafeteria on tables labeled A-E (with only one D table), assuming only a handful of tables for the other letters, with an appropriate number of students at each rather than a clown car approach. So either Graham is leaving out a significant portion of the school that, say, ate outdoors or in the hallways or other school areas because the population surpassed the cafeteria, or his middle school was actually quite small. If this is the size of the feeder school (middle schools feed smaller elems into larger high schools), the Gateway School District in Monroeville, PA (a suburb of Pittsburg) may not have been that large back in 1981.
Currently, Gateway Middle School serves a student body of 560, and the other middle school in the district, Moss Side, serves 503 students (www.gatewayk12.com/schools1.aspx). Gateway High, Graham’s alma mater, is over twice as large as the national average secondary school: 1,519 students.
My point is thus: with numbers that large, is it possible to have a direct pyramidal or ladder type social hierarchy? Social dynamics are a much more complex beast even at the couple hundreds, where bodies may revolve in several different social circles that intertwine and interlace depending on the situation. Knowing some people who have gone to schools yet larger, even up to two thousand students, where it is possible to go through your high school career without even knowing everyone in your own grade, the social dynamics and interactions of these different circles and settings must play a greater role in larger population schools rather than the direct ladder where nerds sit at Table D. Instead of a ship, the sociologist must look at a village; instead of a village, she must look at a town.
To maintain a ladder or pyramidal hierarchy would require feudalism, and that would be a cohort dependent system. Any social system or system of social capital, really, would be cohort dependent as it would need to survive the melting pot of the feeder system, and merge, survive, adapt, or perish. It would need to have a way of passing on or replicating itself down the cohort (down generation) in order for it to become school culture or tradition.
A large school would actually have a historical precedent in feudalism in the feeder – melting pot situation of freshman year. If one group came in who had social capital, say as popular kids, they may bring their own “vassals” with them from middle school, but they have to work to establish popularity in the eyes of those they don’t know. In regards to the literature, adolescents may not know where they fit in to the social structure, but it’s easy to identify others in the peer group, it requires consensus or recognition (or confirmation) from others (Dunphy, 1963; (Lemann & Solomon, 1952; Schneider, 1991) Other former vassals, your beta types, may now be confronted with multiple leaders or, sometimes, no clear leader. As in history, an overabundance of vassals can lead to splinter groups forming, and suddenly the nobility has found it’s lost track of a whole duchy somewhere. If the duchy hung out at the school radio station at lunch time and didn’t give a lick what anyone else was doing. So even with the pure hierarchical approach using feudalism, there are certainly loopholes when the population gets large. The people at the top just don’t notice. Or, they’re in a different circle entirely, as I will try to show shortly, with their own inter-hierarchies to worry about.
I feel that, depending on the school and the cohort, you could draw up a variety of different analogies using different social structures. What I can comment on is the effects of tracking/non-tracking as a student and as a teacher and how that changes social dynamics that it places you in, and school culture.
Graham’s school, Gateway, was, and by the looks of it, still is an athletics school. Even the math teacher is a golf pro, and the school has some famous alumni (although the bodybuilding contest he showed the pic of from 1981 is a bit icky for high school!). My school had solid athletics, basketball and baseball went to state, but it was really known for music and the arts – a tough gig for a public school with a strong immigrant population surrounded by nice private schools and a few public schools in nicer districts with more money from property taxes.
The sheer diversity of needs at our school meant anything from full English as a Second Language classes to full Advanced Placement classes to every music and art class, drama, auto, shops, etc, you could think of in between had to be offered. Tracking, or saying “this student is on the honors courses!” is out, which meant you could be in advanced math, but a basic English, if that’s what your abilities were. Tracking used to be done a lot, and sometimes students wind up on unintentional tracking, because that’s how the classes work out. However, the range of need at school meant that the only way to lock your schedule was with your electives, the rest was up for grabs. So your social circles were defined by what electives you participated in. Music, arts, applied or industrial arts, government/ASB, etc. Those were circles that had their own rules to them. Then came the classes, and you might have some with the same group or some not. These would be the more unintentional tracking at other high schools: AP classes, honors but not AP, regular, ESL, media, etc. And different social groups with different rules and dynamics in each. And so on and so forth with language, PE, etc. Each with different circles, each with different dynamics, each with different rules.
