The Null Device

Fear and loathing in high school

Read: Why nerds are unpopular, an interesting essay which starts by asking the question of why intelligent kids are so unpopular in schools, and going from that to the malaise of living in a world detached from any real meaning:
And the active persecution is, if anything, the less painful half of the popularity equation. As well as gaining points by distancing oneself from unpopular kids, one loses points by being close to them. A woman I know says that in high school she liked nerds, but was afraid to be seen talking to them because the other girls would make fun of her. Unpopularity is a communicable disease; kids too nice to pick on nerds will still ostracize them in self-defense.

The author posits that the culture of sadism and cruelty is an emergent property of human nature in an unnatural environment (both schools and the wastelands of suburbia), and that in a world without meaning or purpose, kids find their own meaning in popularity and create their own arbitrarily vicious society. (I.e., the Lord of the Flies Effect.)

I think the important thing about the real world is not that it's populated by adults, but that it's very large, and the things you do have real effects. That's what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.
If I could go back and give my thirteen year old self some advice, the main thing I'd tell him would be to stick his head up and look around. I didn't really grasp it at the time, but the whole world we lived in was as fake as a twinkie. Not just school, but the entire town. Why do people move to suburbia? To have kids! So no wonder it seemed boring and sterile. The whole place was a giant nursery, an artificial town created explicitly for the purpose of breeding children.
As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don't think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they're made to lead. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs. Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere.

(via MeFi)

There are 17 comments on "Fear and loathing in high school":

Posted by: Ritchie http:// Tue Feb 18 13:58:53 2003

I was going along with this until the author started bashing suburbia. What the fuck? It seems the attitude is that if you can't be part of the elite the only worthwhile thing to do is to stand on one's dignity and exile oneself to the fringe; go live in a converted loft in Fitzroy.

My own theory is that that nerds are no more unpopular than other social groups. Their heightened perceptiveness and sensitivity make them more self-aware (and self-conscious), whereas dumber kids are indifferent. Couple this with the fact that schoolyard is a kind of anarchic society.

The guy who wrote this piece really hated school didn't he? My own psychic defence mechanism is being unable to recall most of it.

Posted by: Ritchie http:// Tue Feb 18 14:01:26 2003

I think he's on to something when he suggests that parents should be more involved in the school system, though. It doesn't require 'taking on the educational hierarchy' as he warns, the mechanisms for participation are already there. They're just underused.

Posted by: acb Tue Feb 18 14:31:44 2003

I'd have to disagree with you. High school is definitely an environment with a lot of hate and viciousness in it (sort of like a prison; in fact, I suspect the same psychological principles are involved). The cliquishness, zero-sum mentality, and deliberate cruelty are something that's very real (as I remember them).

And I'd agree with him on the suburbia thing too; the suburbs (as defined by the post-war baby-boom and the urban sprawl which followed) are an artificial, sterile environment, attached to the wider world mostly through television.

(I spent 15 years in Ferntree Gully; I should know.)

Posted by: gjw Tue Feb 18 22:47:20 2003

I just take great joy in laying shit on highschool people now. Nerd always come out infront in the end.

Me to school captain..."Oh, so you're working as an assistant manager at Coles now? And you've got two kids at only 22 years of age? That's _really_ great!"

As for the 'burbs; well I've live in them for 23 years, and today I'm getting a flat near Hyde Park. I'm looking forward to the culture shock.

Posted by: Ritchie http:// Wed Feb 19 02:42:20 2003

I've lived in both the inner city and in the 'burbs. Right now I'm in Hampton, which is struggling to define itself as a leafy suburb.

Now that more and more ordinary people are eschewing making an honest living for the pleasures of lifestyle-TV-fuelled property speculation, I suspect it's just a matter of time before the inner cities are so thoroughly colonised as to be culturally indistinguishable from the suburbs.

Personally, the only advantage I could see in living close to the action was the ready availability of public transport.

I've got a friend who's a prison psychologist - and we went to the same school too. I'll ask him whether he has noticed any similarities between prisoners and his experiences of school.

Posted by: acb Wed Feb 19 02:58:59 2003

What about culture? In the inner city, there is a grass-roots culture; live music, art, and so on. You can interact and participate, rather than simply purchasing and consuming. In the suburbs, culture is what you watch on TV, and is mostly imported straight from Los Angeles.

