"The young always have the same problem --- how to rebel and how to conform at the same time. They solve this problem by defying their parents and copying one another." - Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant
The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth follows seven "outsiders" throughout an academic year. Written by Alexandra Robbins --- author of a number of bestselling books about navigating the rocky terrain of young adult life, including The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids --- this book seeks to explore the sociological origins of popularity, while also making a case for "quirk theory" to explain why kids who struggle most on the fringes at school often end up being successful in adult life. The book's greatest strength is the narratives of her subjects. These include:
Danielle, The Loner, a girl who is literary and shy and unknowingly joins her own hate club. She has adopted silence as her coping tool, citing Xenocrates who said, "I have often regretted my speech, never my silence."
Eli, The Nerd, an academic superstar with intellectual hobbies. He thrives at summer camp, but is socially awkward at school. Rather than appreciating his gifts, his mother is constantly nagging him about why he isn't normal.
Whitney, who chose the identifier The Popular Bitch for herself. The cruelty she sees amongst her peers has always bothered her. She is starting to wonder whether the price of popularity is too high.
Joy, The New Girl, just arrived from Jamaica. She struggles with culture shock and desperately misses her previous home. Her past, like many of the other characters, contains a secret, which sets her apart from many of her peers.
Noah, The Band Geek, considered both too serious and too emotional by his classmates, has vowed to run annually for class president "because even if I lose, I'll be able to use the experience to grow."
Regan, The Weird Girl, who struggles with malicious gossip in school, but thrives in her volunteer work and community theater outside the school's halls.
Blue, The Gamer, whose attempts to create social cohesion for fellow outsiders are constantly broken down, if not by his peers, than by the adults in his life.
Robbins follows these people throughout the school year, interrupting her observational role mid-year to offer each of them a challenge to try to break the social molds in which they've been cast. Her challenge, while at odds with her observational journalistic style, yields surprising results, suggesting that social order is both more malleable and more iron-clad than generally assumed.
What I found most striking about the book was the shocking bravery of many of its subjects. Many of them are struggling with problems far more devastating than whether or not they are popular at school. Those very traits that set them apart or make them socially awkward are often the hallmarks of an advanced maturity or intelligence not yet reached by their peers. Robbins includes lots of studies with her observations, including a number of sociological experiments and neurological theories that demonstrate how difficult it is to defy group assumptions or affiliations.
"Nonconformists," she writes of one neurological study, "aren't just going against the grain; they're going against the brain." We are hardwired, she suggests, to conform. These outsiders are either wired differently, or "in standing apart from their peers, these students are standing up to their biology." She has a more difficult case in proving the causal link between outsider status (which she refers to as "cafeteria fringe") and success in adult life. Her evidence here is mostly anecdotal, whether it’s a list of celebrities who claim to have been outsiders in high school, or interviews with CEOs who claim to value creativity and independent thinking in their employees.
Privately, I wonder if everyone thinks of themselves as outsiders, regardless of social status. The US is a country that roots for outsiders --- especially when they encounter unexpected success --- but tends to undervalue them in daily interactions. No one wants to admit the role of luck or advantage in achieving success. Instead, success is always the result of hard work overcoming insurmountable personal odds. Our leaders always try to cast themselves as one of the “little guys” rather than one of the lucky ones.
Robbins’s choice to intervene in her subjects’ personal lives is the most interesting and controversial aspect of The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth. The personal narratives are gripping, and several of the transformations are deeply inspiring, but in challenging her subjects to change, Robbins subtly undermines the book’s central message that “being excluded doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you.” If these kids are okay they way they are, why is she asking them to change?
The key seems to be in some sort of compromise, but not just for the kids on the cafeteria fringe. Robbins ends the book with 31 recommendations for students, parents, teachers, and schools. She also stresses the importance of the way adults interact with each other, especially around the kids under their supervision and care. One of the surprising revelations in the book is that one of the “outsiders” she follows is in fact a teacher, subject to the same exclusion and ridiculing in the teacher’s lounge that her students enact in the cafeteria. This comes as a jarring revelation, even as most readers will recognize the tactics of humiliation, exclusion, and slander that are as regularly practiced in the workplace as they are in the halls of adolescence. We expect this behavior amongst children, but is it something humans ever outgrow?
Group affiliation, Robbins argues, is impossible to avoid. It is desirable to belong to a community that provides protection, support, and belonging. But as a group becomes more rigid in its membership and less tolerant of outsiders, it compromises its own ability to grow, becoming blind to its faults, and often cannibalizing its own members. We’ve seen this in the microcosm of the cafeteria, but it is no less true of adult life. Robbins claims that it is the outsiders who provide the catalyst for change. “Groups are most advantageous when they consist of diverse members, when a person can act as an individual, bringing something different to the table.”
Whether or not you agree with Robbins’s methods or conclusions, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth is a compelling and highly readable account of the current atmosphere in school classrooms, cafeterias, and hallways. Robbins has an ear for the cadences of adolescence. Her portraits of her subjects are compassionate and real. You will root for every one of these characters and hope her prediction comes true. Will these geeks inherit the earth? We should be so lucky.
Were you, or are you, popular at school or work? Why or why not? How do you think the culture of popularity has shifted over the years?
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