Nerds don’t have to be unpopular

Graham lent me this great book Hackers and Painters which I just finished reading. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves to program. Or if you want to understand how programmers think. It is interesting that Paul Graham chose to use the word “Hacker”, which has bad connotations nowadays, but back in the old days it meant that you were a great programmer. The kind of programmer they describe in Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (another classic book on programmers) that programs 10x the average programmer. Also known as GrandMasterProgrammer.

The first chapter was completely unexpected. This book is published by O’Reilly and it is one of those ones without an animal on the cover, which means folks are writing about stuff at a high level. But this was unlike any chapter of any O’Reilly book I’ve ever read. It was titled “Why Nerds are Unpopular.” In it, he describes the typical experience of nerds in the US: they’re unpopular, they get picked on and have a generally miserable experience in high school.

But I don’t think it has to be that way.

TJHSST logo I was fortunate enough to be selected to enter the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (also known as TJHSST or just TJ to alumni.) I say selected because it is not a high school where your parents look for good test scores and buy a house there so you can go. Instead, they actively look for nerds. They do this by a certain process: they examine teacher recommendations, academic achievement, aptitude in science/tech, interest and motivation in science/tech, results of a standardized test, and an essay. I think attending Gifted and Talented programs in Fairfax County also helps (which I was also fortunate enough to attend since 3rd grade, when the program starts.) Many say that it is harder than getting into selective colleges.

OK, so you’ve selected the top 400+ nerds in the Northern Virginia area. Now what? Well they had a partnership with the industry to create decent labs. No Atari 800s with a little Logo turtle here. We had an HP mini that was networked with dumb terminals! (That was pretty cool back in the late 80s – it was also the system on which I learned how to use vi.) We had all sorts of computer equipment (PS/2s, IBM-compatibles, Macs, etc) and kept winning more at nationwide competitions with the coolest being an actual Cray supercomputer (which did have maintenance issues, but we didn’t have off-the-shelf Apple G5s to use for building one back then.)

They also had pretty good computer science teachers and a really good computer science curriculum. But I think one of the best things was that I had other nerds (hackers as Paul G would call them) who were as into computers as much as I was that I could to talk to. I remember early on a group of us looked at the electives that you could take and mapped out a strategy to take as many computer courses as possible. I remember it as the Computer Crash Course. Fortunately there weren’t many (or maybe any) that overlapped. Yes, I’m not as well rounded as I could have been if I had taken chorus and art. But who has time for all that when you’re taking classes like AP Computer Science, AI (where I learned Lisp) and Supercomputer Applications? (They do have a mandatory 8th period where you have to do something non-academic and this does help broaden you out. I did various things like playing chess, lifting weights, and writing letters to free political prisoners.)

Also they had some other great classes for hackers like Microelectronics (where I built a little driving video game that I hand-wired on a breadboard, but more importantly learned the basics of boolean algebra via dedicated circuits and learned to be confident working with the guts of computers) and Typing (an overlooked fundamental of good programming IMHO.) So I think TJ actually provided good real-world training in how to progam, which is another point that Paul G makes, in that most high schools don’t seem to relate to the real world.

Added to that was the fact that since we were all nerds, there wasn’t the usual social hierarchy that Paul G describes. Yes, there were the naturally good looking nerds and not so good looking, but there seemed to be a strong independent and non-conformist attitude to the whole place. Everyone was competitive, but to achieve something, not for popularity.

BTW, in an interview at OSCon 2004, Paul G noted that a solution to the problem is something like Stuyvesant, which is like the New York equivalent of TJ. It apparently is more famous because it has been around for longer, but TJ should get more respect since it consistently has the highest SAT scores and the most National Merit Semifinalists (including yours truly) in the nation. He suggests that nerds go to a magnet school like TJ or Stuyvesant. I wonder why there aren’t more of them.

Here’s an interesting excerpt from an editorial in USA Today:

Fulfilling the promise of talent searches means every district needs a Stuyvesant and a middle-school equivalent. Smaller districts can combine to provide a critical mass of gifted students for these schools — like Klibaner, the kids will travel. More isolated districts can still create magnet programs to concentrate the brightest, give them teachers trained to aim two-to-three grade levels higher and adjust the curriculum to challenge students who need more.

These solutions aren’t terribly expensive. Magnet schools cost just a bit more for transportation, and residential schools cost no more than what states spend per child on special education. Gifted children have special needs, too.

Also a good quote from another magnet school student:

“Everything changed there because I was no longer an outcast among the general student body,” Klibaner says. To stretch his mind while surrounded by students who loved to learn, Klibaner was willing to travel almost two hours daily, each way.

I think magnet schools would solve a lot of problems and provide a distinct net gain in academic achievement. I think they also promote the idea of a meritocracy, which is what good organizations should strive for.

Free bonus: TJ has a pretty good Wikipedia entry.

One Reply to “Nerds don’t have to be unpopular”

  1. Any school that has a critical mass of academically-focused people can produce a similar social environment. Also, it helps if your school’s top academic achievers are also sports team captains and surf-punk guitar players. I was the former, and a good friend (now in med school) was the later.

    P.S. I knew a few (more recent) TJ alums from my days at Rice University. The same logic that you propose for high schools also applies in spades at a university.

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