Paul Graham’s “Why Nerds are Unpopular”

(This was originally posted to Facebook, so it may have a different flavor from my other posts)

I agree with pretty much everything in this essay (by Paul Graham). It expresses many ideas that I’ve had for a while but have not been able to put into words. I appreciate his brutal honesty (on both sides of the coin — he unapologetically considers himself very smart).

Despite its title, it’s more than just a description of why nerds are unpopular in junior high/high school. It’s really a critique of the American education system, seen from the perspective of one who used to be a nerd (and, incidentally, is now a “famous” programmer). As he notes in the essay, nerds are well-positioned to realize relatively soon after high school how fake it is and what all its problems are. He makes it clear how artificial the American education system is (his analogy to the prison system is disturbingly accurate).

I just want to give a couple of thoughts on it, as both a homeschooler and someone who would be considered, by his standards, to be a nerd.

His analysis of nerds is mostly spot on. I think everything he says is true, but he does leave out a couple of additional causes. His comparison with the “freak” (almost hippie) culture is enlightening (there’s a reason why Berkely is known mostly for hippies and UNIX).

Incidentally, if his use of the word “nerd” messes with you, realize that this was written a decade ago, and I think “nerd” and “geek” were pretty much considered equally derogatory. Nowadays, “geek” has been given a somewhat more positive connotation, so perhaps it might be more appropriate here, but his points stand regardless. I’m going to use “geek” and “nerd” interchangeably.

My favorite quote has got to be the hilariously vague (and yet completely accurate) definition: “A nerd is someone who isn’t socially adept enough.”

Looking at this as a homeschooler, I am so glad my parents didn’t put me through that. There are definitely social structures (many of them arbitrary) this way as well, so I feel like I understand what he’s saying about the public school system. But I don’t think it’s nearly as bad here. Particularly, it’s not nearly as sterile. We can do stuff that does actually have some kind of effect (on us, if on nothing else). For me, that was writing computer programs. For others, it’s building physical stuff, or investing a little money in the stock market, or writing, or creating some other kind of art. Yes, I realize that’s what’s often considered “geeky stuff” for a teenager to do. But what do adults do? If most teenagers did what their dads do, they would be considered geeks.

Why are homeschoolers stereotyped as nerds? Some are certainly “not socially adept enough”, but I don’t think that’s the real reason. Homeschoolers tend to do real stuff. We don’t go through high school and become a generic “high school graduate” who knows some stuff but has never done anything worth doing. We do stuff that interests us, and that fuels the “geek side” (or “adult side”) of us. We’ve seen more of the “adult world” than most high schoolers because we’ve done stuff. That’s the hallmark of a geek — we do stuff. In the public school system, the geeks are the ones to whom it’s more important to do stuff than to be popular. As homeschoolers, we’re given a better opportunity to actually do interesting stuff without being socially ostracized (which is a primary cause of social “non-adeptness”). Thus, more people do stuff. In one sense, we’re given more freedom to be geeks, without being nerds. We can actually do interesting and useful stuff — stuff like they do in the real world.

Putting a teenager through class after class of just learning stuff without teaching him what he can do with it is one of biggest disservices we can do to him. It might surprise some people that someone as abstract and geeky as I am would say that. After all, I’m a math major. Just the other night I spent some time reading about Zermelo-Franken set theory (with or with the Axiom of Choice) and Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, and that’s almost as unapplicable to real life as you can get. I absolutely understand the intrinsic value of knowledge.

But that’s why it infuriates me to see it mutilated by our school system. I see what’s so beautiful and awesome about math, so, in my book, it’s a horrible offense for a bad teacher to kill his students’ interest in it. More generally, it’s awful that the school system teaches a whole bunch of stuff that (mostly) is really worth knowing, but it teaches it in so sterile a manner that, to millions of people out there, geometry is just a whole bunch of meaningless proofs.

The emphasis there is on the word “meaningless”. Teaching someone something without teaching them what it _means_ is often worse than not teaching it to them at all. You can tell someone that f(x-1) means a horizontal shift to the right of one unit, but unless they have some understanding of why that is, the formula has no meaning. You need to ask them “what would you have to do to make this graph shift to the right”, and then lead them through to the formula in the end. This way, they understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Even though this is still very abstract (there’s not necessarily any real-world, physical, touchable application), it still has some meaning.

In fact, we teach math (and, I should note, pretty much every subject — I know math, so I’m using it as an example, but this applies to every subject I can think of) like a proof. We take a result (often a process like long division or a formula) and prove that it actually is consistent with everything we’ve said before. I can tell you, though, that you create proofs in exactly the opposite order that you write them. You don’t start with a result and show how it follows from what you had. You start with what you have and say, “I wonder if I could somehow accomplish X” or “I wonder if I could come up with a general process or formula for calculating X”. Then, you try to figure out the formula. And, if all goes well, you end up with a useful formula. It’s exactly the opposite order.

And yet, we teach teenagers all these useful formulas (and dates and places and grammatical rules and essay structures and programming techniques) without teaching them what makes them useful. They don’t even have to be useful in the “real world”. You don’t have to be able to create anything physical with them. But you do need to be able to do or understand something now that you didn’t before.

So, yeah, there’s my rant about the American education system (or, at least, a small part of it). If you want more, read the article (if you haven’t already). And, it’s worth reading that last paragraph of the essay again: “I’ve said some harsh things in this essay, but really the thesis is an optimistic one– that several problems we take for granted are in fact not insoluble after all. Teenage kids are not inherently unhappy monsters. That should be encouraging news to kids and adults both.”

This world is not incomprehensible, and there are actually reasonable explanations for why we have this whole class of “geeks”. There are many problems surrounding geeks — they don’t really fit into the usual social hierarchy, and that causes issues for both the social hierarchy and the geeks themselves. But there are solutions. They haven’t been implemented yet; indeed, we don’t even really know what all the solutions would be.

So, yeah, geeks mess with the world. But the one truth that comes out of this more than other, is that this world is better with geeks. As much as I dislike Apple, I’ve always liked their “crazy ones” concept:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward. Maybe they have to be crazy. How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels? We make tools for these kinds of people. While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”