Individuation and Second-Handedness

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

It's an old essay, but quite thought-provoking. Venture capitalist Paul Graham considers why it is that "nerds" are so unpopular in middle school and high school. The below excerpt, from about midway through, gives an indication of what to expect, but the whole thing deserves a read.

Because I didn't fit into this world, I thought that something must be wrong with me. I didn't realize that the reason we nerds didn't fit in was that in some ways we were a step ahead. We were already thinking about the kind of things that matter in the real world, instead of spending all our time playing an exacting but mostly pointless game like the others.

We were a bit like an adult would be if he were thrust back into middle school. He wouldn't know the right clothes to wear, the right music to like, the right slang to use. He'd seem to the kids a complete alien. The thing is, he'd know enough not to care what they thought. We had no such confidence.

A lot of people seem to think it's good for smart kids to be thrown together with "normal" kids at this stage of their lives. Perhaps. But in at least some cases the reason the nerds don't fit in really is that everyone else is crazy. I remember sitting in the audience at a "pep rally" at my high school, watching as the cheerleaders threw an effigy of an opposing player into the audience to be torn to pieces. I felt like an explorer witnessing some bizarre tribal ritual. [bold added]
Much of this will remind anyone familiar with Ayn Rand of her concept of second-handers, and rightfully so. And many of these might be tempted, as I was at first, to indict the state of our culture and government schools for this entirely. (It's not entirely to blame, but as Graham indicates, it deserves the lion's share.) That said, I think some aspects of the phenomenon stem from the transition any child has to make from dependence on his parents to independent adulthood. As a parent, I am glad to have encountered this piece again, and will keep it in mind, now that I am a parent.

-- CAV

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