Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"Why Nerds are Unpopular" is several years old, but I just found out about it now via a comment in this thread at Pharyngula, so now is as good a time as any to talk about it. Besides, I figure if I haven't heard about it before now, it must be underexposed. It's a long lead-in, and not every single bit of it is new and revolutionary, but still... wow. The parts that really seem like an insight to me are the bits about "school as prison". Not just because you're required to go — that's no surprise to anyone; I remember reading Calvin and Hobbes strips with that image when I was only a couple years older than Calvin — but because of the insular, trivialized, artificial society once you're in.
In outline, it was the same at the schools I went to. The most important thing was to stay on the premises. While there, the authorities fed you, prevented overt violence, and made some effort to teach you something. But beyond that they didn't want to have too much to do with the kids. Like prison wardens, the teachers mostly left us to ourselves. And, like prisoners, the culture we created was barbaric.

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.

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.

I liked another essay I found at that site too (appropriately enough, partly about essays), though I didn't have time to read much more; it's during work hours and all that. But besides the advice for people now suffering through high school, there was one other compelling thought in there.
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.

I am always leery if not downright hostile towards predictions about how culture these days, or drugs or technology or media, will lead to imminent, drastic change. Any such prediction has a very high bar to clear, because they are predicting something that has very nearly never happened, especially not as a result of a relatively minor cause. Reactionary right-wing culture warriors are a good source of them, but I can think of two good rants about environmental doomsaying as well. (If anyone has any questions about that, ask me to elaborate before you make any assumptions, please.) Predictions are notoriously unreliable, and the way many people treat many predictions as accomplished fact is arrogance of one of the worst sorts.

Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, though, I would be much less surprised if there are imminent and sweeping changes caused by America's public school system, because, you know, according to "Why Nerds are Unpopular", it actually is something unprecedented for once.

Edited in a couple places just to fix up clumsy language.

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