This is not to say they were necessarily with different people, but the popular or top dog kid in one circle may not be one in another and so on and so forth. The bottom could be completely on top. Role reversal happened. Or, at least enough to see people in a different light or be on equal footing. This sort of situation arose because of the size of the school and the nature of the offered programs. I do believe school culture played a role, and Graham does have quite a bone on school culture, but that is a further topic. At the moment, I will let this sit on size and overall dynamics.
This does lead to the important question, where does the nerd fit in, if there is no table D? (Or if there are several table D’s, scattered about campus?) This is where I think it does come down to Graham’s sub arguments: what makes a popular person popular, and what makes a nerd unpopular? And then, of course, what divides the two – can the nerd ever be popular?
First, Graham asserts that being smart is both associated with being a nerd and is an undesirable trait in popularity: “there is a strong correlation between being smart and being a nerd, and an even stronger inverse correlation between being a nerd and being popular. Being smart seems to make you unpopular.” But as any good scientist should yell out here, correlation does not prove causation! Further refining the argument, “intelligence counted far less than, say, physical appearance, charisma, or athletic ability.” It didn’t matter. Graham goes back on his initial statement slightly here. Intelligence, however, mattered to Graham’s nerds.
Looking at literature on the subject of social dynamics in secondary schools and in particular popularity, a recent study by Borsch, Hyde and Cillessen (2011) confirmed previous “science-confirms-the-obvious” research that a certain amount of attractiveness and aggression were factors in perceived social popularity, but that in sociometric popularity, or how well-liked a person actually was, these traditional factors were the exact opposite. Another study showed that social intelligence cognitive intelligence, as measured by academic achievement (classic “intelligence”) both were beneficial to popularity for college bound students (Meijs, et al, 2010). Vocational bound students, however, benefited from having either social or academic intelligence, but not in combination. There is more to play than simply being smart.
First, this shows a multifaceted dynamic of social interaction, a division of social tracking at some point, perhaps with those course groups as I tried to give an example using my own high school. At our school, though, it was pretty much a given that even if you did not get the right classes or grades to get to a good university, the community college had a great reputation and was an excellent feeder for the University of California with a two year transfer program. That could give a lot of hope and inspiration to a student who is intelligent and has high hopes but is still learning English or was working part time. Even if you didn’t go all the way, statistically speaking, “some college” goes a lot farther than “none.” This “middle path” between university/four year students and vocational or non-college students was large, but at other schools that may not be the case. Social tracking may occur along very black and white lines in the study, and this may be reflected in Graham’s world of 1981 Gateway.
Gateway, a strong athletics school, had popularity that was not big on academics. It still, looking at the district webpage and wikipedia, appears to be struggling somewhat in the academic departments. It’s not a school for overachievers who do everything which also includes being a prep on a sports team. Gateway, as an entity, may fall into the “vocational” bound type found in the study where social intelligence or academic intelligence was good, but definitely not both. What is important to note, however, is the distinction that academic intelligence was alright, but this social grouping could not merge the two. It’s as if having strengths in both intelligences, being adept with both academics and having people skills, is a foreign concept for those college preps at other schools that you tell jokes about, the rivals maybe. Intelligence was the realm of a different tribe.
The disassociation between social circles, whether as big as another community or tribe, a whole portion of a school on another social track, or simply Graham’s table D (and probably C too), can be viewed through popularity contagion theory, which holds that the properties of status are contagious, and can be held in association or approval. For example, being the friend of the head cheerleader is next as good as being a cheerleader if you couldn’t get on the team. Thus, disassociation and disapproval is equally important. Being friends with someone who is popular will make you more popular, but being friends with someone who is less popular will lower your popularity. There’s quite a lot of research on this. A particularly choice doctoral thesis with a great literature review on the topic is by Peter Marks and can be found in the References below. That doesn’t, however, mean you will be less liked (sociometric popularity, or niceness, just status).
Graham confirms this using these terms, but I don’t know if he’s done the research to see that this is an actual thing or not (he has no sources, cites no studies, references no theorists). After an example, “Unpopularity is a communicable disease; kids too nice to pick on nerds will still ostracize them in self-defense.” As a teacher, I would ask if he knew about it. As an editor I would ask about citations.
This explains why for Graham, charisma and athletic ability mattered more than academics, and to go against it was to break some tribal image or structure within the school social structure that the school may still be fighting today. The nerds could have some leeway in rejecting that system, and as he himself notes, “My stock gradually rose during high school. Puberty finally arrived; I became a decent soccer player; I started a scandalous underground newspaper. So I’ve seen a good part of the popularity landscape.” Graham gained enough social capital to play on Gateway’s terms, at least enough to fulfill enough of his own cravings for recognition on how Gateway defined popularity.
