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'Popularity' in schools

Someone I know on facebook (a Traveller artist) just drew my attention to this essay on 'Why Nerds are Unpopular'. http://www.paulgraham.com/nerds.html

It describes the situation that pretty much every American high school drama and comedy depicts, from Buffy to American Pie to...well you get the idea. It's very much an American essay, and the author does say "Nor, as far as I can tell, is the problem so bad in most other countries."

It's a lengthy essay, but the main points seem to be:
1. 'Popularity' is EVERYTHING in high school.
2. Being 'smart' automatically makes you 'unpopular'.
3. Being good at sport automatically makes you 'popular'.

Does this setup really exist at every American high school? Does this setup ever exist in British schools.

I don't recognise 1, 2 or 3 from my school years at all, or from what I have seen in the schools I go to for 'You're Hired!'. I don't remember popularity being something that people were desperate for when I was at school (an ordinary suburban comprehensive* in North Wales in the 1980s). There were smart kids who were popular (I was probably one of them). There were sporty kids who were unpopular. At some point soon, one of our 'You're Hired!' contestants will be Tom Daley, the famous diver, who attends Plymouth College (the one independent school that takes part). He's obviously very sporty, but was so unpopular at his state school that he left.

Does anyone else recognise this from their school years or from schools today?

* On the subject of 'ordinary suburban comprehensives', does anyone else watch 'The Inbetweeners'? It's a) a very good sitcom (sort of a British middle-class American Pie meets Peep Show) and b) set in an 'ordinary suburban comprehensive'. Whenever British schools are depicted in fiction, they are always either 'tough, gritty, inner-city comprehensives' or public schools. The sort of 'ordinary suburban comprehensives' that most kids actually attend rarely feature. Possibly because of this, The Inbetweeners seems a far more accurate depiction of British teenage life than anything else I've seen.

I do recommend the show, but it slightly goes against my argument. The four kids are called 'inbetweeners' because they are neither at the top nor the bottom of the school social hierarchy. But "climbing up that social ladder"** is by no means their main motivation in life.

** Line from the Bowling for Soup song 'High School Never Ends', which is all about this sort of thing, and how adult life is actually remarkably similar.



( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 17th, 2010 11:58 am (UTC)
I don't think that the whole popularity thing was as developed or rigid at my (indifferent/bad private) school, but I can certainly relate to this bit

"schools have no real purpose beyond keeping the kids all in one place for a certain number of hours each day."

Yup. My school was a lot like that for much of the time. It certainly wasn't structured for optimum learning, OR for creating employable and savvy individuals.
Sep. 17th, 2010 01:11 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting a link to that article; it was very interesting. It also fitted in with my thoughts on schools, for the most part.

To answer your question, there was definitely emphasis on popularity, but it did not seem to be so obviously based on the factors involved in the American stereotype.
Sep. 17th, 2010 01:50 pm (UTC)
That whole thing was very alien to me at school in Italy; I don't know how much of this was due to it being single-sex. We didn't have lockers or lunchbreaks as school was mornings only, just a 15-20 minute recess mid-morning, and it was the teachers who moved from classroom to classroom, not the students. Most of us hardly socialised with people from other classes, even in the same year. Being "smart" if anything made you relatively popular because of the Italian school ethic of helping thy neighbour with classroom tests. I was only picked on once in high school with my friend L. by girls from another class, and when my classmates overheard us complaining about it they rounded the would-be bullies up and frogmarched them to the principal! That class was actually really special, we had a great sense of solidarity somehow.
Sep. 17th, 2010 02:08 pm (UTC)
Definately at my (parochial, indifferent) comprehensive popularity was not a function of sportiness or intelligence. There were popular kids, but they were generally the confident and attractive ones or just nice people. Troubled kids who wern't either tended to be the outcasts whether they were smart or not.

