The Blog

When It's Cool to be Dumb

For the average young person, quite frankly it's not cool to be smart. Stick your head above the noisy herd and you risk setting yourself out for a barrage of scorn and ridicule. What a sad and perverse state of affairs: that a young person should be punished for showing ambition.

For the average young person, quite frankly it's not cool to be smart. Stick your head above the noisy herd and you risk setting yourself out for a barrage of scorn and ridicule.

What a sad and perverse state of affairs: that a young person should be punished for showing ambition.

Back in my day it was a weird and uneasy tension. It was the typical social hierarchy that you would see on American TV: at the top you had the rugby 'jock' whose social currency was athletic prowess and weekend conquests.

At the bottom of the pile you had the archetypal 'nerd'. Think McLovin from the 2007 comedy, Superbad. The currency for this social class was intellectual exploration and the accumulation of knowledge - pretty much a worthless currency in school circles.

In the land between the top and bottom of the social hierarchy was a rich spectrum of 'types' from the kinda' 'nerdy' kid to the wannabe 'jock'. Right across the UK this microcosm of social 'types' is replicated.

So here's the rule: dangerous, disruptive and edgy is 'cool'. The reading of books, good grades and good behaviour is 'uncool'.

Growing up I seemed to coast between the two extremes: neither a jock nor a nerd. Like my politics, I pretty much held the centre ground.

But as I cast my mind back to my school days, this rule has been unsettling me. My former peers on the 'jock' and side of the social spectrum are now floating somewhere between extended education and low paid employment. All washed up has-beens with their ideas of grandeur reduced to nothing.

While my former peers on the 'nerdy' side of the social spectrum are now barristers, investment bankers, entrepreneurs and generally settled and successful people.

Let's pause for a moment. There's really something not right about this: that we should celebrate 'dumbness' and utterly castigate those who seek to do well inside of the classroom. Yet it is the people who do well in class and got ridiculed for doing so, who then go on to succeed.

While the 'cool' kid who bunked class and did drugs at the weekend - and who got celebrated for doing so - then ends up not doing very well at all.

These are perverse incentives.

The qualities that make someone 'cool' are the exact qualities that a young person should want to avoid. And the qualities that are deemed to make someone a 'dork' or a 'wonk' (Americanism of excessively techie/nerdy), should be the qualities that young people should aspire to.

It's deranged!

Let me go lateral on this and look into what's behind this perverse rule that governs social relations among teenagers and young people.

My first port of call is to my favourite blogger and all round fount of wisdom, Andrew Sullivan. He said something that could point to the root of the problem. He recently said on the character of British people: 'the worst British trait: resentment of others' success.'

But my wider reading tells me that this isn't just a UK phenomenon. Chicago economist Raghuram Rajan said of young people in his book Fault Lines: 'in too many schools in America, being smart can be positively dangerous.'

It's 'uncool' to be smart in both the US and UK. It's transatlantic, if not global. So there must be something bigger to this.

To my mind what's creating this system of relations is the culture and TV that young people watch. Think about the movies we watched growing up. Macho is cool. The protagonist was usually the chauvinistic male, celebrated for his physical stature and his womanising. Nerds were a side feature.

Nowadays of course we have TV shows like the Jersey Shore in America and The Only Way is Essex in the UK; both of which celebrate some perverse race to the bottom in order to see who can be the most dim witted and intellectually vacant.

However I've started to notice a tepid change in the social and cultural tide.

The rise of nerds, wonks and beta-males like America's Mark Zuckerberg and the UK's 17 year old tech maverick, Nick D'Aloisio. Could this signal the changing of the old guard? Yes, we had Bill Gates 20 years ago and he didn't have a big effect on making 'nerdy' cool. But I do think the Facebook effect really could be making 'nerdy' cool.

Then we have BBC Radio 1 which seems to be making a genuine and sustained effort at encouraging young people to be studious and do revision. To my mind, efforts like this have the power to the turn the accepted consensus among young people.

I noticed another example recently that suggests that the consensus may be changing. I watched the Hollywood film '21 Jump Street' and was intrigued. It suggested that the 'old order' of 'jocks v. nerds' has been turned on its head.

The short of the movie is that two 30-something year old cops have to go back to high school as undercover agents. On their first day back they revert to the 'old order' that has traditionally governed the social relations among young people. Adhering to these principles the bigger of the two cops whacks the traditional 'nerdy' kid for wearing his bag on two shoulders and then calls someone 'gay'.

But something strange happens: the school kids recoil; aghast at the 'jocular' behaviour. It was then made clear that being gay was cool and the traditional nostrums 'nerdiness' are actually mainstream and even cool.

Perhaps this is the start of what could be a 'new order'?

Certainly, evidence of a 'new order' exists. Having lived in Brooklyn, New York I saw that it being 'nerdy' was cool. Geek really was chic. Big wide rimmed glasses, so long the target of bullies, are now 'way cool'. Just look at Will.i.Am, formerly of the Black Eyed Peas and what he's wearing.

This anti-consensus 'new cool' movement is typified by Lady Gaga who was bullied herself. She champions the geek, nerd and the downtrodden. We cannot legislate new social rules for our children; but cultural icons like Gaga have the power for change mind-sets and youth culture.

In New York 'Matilda the Musical' has come to Broadway. What a fantastic way to tell the story of our need to fight against illiteracy and impoverished imaginations.

It is these cultural icons that we need. They can turn the perverse social tide.

As a concluding observation I want to note Malala Yousufzai. The well known Pakistani girl shot by muslim extremists for championing her rights and those of other young girls to an education.

The same sort of education that each and every young girl and boy is given in this country; the same sort of education that we and our children take for granted; the same sort of education that we and our children bemoan and forever grumble at.

Each and every child in this country has the chance of being the best. Few realise this and as a result, few realise their potential.

If only we and our children could take a step back and appreciate what good education fortune we actually have. It's all of our responsibility to make the most of the chance we have. Make sure you do so.