Graham may be right when he says that a nerd is one who “isn’t socially adept enough” but I find it a little grating that he condescends to the popular bunch who have been “trained to please” plus the work you put into it. Social adeptness isn’t necessarily about pleasing as it is reading others. A nerd can be pleasing and well liked but not have the aggressive streak that takes them to the social top. As he points out, their desire for other things, like being smart, may be more important than being on top.
This does however deny social intelligence as a form of intelligence. Not everyone who is popular is a “mean girl” like the classic stereotype in media, which is a nice thing to say. If you follow Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, those with strong social or inter personal intelligence go on to be effective managers, teachers, counselors, and social workers. Our noble professions don’t have to all be taken over by images of sleazy sales people and politicians. Graham doesn’t overtly attack the other demographics at his school, but he does make me wonder if he values these skills less than being “smart,” or how he defines them.
I should also point out for those unfamiliar with Gardner’s theories, that those intelligences are never fixed or locked; these are things we can grow and practice and develop over time and strengthen different sides of our capabilities as human beings. Remember Graham’s definition of nerd also hinges on care or desire: “The main reason nerds are unpopular is that they have other things to think about.” But he does call them blind:”They don’t realize that it takes work to be popular.” This does seem a bit haphazard. Jones and Estell (2010) found that even among elementary school students, children will change peer groups based on their own perceived popularity and self-identity, and will work to find homophily. In other words, even young children have a sense of the work it takes to find an appropriate peer group, to seek status and popularity, and to find a way to fit in.
Children on the periphery, who have to change, see this work and would know it most of all. Nerds, at least in the classic sense, are typically on the periphery. Graham’s argument makes little sense, so I would expect a fair number of nerds, at least the ones who do “serve two masters… want to be popular, certainly, but they want even more to be smart,” have some sense that to become popular would require effort or work or change. Graham’s argument of blindness and desire must be explained. Or, we should recognize that the desire to be popular is being confused with the desire to be recognized and liked.
In my experience, nerds and geeks of all varieties had a pride in what they were and had a separate world from the “popular” students who held status, in that traditional sense of popularity. However, we had our own status and different hierarchies, and many of us got along quite well with other popular students and were in the music program or sports with some of them and visa versa, etc, when we crossed worlds. But we did not want their sort of status. We were proud of our sphere as much as they were of theirs. These were different social circles. But we had recognition of that, and of who was liked and not. It seems like Graham is conflating the two meanings of popularity, being liked, and holding hierarchical status. Somewhere in between the two is the desire for and receiving of recognition.
This in turn leads to another issue, in part because of the school, Graham’s other big beef. Graham summarizes, that with the struggle for popularity, “it’s no wonder, then, that smart kids tend to be unhappy in middle school and high school. Their other interests leave them little attention to spare for popularity, and since popularity resembles a zero-sum game, this in turn makes them targets for the whole school.”
On one hand, this does point to issues of bullying and lack of empathy within the school culture, and permissiveness or toleration of negative social behaviors which Graham believes are the norm. This is quite clear through his writing from the “pleas” of teachers and lack of action from school communities as a whole. But on the other hand, it shows concretely that in Graham’s experience, the “other interests” outside of Gateway’s criteria for popularity (athletics, good looks, and social skills) were never recognized or rewarded. Graham’s school, more than being mediocre, or potentially poor, did not have a culture that respected a variety of personal achievements. There was no other way to gain social capital or respect, to rack up a few points here or there that could earn a favor down the road.
This leads me to Graham’s brief foray into history. He writes that he is “suspicious of this theory that thirteen-year-old kids are intrinsically messed up” because of their hormones, as it should be “universal.” He claims to “have read a lot of history, and I have not 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 (Michelangelo had his nose broken by a bully), but they weren’t crazy. As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia.” While Renaissance apprentices labored, the modern teen has idleness, which drives him crazy. They had something to do and were recognized and respected to an extent.
First, dare I ask about the Renaissance girls?
I had to ask about that elephant briefly, to pose that question. Girls, who were very often kept under tight control, had little power, and few enjoyed the freedom to apprentice themselves or, in some cities, leave the home as boys could. This has been used by historians and feminists to justify “hysteria” and other “female conditions” which are frustrations of the sort. It’s too bad Graham doesn’t make mention of them, as other historians certainly have and they require no suburbs, just a house and confinement for millennia. On the other hand though, even Renaissance ladies complained of their younger female kin that they were entrusted with caring for. In her older years during her third marriage, Lucretia Borgia had supervision of several local ladies, including a teenage cousin (Frieda, 2013) whom she even she complained about her youthful fickleness and swooning. They certainly recognized that the teenage years were particularly troublesome and emotional regardless of the excuses to deny equality and suffrage.