I've heard good things about the Inbetweeners.
Sep. 17th, 2010 05:05 pm (UTC)
At my school being clever didn't mean that you were automatically unpopular, but it did seem to preclude you from being popular. It also singled you out as a suitable and appropriate target for bullying, usually by the sporty ones who by and large weren't clever. They weren't always popular though. The pretty ones were, but if you were sporty and fugly (and a number of the ones in my year were) you also weren't allowed to be popular.

One of the criteria for being popular was having a boyfriend, probably because it was an all girls school. If you had a boyfriend then potentially his friends were a source of boyfriends for the other girls. My status was definitely enhanced when I got a boyfriend, especially since he was blond and quite cute. The longer I went out with him, the more kudos I got. I wouldn't say I ever got as far as being popular, but I think I had the record for the longest relationship and it earned me a nickname :-)
Sep. 17th, 2010 08:04 pm (UTC)
I have to say that my experience at an all girl's private school matches 1,2 and 3 exactly. I was bullied ferociously for years, until I learned to display an indifferent attitude to said bullying, which clearly made me a less entertaining target.

In my year, popularity was everything and seemed to depend on a mixture of 4 things:
- prettiness;
- interest in fashion and ability to display expensive, fashionable clothing on out of uniform days;
- boyfriend status;
- sporting ability.

Those of us who had none of the above were pretty much doomed...doubly so if we had the misfortune of committing the cardinal sin of being intelligent or _interested_ in our classes.

Sep. 17th, 2010 09:10 pm (UTC)
Wow. Thanks for pointing me to that. Well-written, thought-provoking & scary essay. FWIW 123 did not apply to my school experience. I don't think I was "popular" exactly but people seemed to like me and were nice to me, while I got on throwing myself into various obscure studies. I hate the thought of my own children ever being as miserable as the guy in the article describes being in his teenage years.

The point that I most appreciated in the essay you linked to was the feeling of uselessness afflicting today's teenagers. I fear that the extension of university education (with a degree now being required for many previous non-grad jobs) may increase these problems - it's now going to take even longer before you start to be independent and contributing to society.

I also think the over-protection of children may contribute; society now wants to protect kids so much, it hardly allows them any independence (cf the recent case of the council banning a couple from allowing their 7yo to wait alone at the bus stop outside their house), which must cntribute to the sense of suffocation and imprisonment.

Sep. 18th, 2010 08:10 am (UTC)
Interesting. I went to an all-male private school (well, some shared sixth-form lessons with the equivalent girls' school). Don't recognise any of the above; maybe 'popularity' is less of an important concept with a group of boys..?

I taught in a tiny (<50 students in each year-group), mixed, private school in the US for 4 years, and also didn't see anything like this. I suspect it was because it was way too small in terms of numbers to support cliques, and in terms of physical space for people to 'claim' different bits of territory.
Sep. 18th, 2010 08:11 am (UTC)
Oh, and I'm not quite sure how much it applies to the school where I teach now. It's academically selective, and all the students are well above the national average in terms of attainment and ability; this probably makes a big difference.
Sep. 18th, 2010 08:45 am (UTC)
Thanks for posting this article - very interesting viewpoint. The poor chap sounds somewhat scarred for life!

The comment "trained to please" made me sad, though. It's something I think girls are particularly subjected to.

When I see Jamie making friends with other children, what he does is mimic them and follow them around. He does this well and he is popular at nursery.

Most kids want to be like the others, just for the sake of it, and that's how they make friends. If you don't do this because you're more interested in/obsessed by something else, you may become less popular because the others will naturally assume you don't want to be friends.
Dec. 8th, 2010 03:47 pm (UTC)
way behind the ball on this one.

At the all boys grammar school I went to, 2 and 3 were certainly the case. I had friends, but they fell into the same sort of "class" as me. point 1 is quite subjective. To some pupils, being popular is everything and to others it isn't. I had a lot of friends outside of school through church, so the fact I got a lot of grief at school didn't matter so much (though I didn't like it) as if I had had no social outlet apart from school.

Hierarchies and pigeon-holing happen very fast at school and in workplaces.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )