Journal: News & Comment

Wednesday, February 19, 2003
# 8:44:00 AM:

Today's mind-expanding essay...

Permalinks to this entry: individual page or in monthly context. For more material from my journal, visit my home page or the archive. Paul Graham's "Why Nerds Are Unpopular," which is about high school, and has become very popular among those of us nerds who now write weblogs. It's worth reading for anyone, though. His essential point: one demands more of [American] 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.

It's somewhat less true of the Canadian schools I experienced, especially the boys' private school I attended from grade 9 on, and the affluent school at which my wife teaches math. I realized after I read Graham's essay, however, that one of the big reasons I wanted to go to the private school was that, in my grade 8 public school, I was one of the persecuted nerds -- though more mildly persecuted than some. It's hard to imagine any popular kid in public school wanting to go to a single-sex private school, but I did, so my parents used my college fund to send me there.

Going there was a relief, for while I was still a nerd, there was general pressure, even peer pressure, to do well in school. It's not that all the teachers were better than at my old school, or even that there was more money for books and facilities (there was, but not as much more as you might think). It's that the school was really there to help kids learn, and so the gap between cool and uncool wasn't nearly as important. The most popular boys were still athletes (and went out with the popular, athletic girls from the girls' schools), but the most admired boys were also smart (as were their girlfriends). They had things in common with us nerds, and by graduating year the social strata were almost gone.

The same seems true of any academically-focused school, and of those, like many in the Vancouver area where I live, that have diversified culturally in recent decades. But it's far from gone -- look at what happened to Reena Virk. What I hope is that, if my daughters face any situation like the one Graham describes -- and whether they're near the top or the bottom -- then my wife and I can recognize it, and maybe do something.


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