Meanwhile for the boys, not all Renaissance youth were apprenticed. Graham may be forgetting the chronic violence of the Italian Renaissance (or other parts too) that was fueled by restless and undisciplined, idle youth. Some of the violence was ritualized to keep it under control. For an analysis of Italian Renaissance gang hierarchies (and a brief reference if you want to look into ritualized violent games in Europe and ritualized gang rape in France for teen males) see Colin Rose’s Kids These Days: Male Youth Violence in Early Modern Italy. It’s quite enough to inspire some nihilism.
On a lighter note, consider the clear presence of youth culture then as well, including “amateur tastes and technique” for music befitting the tastes and capabilities of teenage girls and boys. It’s not a derogatory remark, but a comment on what teens appreciate. A good quick modern discussion of this as witnessed through one artist and music notation can be found in a recent publication by Coelho (2013).
If you put all those factors together, you get a world in which it makes sense why Romeo and Juliet was a believable and successful play, and why it still makes sense to us today as an adaption called West Side Story. And as the original, which at least at my schools (the one I went to and the one where I teach) the book is taught to kids of the same age as the protagonists because the emotions and inner turmoil of the characters is a mirror onto their lives: frustration with parents, an unclear or changing world, struggles for identity, romance, violence and anger, familial obligations, society, friends, wanting to be liked, wanting power, being cast out, wanting to run away. What there isn’t relevant at age thirteen? The only reason we call it the hormonal teenager now is because we know what hormones are. If Graham is looking for nihilism and suicide in the suburbs look to Romeo in Verona (a suburban city of powerhouse Venice):
“There is no world without Verona walls,
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.
Hence-banished is banish’d from the world,
And world’s exile is death…”
Suburbs don’t keep out the rest of the world “deliberately designed to exclude” it, they adjoin to it or spread out from it because it’s the city that’s the world. People didn’t just move to the suburbs to rear children. They moved to escape squalor of inner cities when they became middle class (the rich and the poor live in cities).
Of course, “suburb” is a Latin word. With a population over a million, should we dare to look at Rome or the ancient world? Maybe, but that’s another paper. It’s just not a new phenomenon, it’s not from knowing about hormones or buying into the college system as part of the American Dream or what have you. It’s having disengagement (or idleness) and a total lack of support for interests. There is no doubt that Graham’s school as both/either an academic or a social entity was poor. It is sad that it was a “good” school. He says it was “empty” and describes it in every way possible to send up a flag, in my mind, that the school is struggling in areas that need major help. Yet, Graham insists that Gateway was “mediocrity.”
Apparently failing – or danger of it – is the case for the school today. Gateway High School is struggling, and failing, to meet average yearly performance (AYP) for testing, and there can be many reasons for this, and many solutions (some effective, some not, that the school must implement to try to improve. Gateway only has met reading standards for white non-hispanic students in 2012 and no other categories of tests in reading or mathematics. Today, they are not mediocrity. This is well below national average just as the size is well above. Unfortunately, it’s proving difficult to find data on Gateway in the 1980’s to see how the school was back then. What we can say from NCBI and NIH data is that graduation trends and completion rates have improved since 1980 overall for the United States, albeit not drastically, just a few percentage points, though completion for minorities has grown with leaps and bounds. We just don’t have the context for Gateway. However, the educational system overall has remained little changed. The US, as on our PISA scores, is a model of averageness, which is a failing in the outgoing American mindset.
Does this mean Graham’s school was average or represents the average experience of the American High Schooler? Is failure the norm? It is pretty true, from an educator’s perspective, that the educational system is broken, though you’ll get many different ideas of how to improve it and it will take radical means – not band aids – to fix it. It takes the guts of Australia, who overhauled their entire program, from pre-K to public colleges, to make each step fit together.
