(Originally posted to Ireland at
Mon, 24 Feb 2003 02:58:05 GMT)
Paul Graham has an insightful essay on
why nerds are unpopular
in American high schools.
So if intelligence in itself is not a factor in popularity, why are
smart kids so consistently unpopular? The answer, I think, is that they
don't really want to be popular.
But in fact I didn't, not enough. There was something else I wanted
more: to be smart. Not simply to do well in school, though that counted
for something, but to design marvellous rockets, or to write well, or
to understand how to program computers. In general, to make great
things, which seems a more accurate definition of smart than the
passive one implicit in IQ tests.
Nerds serve two masters. They want to be popular, certainly, but they
want even more to be smart. And popularity is not something you can do
in your spare time, not in the fiercely competitive environment of an
American secondary school.
... [T]he [new] world these kids create for themselves is at first a
very crude one. If you leave a bunch of eleven year olds to their own
devices, they'll usually create a Lord of the Flies world.
Unpopularity is a communicable disease; kids too nice to pick on nerds
will still ostracize them in self-defense.
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.
And the strange thing is, this nightmare scenario happens without any
conscious malice, merely because of the shape of the situation.
Bullying was only part of the problem. Another problem, and possibly an
even worse one, was that we never had anything real to work on.
Most of my nerdy American friends would probably identify with this. They
have less-than-fond memories of their high school years.
But I don't remember this phenomenon from my own secondary school years in
Ireland (Graham says he didn't see it when he lived in Italy). Perhaps my
experience was atypical, but I don't remember all the nerds in
Computer Science at Trinity
griping about this either.
That's not to say that we were popular; we weren't, particularly. But there
wasn't such a marked hierarchy of popularity that seems rife in American
I went to St. Mary's College, Rathmines,
an all-boys private day school in
Dublin for eleven years: 7-12 in the Junior School, 12-18 in the Senior
School. There was little turnover, so most of the same faces stayed the
whole way through. It was a relatively small school by American standards,
with 50-60 boys in each year, divided into two classes.
I was quiet, small, unathletic, and bright. I usually came second or third
academically, but was otherwise undistinguished. The better rugby players
tended to be popular, but many of the best students were also rugby
players. If my friends and I were being ostracized, it can't have been too
traumatic, since I have no particular recollection of it.
There were two or three boys who were very unpopular. One was effeminate
and annoying; how much of the latter was a reaction to being outcast, I
can't say. Another would surely have been a Trenchcoat Mafioso, if we had
had such a thing.
Perhaps not having girls in the school, with the consequent adolescent
sexual tension, may have helped.
I did the Leaving Cert (graduated high school) in 1983. No doubt, some
memories have dimmed with time, and things may have grown worse for current