SUNY-Cortland and the 13th Grade

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.

  • Alex Reid

    AN ADDENDUM TO SUNY STUDENTS:
    I recently received an e-mail from the mother of the first-year student who was worried if things were really as bad as she thought I described them. She was also concerned that it seemed as if I had given up.
    1. Are things this bad? Let me be specific. In this post I comment that students in my program often complain about the jock mentality of the campus. In part their perception is colored by the fact that everyone sees SUNY-Cortland as a jock school with its largest programs in physical education and recreation. We also have a lot of elementary education students, which likewise leads to certain generalizations.
    Furthermore, the College recognizes the need of improving the intellectual climate on our campus. I’ve written about this several times. I imagine most schools have similar concerns. In fact, I would say we are in need of raising the intellectual climate of the entire nation, but that’s another matter.
    2. Have I given up? I don’t think so, but I get frustrated with my job just like most folks. This blog, and this post in particular, is a site where I express this frustration. On the other hand, in addition to the College’s general efforts to improve the intellectual climate, my colleagues and I in professional writing work hard to create a community of creative people on campus. We hold poetry readings, run writing retreats, publish a literary magazine, teach in learning communities, and support a number of innovative, student-centered projects, like http://www.NeoVox.org.
    Our greatest frustrations, which are not uncommon at universities, lie with getting the material support we need to continue our work. As I noted in a more recent post, SUNY will spend huge amounts of money to conduct assessments of programs and try to initiate testing procedures that have no pedagogical value. However, they are far more reluctant to spend money trying to fix the problems identified by assessment or supporting innovative programs that try to make the College better.

  • naw

    Wow. I totally read this and thought, ‘you’re right.’ High School is supposively THE time of some of our lives, and for some, the worst. I guess different people can look back and say, “It was the best of times; It was the worst of times.”