Posted by: Ritchie http:// Wed Feb 19 05:36:13 2003

Certainly you can, but how many actually do? No more or less, I'd guess, than those who participate in the uniquely suburban manifestations of culture, which are so broad I'm having trouble picking one that sums them all up... call it a spectrum from people who restore old Holdens through dog breeders, the RSL, and gardening franchisees. To say that these people are motivated by base financial or ideological considerations is to miss the point; they form communities based on shared passions. As often as not aesthetic and creative passions.

Posted by: Graham Wed Feb 19 08:00:53 2003

Fortunately I'm out of this debate altogether.

Posted by: acb Wed Feb 19 11:20:34 2003

Of course, you could do what Shauna is doing and just leapfrog the whole thing, moving to somewhere even cooler. I hear Reykjavik's nice.

Posted by: Graham Wed Feb 19 11:54:30 2003

And pay $20 for a can of beer? Bugger that for a joke...

Posted by: deej http:// Thu Feb 20 05:00:57 2003

In my experience, high school was a similar but with a few differences. We seemed to have more interaction between groups than this guy suggests. Perhaps this was because our school was relativley small (around 650 kids), i dunno. Anyhow, there weren't too many 'nerds'. Those of us who were 'smart' were a pretty disparate bunch and did not all hang out together. The popularity thing was definately there, but i think the only ppl who really cared about being 'cool' were the small number of 'cool' kids. A lot them weren't very good at sport. Undoubtedly, there were kids who did get picked on, but a lot of this was because of physical characteristics, or they were really poor. Indeed, i got picked on for that reason a few times in primary/early high school. The group that i tended to hang around with was mostly guys, but reasonably diverse. Humour played a big part in what we thought was cool and it wasn't usually at other people's expense.

If you did well at school you were payed out about it, but i think i

Posted by: deej http:// Thu Feb 20 05:02:19 2003

but i think if you showed that you respected other kids even though they weren't good at school then they did not go so hard on you. I think school was far harder for these kids than those of us who got good grades and were not 'cool'.

I found Uni to be much worse than High School. Sure, there were no after school fights and you didn't have moronic teachers trying to prove they were hardcases, but when you are a kid from the northern suburbs who wears tight jeans and Anthrax t-shirts you don't get into too many conversations with kids who have never heard of where you live.

The saddest thing for school in my mind is the huge waste of potential and the way that people accept what the teachers (and students) tell them. If you don't fit into the education scheme decided by the govt. then you are made to feel like shit.

GJW - you might have to carry identification with you at all times, they can tell you don't 'belong' there ;)

Some good points Richie, my major reason for moving closer to the city w

Posted by: deej http:// Thu Feb 20 05:03:09 2003

were time and proximity considerations, not to mention my Dad who was probably mentally ill at the time.

Posted by: deej http:// Thu Feb 20 05:07:50 2003

were time and proximity considerations, not to mention my Dad who was probably mentally ill at the time.

Posted by: gjw Thu Feb 20 23:00:43 2003

I'll need a new car too, deej; My dented, muddy and bruised Nissan doesn't look too flash in a street full of Lexuses...(Lexi? What is the plural of a Lexus?)

Posted by: deej http:// Fri Feb 21 05:28:42 2003

My brother and I solved that problem by not having one. However, when i was living in Dulwich, anyone who was seen walking without designer trakkies on was looked upon with the utmost of suspicion.

Posted by: jb http:// Sat Feb 22 15:21:47 2003

Nice article - it rang true many times. I used to (until last year) work in a highly nerd-based school industry (running debating competitions) so I've seen how these things pan out in various places. The interesting thing was, I think, that the most nerd-friendly schools in Melbourne weren't necessarily the most socially or intellectually elite ones, but simply the biggest ones, where cliques of any kind could be large enough to defend themselves. Or that they found each other sufficiently interesting not to victimise weird individuals. On the other hand, the big schools in outer suburbia (Cranbourne, Berwick and my ex-home Keilor Downs spring to mind) were much more like the big American schools described in the article, and much worse places to be. I can't really explain this, but that's how it was.