Paul Graham’s essay “Why Nerds are Unpopular”, recently published in his book Hackers and Painters, begins as a serio-comic explanation of the eponymous question but ends as a more straightforward critique of public education and our treatment of teenagers. With my daughter starting kindergarten in the fall, I guess I’ve been thinking back on my own unpleasant memories of school.
I’m not sure I agree with Graham’s somewhat facile explanation of why nerds can’t use their smarts to become popular, but he is certainly right on about the functioning of the cruel caste system in high school and the way in which adults turn a blind-eye toward it.
Unfortunately, SUNY-Cortland suffers from a similar problem. Why? To a put a none too fine point on it, as a school known for elementary education and recreation/physical education, we enroll a significant number of high school jocks, cheerleaders, and related social types. Needless to say, Cortland is also not a school that generally attracts elite students. And that’s OK. These folks need college educations as well Our society needs elementary school teachers, football coaches, and physical trainers with college degrees.
However, the campus culture that results is a problem for us in professional writing, just as it is a problem for those doing new media in the Art or Communications departments. See we attract a different segment of teen culture–not so much the “nerds,” who perhaps tend toward computer science and engineering, but the other disenfranchised group Graham terms “freaks,” the ones who smoke pot and wear black concert t-shirts all the time. Now that is a generalization, but if you look outside the building between classes, you will see the majority of student smokers are our majors.
As an undergraduate at Rutgers, things were very different for me. In high school, I was a nerd (class bookworm!), but at Rutgers there were plenty of other smart folks and plenty of students waaaay weirder and/or nerdier than I was. Sure, there was a popular, frat-boy jock segment, but you could go about your life totally separate from that business. But at Cortland that’s just not possible.
Obviously this causes a problem for us to the extent that it makes life suck for our students. College becomes a continuation of high school. Teaching composition I can see that the majority of students have no idea of how bizarre and artificial high school society is. For them, the cruelty they rained down upon the nerds and freaks was entirely justified. Those at the bottom of the social ladder had no one to blame but themselves for failing to conform.
Now that I think about it, this is also a problem for the majority of Cortland students but from the other side. College is supposed to be a place where you can outgrow these things, but if the college culture just reproduces the high school culture then that doesn’t happen. Worst of all, a significant portion of these students then go straight back to high school as teachers.
All of which reminds me of my high school assistant principal Mr. Samuels who once told me that the reason he entered his profession was because high school was the best time of his life. Frightening. No wonder I had no respect for the man.