There was no way I could pass up Alexandra Robbins’ newest book, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School. As a former weirdo/nerd/loner who indeed “thrive(d) after high school,” the title alone was an ego stroke.
We’re living in strange times (to quote an old Chinese curse). It has become a badge of honor to admit that you were a nerd in high school. Some of the most powerful people in society were nerds (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, etc.). Yet, someone forgot to send current high-schoolers the memo that it’s hip to be square. The social pecking order has, if anything, gotten even more rigid. Robbins writes, “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.”
The book has two tracks. One is straightforward non-fiction about how students are excluded, ridiculed and labeled and why that isn’t a good thing; the other is a series of profiles of seven very different people in different high schools, including a “popular bitch” and a gay faculty member.
The central tenet of Robbins’ book is what she calls “Quirk Theory,” which states, “Many of the differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the same traits or real-world skills that others will value, love, or find compelling about that person in adulthood and outside of the school setting.” These traits, according to Robbins, are creativity/originality, freethinking/vision, resilience, authenticity/self-awareness, integrity/candor, curiosity/love of learning/passion, and courage. I especially like that she recognizes the immense courage it takes to remain an individual in the face of intense social pressure, including harassment and physical bullying, to conform.
I couldn’t have said it any better. Though my middle-through-high-school experience is pretty dated (it was the ’80s), it appears from Robbins’ book that things haven’t changed much. As she correctly notes, the “geeks, loners, punks, floaters, nerds, freaks, dorks, gamers, bandies, art kids, theater geeks, choir kids, Goths, wierdos, indies, scenes, emos, skaters, and various types of racial and other minorities are often relegated to subordinate social status simply because they are, or seem to be, even the slightest bit different.”
This is a shame not just because us poor losers were made to suffer through high school. But by maintaining such a suffocating culture of conformity, schools are stifling the very innovative, creative thought that is widely acknowledged to be the very resource that leads people and companies to success.
Robbins really does her homework. She painstakingly defines various labels, including what “popular” really means. She pulls in studies showing the ways in which people behave in groups (and toward others who aren’t in the group). She spotlights the many, many ways in which schools across the country isolate and punish nonconformity.
That is the crux of what I find so important and compelling about this book. Robbins correctly calls out the public school culture – as propagated by both students and administration – for enforcing this culture of conformity and bullying: “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.”
To remedy this, she lays out a laundry list of recommendations for students, parents and schools to encourage individuality and creativity, and to discourage bullying. Many of these are common sense for those of us who grew up on the “outside,” such as treating all groups equally (when was the last time the school held a pep rally for the debate team? Gave a no-homework night before a big Quiz Bowl tournament?) and make graduation credits equitable (if participation on a sports team counts, then participation in similar art, debate or science teams should too). However, it’s gratifying to have an expert lay these out in print.
The downside of the book, in my opinion, was that she spent way too much time talking about her seven people. The Washington Post criticizes her method of reconstructing scenes and dialog from their experiences as though it makes her somehow dishonest; I don’t think that’s entirely fair because in any memoir/profile/biography, authors always have to recreate scenes and dialog. That doesn’t make her any less honest as a writer.
I do, however, agree with Nugent’s (author of American Nerd) criticism that in issuing these seven kids challenges aimed at helping them overcome or change their outsider status, she steps over the line from reporter to advocate. Offering encouragement off the record would have been OK by me, but I don’t care for her inserting her ideas into these kids’ lives in such a blatant way.
I would rather have read less about their personal lives and more about former geeks who went on to achieve great things (as opposed to a few quotes from famous people saying, “I used to be such a geek.”). More in-depth information and advice from formerly marginalized people who did thrive after high school would give real reassurance and hope to current loners.
So I sum up her advice: 1. Just because you are excluded doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you; 2. Being popular doesn’t lead to happiness. And I would add a number 3: Stay true to yourself, and things will get way better after high school.