March 15, 2004
Paul Graham on nerds - revisited

A nerd-friend who wishes to remain anonymous emailed me with a link to Paul Graham's excellent essay entitled Why Nerds Are Unpopular, pointing out that Graham is also the person who wrote this.

I wrote about this piece here. But, having re-read Graham's piece, I am appalled at how completely I misunderstood it, saying of it, this:

Notice that Graham doesn't say that "in the abstract people in poorer countries are monstrously cruel to one another". He merely notes that cruelty happens, without claiming that the people being cruel are cruel by their inherent nature. Yet he makes that exact claim about children. I think he's flat wrong, and that children, like adults, are nice or nasty depending on the pressures they face. A few are truly evil, even in a nice world. A few are saints, even in a nasty world. Most children, like most adults, go either way, depending.

The only explanation I can offer for that is that I hadn't read the piece other than the bit I quoted, from near the beginning.

Here's a big chunk from the middle of Graham's piece:

Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In preindustrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren't left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.

Teenagers seem to have respected adults more in the past, because the adults were the visible experts in the skills they were trying to learn. Now most kids have little idea what their parents do in their distant offices, and see no connection (indeed, there is precious little) between schoolwork and the work they'll do as adults.

And if teenagers respected adults more, adults also had more use for teenagers. After a couple years' training, an apprentice could be a real help. Even the newest apprentice could be made to carry messages or sweep the workshop.

Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers. They would be in the way in an office. So they drop them off at school on their way to work, much as they might drop the dog off at a kennel if they were going away for the weekend.

What happened? We're up against a hard one here. The cause of this problem is the same as the cause of so many present ills: specialization. As jobs become more specialized, we have to train longer for them. Kids in preindustrial times started working at about fourteen at the latest; kids on farms, where most people lived, began far earlier. Now kids who go to college don't start working full-time till 21 or 22. With some degrees, like MDs and PhDs, you may not finish your training till 30, which is close the average life expectancy in medieval times.

Teenagers now are useless, except as cheap labor in industries like fast food, which evolved to exploit precisely this fact. In almost any other kind of work, they'd be a net loss. But they're also too young to be left unsupervised. Someone has to watch over them, and the most efficient way to do this is to collect them together in one place. Then a few adults can watch all of them.

If you stop there, what you're describing is literally a prison, albeit a part-time one. The problem is, many schools practically do stop there. The stated purpose of schools is to educate the kids. But there is no external pressure to do this well. And so most schools do such a bad job of teaching that the kids don't really take it seriously-- not even the smart kids. Much of the time we were all, students and teachers both, just going through the motions.

And here is how the piece ends:

It's important for nerds to realize, too, that school is not life. School is a strange, artificial thing, half sterile and half feral. It's all-encompassing, like life, but it isn't the real thing. It's only temporary, and if you look you can see beyond it even while you're still in it.

If life seems awful to kids, it's neither because hormones are turning you all into monsters (as your parents believe), nor because life actually is awful (as you believe). It's because the adults, who no longer have any economic use for you, have abandoned you to spend years cooped up together with nothing real to do. Any society of that type is awful to live in. Occam's razor says you don't have to look any further to explain why teenage kids are unhappy.

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.

Mea culpa.

I agree with my nerd-friend that this really is an excellent piece.

Once again, the hormone theory of adolescence is challenged. Society is to blame for adolescence, not hormones.

Where I think I really do (still) disagree with Paul Graham is when he says that kids are kept away from work merely because they are useless. I think they have been kept away from work because a lot of powerful people thought that was a good idea, including parents. If they can be persuaded that it was not a good idea to render teenagers useless, and I believe a lot of them have been so persuaded already, then we are well on the way to solving this problem.

I don't think teenagers are inherently useless, any more than they are inherently "teenagers". If we wanted to make better use of these people, we could.

But none of that in any way diminishes my admiration for this piece of Graham's, or my gratitude to my friend for reminding me of its existence.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:03 PM
Category: Economics of education