But the mechanisms that Graham cites as cases in points for mediocrity, the red flags for failure, seem beyond mediocrity, or at least some are things that should have been fixed if caught. For example, is a teacher using cliffs notes for test questions the norm across the country? That shouldn’t be a measure of mediocrity but of true failing. That bulling issues could not be handled by the administration? That’s a sign of failure too when it’s a plea by the teacher. The admin could still fail at being effective, but they should still be involved. Memorization however, over critical thinking and application certainly was a norm, which is why the new common core standards are written the way they are. Graham’s 1981 experience of emptiness and mediocrity has the trappings of something much worse. It’s just unclear if it actually was, or if those were the seeds that led Gateway to the place it is today.
It’s Graham’s opinion that this school world produces the struggles of popularity and nerd persecution, that it is an artificial construct. School, however, may be instead a distilled construct, the world in microcosm where the heightened travails and shortened time frame as well as adolescent development create a state of hyper-relevancy and immediacy to a teen. The issues Graham is concerned about, popularity and ostracism, must be played out, it is the “real” world on fast forward.
Graham insists that “adults don’t persecute nerds” but perhaps the counter is being ignored or persecution over a much slower period of time. Adult bullying and persecution exists and is present (and makes the news from time to time, way to go Miami Dolphins) even if adults try to ignore it’s existence outside of childhood. Shunning of members in the community who are different or lacking in social skills, happens constantly, defining who is on the periphery and who is not. Whether or not one can leave and find that homophily may or may not be available though, and talking about it may also be taboo, unless you are a historian talking about why so or so in the town got called a “witch” instead of the coffee girl or the quiet man in the second cubicle who can’t leave his job.
Graham here also runs into a problem with how he claimed nerds were blind to their desire for popularity requiring work as he shows examples of how nerds do embrace their own homophily as a sub or counter culture to be nerdy: “Out in the real world, nerds collect in certain places and form their own societies where intelligence is the most important thing. Sometimes the current even starts to flow in the other direction: sometimes, particularly in university math and science departments, nerds deliberately exaggerate their awkwardness in order to seem smarter. John Nash so admired Norbert Wiener that he adopted his habit of touching the wall as he walked down a corridor.”
Overlooking Nash’s schizophrenia, if he was in a less accepting atmosphere, adopting quirks like that could have made life more, or yet more, difficult. It’s adopting your own contagion. Nash himself compared atypical thinking and sanity to economic strikes. What happens when the workers go on strike? What if there are no unions in this analogy? Or taking a look at history, how often has anti-union violence erupted anyways? Human nature provides some frightening insight into Nash’s real world analogy. To take it back to Graham, adult nerds may face as much persecution or ostracism as children, but they may be more adept at owning their identity and have found homophily in their own peer group of fellow nerds. What matters (Graham says intelligence) in the “real world” is what you end up doing and who with.
That perhaps marks the distinction between a “nerd” and a “geek.” By Graham’s usage, a nerd has a love of their particular intelligent interest but a lacking of social skills, however by most definitions, a geek has the love and may or may not have the social abilities; the only requirement is their overwhelming love or interest. Geek can still be pejorative as a fool or freak, or using intellectual in a negative way, but the interests do not have to be as “nerdy,” nor the person as socially inept. Not everyone agrees with this definition, but it seems to head that way now judging by observation, Wikipedia, and other self-proclaimed geeks and nerds; people would rather be called geeks and there is a generally much more positive image of geeks than nerds, who still are socially inept, even if their interests are more mainstreamed. (Popular perceptions: see MastersInIT, wikihow) As the animal (and human) behavioralist Temple Grandin, who has Aspergers syndrome (or Autism spectrum disorder, if you’re up on your DSM-5) said, “Nerd is another word for Asperger’s.” (Wolliver, 2010) Nerds have come to own, as Graham himself defines it in his opening from middle school, as being “as low as you could get without looking physically different.” With that sort of obviousness, nerds might as well be table E.
There is the rationale for why they are the targets of ostracism and bullying. I posit that many nerds do know they are different. Not all may recognize that their social skills are not as developed because it’s not, say, as obvious as someone who does have a diagnosis like Temple Grandin, or who is very introspective. But it is hypocritical of Graham to say that nerds who do own their nerdiness do not recognize their nature on the periphery – but still want popularity!? – and the awkwardness of interactions without the peer group, and that this social networking can happen within high school as well as after graduation as adults. It absolutely could.
Can a nerd be unaware or blind to their social faux pas? Sure. That is a form of social ineptitude, bordering on classic Asperger’s. Anything else does denote a certain level of awareness, and that’s what I find fault with. It’s the universality of Graham’s statements: my experience and observation is true for all high schoolers in all of America for all nerds for all time, despite any other examples sent in to me and I’ve read all the history and I don’t see anything from other countries either. Universality is a really obnoxious point of view, the same way he hates the universality of the hormonal teenager theory.
