Re: Why Nerds are Unpopular

Many people have written to me about Why Nerds are Unpopular, and many more seem to be posting about it on various Web sites. Here are answers to some of the points they've raised.

It wasn't like that at my school.

Some of my friends who went to private schools or to one of the small number of really good public school systems say that things were very different for them.

What I'm talking about in this essay is the situation in the average American public secondary school. I feel confident that I understand that, because I went to them.

The scary thing is, the schools I went to were probably above average. My parents chose the suburb we lived in because the schools were said to be good. (As newly arrived immigrants from England, they had no idea how bad "good" was.)

I knew smart kids who weren't nerds.

Smart kids don't necessarily turn into nerds. If you're good looking, a natural athlete, or the sibling of a popular kid, you'll automatically be popular. But most popular kids don't get that kind of free ride. They have to work at being popular. And if you're interested in, say, physics, you won't have the time to spare.

I also think girls are less likely to become nerds than boys of equal intelligence, possibly because they're more sensitive to social pressures. In my school, at least, girls made more of an effort to conform than boys.

Things are different now. Now it's cool to be an outsider.

In my school, it was cool to be a certain kind of outsider, but not a nerd. A guy who was tall and broad shouldered who dressed weirdly as a sign of rebellion was cool. A guy who was small with a receding chin and big glasses who dressed weirdly because his mom picked out his clothes was not. I expect this is still true today.

Are smart kids' brains different?

A couple people have said that there might be something neurologically different about smart people, i.e. that the reason smart kids spend their time reading books instead of talking to friends is not so much that they like books as that they don't like people.

In the essay I deliberately avoided taking any stand on this; I merely said that they liked the one more than the other, without attempting to explain why.

From my experience, I'd say that while some smart kids may be borderline autistic, this can't by itself explain the smart/nerd correlation, because there are also plenty of nerds who are very talkative. Indeed, one of the most characteristic nerd flaws is an addiction to newsgroup posting.

Nerds deserve it.

Another thing several people have said is that nerds deserve to be unpopular because they're so unpleasant. This is often true. The essay wasn't about whether or not nerds deserve to be unpopular, just why they are. Certainly, some of the social skills that nerds avoid learning are genuinely desirable ones.

Some nerds are unbearable well into adulthood. I can think of several smart people I couldn't stand talking to for more than a couple minutes. I don't think it's a good thing that smart people are sometimes unpleasant. However, I stand by my statement that the nerds are playing a game much closer to the one played in the real world. You can be a complete asshole and still do really well in the real world.

Nerds are unpopular because they're arrogant.

Arrogance doesn't make kids unpopular. The good athletes in my school were plenty arrogant, and it didn't harm their popularity.

Public schools are designed to be bad.

Several people have suggested I read articles by John Taylor Gatto, e.g. his Six Lesson Schoolteacher.

There is an idea floating around that public schools are deliberately designed to turn out brainless conformists. I don't believe this. I think public schools are just what you get by default. If you build a giant building out in the suburbs and lock the kids in it during weekdays in the care of a few overworked and mostly uninspired adults, you'll get brainless conformists. You don't need to posit a conspiracy.

I think nearly everything that's wrong in schools can be explained by the lack of any external force pushing them to be good. They don't compete with one another, except in sports (at which they do become good). Parents, though they may choose where to live based on the quality of the schools, never presume to demand more of a given school. College admissions departments, instead of demanding more of high schools, actively compensate for their flaws; they expect less from students from inferior schools, and this is only fair. Standardized tests are explicitly (though unsuccessfully) designed to be a test of aptitude rather than preparation.

Form follows function. Everything evolves into a shape dictated by the demands placed on it. And no one demands more of schools than that they keep kids off the streets till they're old enough for college. So that's what they do. At my school, it was easy not to learn anything, but hard to get out of the building without getting caught.

Why is the problem worst in America?

I'm just guessing here, but I think it may be because American school systems are decentralized. They're controlled by the local school board, which consists of car dealers who were high school football players, instead of some national Ministry of Education run by PhDs.

It would not necessarily be a good thing for schools to be controlled by the federal government, though. In the US, except for a few carefully insulated agencies like the NSA and the CDC, smart people are reluctant to work for the federal government. The example of private schools suggests that the best plan would be to go in the other direction, away from government control.

What about home-schooling?

Home-schooling offers an immediate solution, but it probably isn't the optimal one. Why don't parents home-school their kids all the way through college? Because college offers opportunities home-schooling can't duplicate? So could high school if it were done right.

Why did you write this?

(Usually phrased as: you must be a loser if you're still bitter about high school.) I wrote it because my friends are now all starting to have kids, and we found ourselves wondering how we could save them from the horrors we endured in school.

So I thought about what I would do if, knowing what I know now, I had to go through high school again. In my high school, your choice was: be popular or be picked on. I know now exactly what one would have to do to be popular. But I found myself thinking: what a shlep. It would be like being a politician, putting in endless hours of face time to make oneself liked. So I realized that even knowing exactly what to do to be popular, I wouldn't be able to make myself do it. I'd be off in the library, just as I was the first time through high school.

How can I be more popular in school?

Are you sure you want to be? One of the points of Why Nerds are Unpopular is that smart kids are unpopular because they don't waste their time on the dumb stuff you need to do to be popular. Do you want to start doing dumb stuff?