"Why Nerds Succeed"
June 24th, 2011
The New York Times
June 24th, 2011
The New York Times
For the modern adult, nothing signifies self-confidence, street credibility and authenticity like one simple confession: “I was such a nerd in high school.” (Emphasize “such” with a dramatic sigh. Then roll your eyes.) It’s pretty easy now to gaze upon the past with rose-colored — and thick-framed — glasses. It’s popular to have been unpopular. A new world order has unfolded, with nerds ascendant.
But someone forgot to post the memo in high school cafeterias and locker rooms across America, where the shift has barely dented teenagers’ rigid social hierarchies. The results are disjunctive: while adolescent geekiness is something to brag about in hindsight, it’s much harder to embrace when you’re living through it, day after day, in the crucible of high school.
As Alexandra Robbins writes in “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth,” “there have been surprisingly few trickle-down effects from the adult Age of the Nerd to the student world.” Bullying and exclusion are rampant. Pressure is building in schools to standardize not just testing, but students as well. When students buckle under that weight, tragedies happen (the Columbine shootings; the recent spate of suicides among gay teenagers). Instead of inspiring redoubled efforts for tolerance and inclusion, such outcomes may narrow social norms even further, making classmates and teachers hyperaware of students who are “different.”
Robbins’s mission is noble. She wants to push back against the marginalization of nonconformists, whom she calls the “cafeteria fringe.” She writes, “It is unacceptable that the system we rely on to develop children into well-adjusted, learned, cultured adults allows drones to dominate and increasingly devalues freethinkers.”
Her fundamental argument is simple. Many of the traits that correlate with “outsider” status among high school students — originality, self-awareness, courage, resilience, integrity and passion — reveal themselves as assets later in life. (If you’re geeky enough to know the definition of “schadenfreude” as an underclassman, you’ll probably get to experience that very feeling at a high school reunion one day.)
The teen-to-adult turnabout theme isn’t particularly novel. One of its latest incarnations is a forthcoming Warner Brothers film, “Revenge of the Jocks,” about middle-aged former athletes struggling under the yoke of the nerds, their onetime victims. Robbins articulates the concept crisply, however. She also gives a name to the phenomenon that points to the geeks’ eventual triumph: “quirk theory.” (As coinages go, this phrase and “cafeteria fringe” feel a bit spurious; both plant the author’s flag in old ideas rather than elucidating truly new ones.)
Her narrative follows seven young “outsiders” at different high schools over the course of a year. They are defined by labels that could be the major arcana in a tarot deck of awkwardness: the Band Geek, the New Girl, the Loner, the Gamer, the Nerd; the group also includes a popular girl and a young lesbian teacher, whose perspectives are an interesting addition, even if their inclusion feels somewhat maladroit. (Robbins outlines a clear premise for her project — introducing readers to “students who are overlooked, disparaged or completely dismissed” — so it’s a bit whiplash-inducing when she changes the rules to include these two.)
Her characters transmit often heart-rending dispatches from the front lines of adolescence. Mark, an alienated gamer nicknamed Blue, ditches his schoolwork to build a wildly successful club for video game players, only to see his efforts incinerated by ill-informed school administrators and dismissive peers. Danielle, a loner and former mascot of her classmates’ “I Hate Danielle Club,” ends up on her school’s summer reading committee, where she tries, and fails, to sell teachers on books more challenging than “Twilight.” Eli, a nerd, is worn down by pleas from his haranguing mother to be more “normal.” He can’t wait to escape to a college far, far away.
Educators aren’t immune to all the social ugliness, either. Regan, a free-spirited teacher who is well loved by her students, is tormented by cliquish colleagues who bad-mouth her and thwart her plans to form a gay-straight alliance. She’s finally driven to abandon the public school system altogether. It’s disturbing to see teachers exhibiting the same nasty, damaging habits that are so endemic among high school students.
The frame of “Geeks” is similar to that of Robbins’s 2006 book “The Overachievers,” which profiles students facing pre-college pressure. Both books follow a handful of main characters, interlacing their narratives with interviews from additional students and teachers, and providing nuggets of insight from social science and behavioral research. Each ends with a set of prescriptions, advice for creating healthier mental environments.
In “Geeks,” this information is remarkably well organized, but it still feels dizzying. At times the characters are tough to track, since their relationships unfold across the social ecosystems at seven different schools. (The central characters in “The Overachievers” were all in one place, Robbins’s alma mater in Bethesda, Md.)
Robbins’s reporting here seems to be largely secondhand. She writes scenes full of dialogue and detail that could only have been recounted to her by the students themselves. Yet she tells these stories omnisciently, as if she had witnessed each moment. Would one of Mark’s tormenters be self-aware enough to say, “Blue, I think I’m going to stop making fun of you”? Perhaps. But readers can’t know for sure. Even when sources mean well, self-reporting carries the risk of bias. The microscope of adolescence also inflicts perceptual distortions. Robbins acknowledges as much, writing, “In the minds of their peers, too often students become caricatures of themselves.” But it’s not clear whether she has corroborated her characters’ recollections with accounts from the other people involved, and nowhere does she pull back the veil to explain her story-building process.
It’s impossible to tell what will happen to the main characters of “Geeks.” Will they inherit the earth, or just a lump of coal? We can hope for the best, of course, but this isn’t a longitudinal study. To close this gap, Robbins relies primarily on accounts from celebrities like Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie and Ryan Seacrest, who have told Us magazine, People and other media outlets what outcasts they were in high school. (For the record, it’s just as easy to find celebrities who used to be cheerleaders, including Halle Berry, Paula Abdul, Sandra Bullock, Jamie Lee Curtis and Madonna — not to mention Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.) Holding up celebrities as templates for success seems to reinforce the same “magazine-celebrity-worshipping, creativity-stifling society” that Robbins rightly derides in her conclusion.
None of this, however, dampens the urgency of her broader message. “Adults tell students that it gets better, that the world changes after school, that being ‘different’ will pay off sometime after graduation,” she writes. “But no one explains to them why.” Beyond the bromides, she’s dead on: teenagers need to hear that adolescence ends. And more than that, they need to believe it.
[Jessica Bruder teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of “Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man.”]
Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man
The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School