The rub comes when we apply the universal theory of nerd unpopularity to Graham himself. Under Graham’s definition of nerd, the socially inept lover of intelligent pursuits, blind to the workings of popularity, he, the former eater at table D, is not a nerd at all. Yes, he had interests in intelligent pursuits, and that shows in his subversive newspaper, his continued career, and the friends he associated with. But he did gain social capital. He did play some sports. He came up with this theory calling other nerds blind, so therefore, he himself cannot be blind to it. He does wonderfully nerdy things and invents some brilliant things too. But he himself can communicate. Even though he sees himself as one, Paul Graham fails at fulfilling half of his definition of what a nerd is.
He could, perhaps, be a geek.
But why would these semantics matter, if Graham is happy to identify as a nerd? As Juliet, our swooning Renaissance teen asks, that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But Juliet hits the nail on the head: names have meanings, and meanings matter. If her Romeo a name other than Montague, it would not matter. So it goes for nerd. Today geek has positive associations that nerd did not for Graham, and still often does not if it is used in totality. One can be fairly “normal” or socially adept but still be a tech whiz, be professionally successful like Paul Graham, or have some geek interests or loves that can be obsessive. It’s okay to be otherwise “popular” and also have an abiding love for Star Wars or other “mainstreamed” geek or nerd interest or even a more off the wall niche if it doesn’t interfere with social adroitness. A geek knows better when it’s appropriate to break out the gaming tees and apply a Doctor Who reference and when it’s better to show up in a tie… and still work in that Doctor Who reference.
This growth of acceptability in being a geek, the changing perceptions therein, would allow for greater expression of intelligent interests of various sorts, even if they are not of the classically geeky or nerdy variety. A culture of greater acceptability of individual passions and recognition of achievements is better than it was in 1981. THis is not to deny that there are communities where acceptance is denied, indeed there are some where this is not so, but the prevalence of geek and nerd interests in the current media as mainstream interests (and blockbuster films!) worthy of note is promising as signs of greater acceptance. The average has shifted immensely. A nerd like Graham who is socially adept has an out as a geek if they choose it. A kid can be “popular” but a “little geeky” when it comes to Tolkien or band without loosing fundamental status. In fact, an admission like that might gain social capital with other geeks, perhaps making it easier for a relationship or favor (fix my computer!) down the line. This is a pivotal difference from Graham’s 1981 Gateway.
Graham is limited in that he doesn’t see the potential for social exchanges in the hierarchy, even though that’s what feudalism is all about. And in many ways, his experience at Gateway is very distant from how things are shaping up today. For him to hold his experience as universal and static just doesn’t hold water. For him to hold it up as average doesn’t either. Can his experience happen today? Absolutely. Our education system is a failing system in that we know we can do better. But Graham’s experience is bound by signs of failure, the troubling experiences at schools that drive our motives for change and overcoming our own mediocrity as a nation and guilt for failing some of our own children.
Meanwhile there are schools out there who are undeniably getting it right and inspire our change. If he still feels after a decade that schools are “holding pens,” I invite him to read The Third Teacher, and for the reader (you) too. This is not just for the heartbreak of how we are failing something simple – the school environment! – but even better in the second half, how schools, communities, and designers have worked together to change and get it right to improve teaching and learning; in other words, inspiring schools doing what they are supposed to do, and really recognizing the students therein. It has a great level of thought and detail any nerd or geek would appreciate, a first dose of revelation, and a good dose of hope and optimism. It’s this last part that Graham so desperately is missing. There are ways to get communities involved, and there are ways to change. Today is, thankfully, not 1981. It’ll take both sets of the nerds and popular kids to find solutions, working together. Geeks can be the bridge between the two. I wonder if Graham sees that.
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(Unofficial reference as it is a guest posting: On the same topic as above, see also the viral Buzzfeed Venn diagram of Intelligence, Social Ineptitude, and Obsession, example found here: http://blog.conduit.com/2013/10/24/how-geeks-became-so-cool/?utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=mgid.com&utm_campaign=conduit.com&utm_term=737&utm_content=1666755 It’s been floating around the internet.)
Meijs, N., Cillessen, A. N., Scholte, R. J., Segers, E., & Spijkerman, R. (2010). Social Intelligence and Academic Achievement as Predictors of Adolescent Popularity. Journal Of Youth And Adolescence, 39(1), 62-72.
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