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Why Nerds are Unpopular

"Why Nerds are Unpopular", published February of 2003, is an essay by Paul Graham that examines an apparent correlation between intelligence and unpopularity in American secondary schools. It also delves into the topic of high school's purported purpose and its failure to carry out that stated goal.


Graham proposes that "nerds", defined by him as people who aren't "socially adept enough", don't really want to be popular, instead they would rather be smart. Being popular demands constant attention to fashion, personal appearance, and scrutinizing detail to one's actions, or as he states, conformity; this fact, he claims, fails to register with nerds who believe popularity is thrust upon an individual not something worked towards. Nerds, he proposes, have other interests that occupy their time.

Before high school, children are preoccupied with family, paying little attention to the opinions of peers. In the transition between elementary school and high school, children become less family-oriented in an attempt to become individuals. These teenagers, now thrust into an unfamiliar and perhaps frightening place, create their own society, one he compares with that of William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

In school, nerds are actively sought out as targets. The upper echelon of the student body, the most popular kids, rarely pick on nerds; instead, it's those situated in the "middle" who feel the need to up their status by picking on a "common enemy" and forming alliances with others in the same position. Nerds are easy targets for everyone; among the most cruel to nerds are those slightly above them socially, something he analogizes with poor whites being the most hostile to blacks.

Graham draws a few comparisons between prisons and schoolhouses. He equates public school teachers with prison wardens; their main goals being to keep their subjects on property, feed them, and prevent them from killing each other. He draws parallels between each institution's hierarchy as well. In both systems, the bottom of the pecking order harbors harsh environments. Graham also feels that schools are nothing more than large-scale nurseries, a place to keep kids while their parents are at work in an industrialized nation. Teenagers, once utilized as apprentices, have become useless to adults. Although apprentices weren't completely useful until their apprenticeship was complete, even new ones could perform minor tasks to help their teacher. Additionally, the work done in high school, mainly memorization and recollection of facts, has little bearing on work done during adulthood.

Nerds, he argues, are the most affected by the inability of the school to fully foster education and the creation of "fake" societies within. Similar to their neighborhoods, normally isolated suburbs where their parents moved them for protection from inner city perversion, schools thrive on pettiness and obedience. However, graduation ends most suffering. Their former bullies, now adults, are subject to consequences for their actions. Additionally, some semblance of maturity has kicked in. Lastly, nerds, who were forced into cohabitation with people who shared vastly dissimilar interests, can group together, forming clans where intelligence is something to be proud of.


Heavily linked to by blogs, "Why Nerds are Unpopular" has received a decent amount of feedback. Some claim their school was not like that, while others claim being smart and nerdy are not directly comparable. Neurological differences have been proposed, perhaps nerds have different brains, as well as public school inadequacy. Finally, some have responded that nerds simply deserve the label due to their awkwardness and weak social skills. Graham responds to some of the feedback with "Re: Why Nerds are Unpopular".

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