The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory and Why Outsiders Thrive After High Schoolby Alexandra Robbins Published 01 Apr 2009
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When school lunchroom doors open, hungry students rush in, searching for tables where they wouldn't be outsiders. Of course, in middle school and high school, almost everyone is an outsider: the nerds, the new girls, the band geeks, the loners; even the "popular" cheerleaders. Alexandra Robbins' The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth takes us inside the hallways of real schools to show us how shifting cliques and permanent marginalization affect children. Following individual students over the course of a year, she tracks the plight and possibilities of self-confessed nerds, freaks, punks, Goths, and weirdos. Her central message is heartening: Our increasingly homogenized society ultimately needs and welcomes the cafeteria fringe.
"The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School" Reviews
To thank you awesome Goodreads friends for the Best Nonfiction win, I'll be giving away FREE COPIES of the new Geeks paperback. Just head on over to facebook.com/authorAlexandraRobbins for a bunch of giveaways over the next week or two. There's a contest up there right now, based on the new Geeks video.
The title is, unfortunately, simply wrong.
This *should* have been much more compelling. As an academic, an educator, a past and present (and future) geek, one with geeklings of my own, and a guy who genuinely wants to be optimistic about our future as a country and a species, I'd love to read about how the geeks - intelligent, semi-obsessive nerds who get way too into some abstruse knowledge - are going to take over and turn our overly pragmatic and materialistic society into the Star Trek universe of Gene Roddenberry and Gary Gygax's dreams.
Didn't happen in this book.
What we get instead is a series of fairly dull anecdotes. No significant statistical analysis. Poor scholarship. And word choices that make it very clear that Robbins has a chip on her shoulder about the size of a Borg cube. She *wants* geeks to win, so she uses snarky language to insult anyone who is mean to her adoptive 'subjects'...but totally ignores any evidence that might actually, you know, prove her thesis. Instead, she just comes across as even more judgmental and mean-spirited than the jerks who used to give all us geeks swirlies back in the day. Replacing one group of oppressive goons with your own is not the future I'm looking for. Happily, Robbins is just a lone voice in the wilderness, some distance away from the actually interesting advances in geek culture which have come about because, thanks to teh intahrnets, we can now find each other.
Mind you, while Robbins' thesis is deeply clouded by her personal wish-fulfillment, it's at least more sincere than all these yahoos jumping on the geek bandwagon because of the (90% false) belief that this is somehow a cultural watershed moment for nerds. The world is still, sadly, owned by business majors and jocks. Nerds do tech support and serve as the butt of jokes. The big difference is that improved communications technologies mean we now have conferences and readily available support groups. That's awesome, but let's not fall victim to the echo-chamber effect, guys.
Verdict: Go read *anything* by Wil Wheaton instead.
This was clearly written by someone who wanted to be more popular than she was. I understand the sentiment. Her thesis is accurately encapsulated by the title, and she gives in boring detail the stories of a number of quirky teenagers who may or may not ultimately thrive, but we don't follow them into adulthood (with one exception) so we don't know. She falls prey to stereotypes. In her world being popular is a synonym for not too smart, but bitchy and manipulative. So it is not that suprising that she concludes (with very little data) that quirky kids, meaning those classed as emotional, or nerdy, or geeky, or creative, or smart, but who are not in the popular crowd will do better in life than the dumb bitches who are. That is pretty appealing to those of us who think of ourselves as geeky, or nerdy, or emotional, or withdrawn, and are (or were) jealous of the popular kids. And if you or your children are not as popular as you or they wish, this may be an excellent book to read and share, to remind yourself that there are other important qualities than being popular.
But this book is neither smart writing nor good science. Too bad. I so much wanted to believe I was really in the right crowd afterall.
The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth is an important book for parents, educators, and any students who feel marginalized in their school or social life. Alexandra Robbins once again has her finger on the pulse of a critical issue faced by countless young people: persecution or ostracism because of being different from those who are considered popular. Robbins takes readers inside the lives and perspectives of “geeks, loners, punks, floaters, dorks, freaks, nerds, gamers, weirdos, emos, indies, scenes.”
Robbins presents profiles of several individuals from what she calls the cafeteria fringe, those who cannot find their way into the popular crowd or, in some cases, find anyone at all to relate to at their schools. Woven through the profiles are relevant research findings and insights from professionals who provide psychological and sociological background that moves Robbins’s observations about the individuals into more generalized territory.
Robbins finds that the exact characteristics that cause students to be kept out of the popular cliques are the same characteristics that frequently create successful adults: courage, creativity, originality, freethinking, vision, resilience, authenticity, self-awareness, integrity, candor, curiousity, love of learning, and passion. Robbins calls this quirk theory, and provides numerous examples of well-known individuals who were ostracized in adolescence but triumphed as adults.
What I admire most about this book is how Alexandra Robbins takes readers from an understanding of the problems to how schools, parents, and students can take steps to minimize this phenomenon in their own environments. Robbins helps each of the young people who are dealing with some degree of ostracism to arrive at a “challenge,” a specific plan for finding a more satisfying, less threatening social life without compromising the individual traits that each of them takes pride in. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that not all of the challenges are met and fulfilled, but all of the individuals do make important realizations about themselves. Near the end of the book, Robbins offers 31 specific, eye-opening ways that schools, parents, teachers, and students can move to prevent or improve circumstances that lead to bullying, ostracism, and intolerance. For example, Robbins recommends that schools “[m]ake credit requirements equitable: … If participation on a school sports team counts as a gym credit, then participation on an academic team or in a drama production also should fulfill a requirement.”
I was particularly interested in how educators are portrayed in this book. Although some teachers make important contributions to the well-being of the students, most educators, especially administrators, are shown as oblivious, unsympathetic, and in some cases, complicit conspirators in the difficulties based by ostracized students. One thread of the book deals with teacher cliques, how they affect individual teachers who are not part of the “power group,” and the ways that students become embroiled in negative faculty interpersonal situations.
As with her previous book The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, Alexandra Robbins writes with authority and credibility about what is happening in classrooms, hallways, parties, living rooms, bedrooms, and malls as today’s adolescents deal with unique pressures and problems. If you are interested in today’s high schoolers, both Geeks and Overachievers are must-reads.
Cross-posted on my blog at What's Not Wrong?
As a high school teacher, I was excited to read this book after reading an eloquent interview with Alexandra Robbins in Salon.com. The problem with the book lies not with Robbins' sharp and accessible social analysis (this is her strength and, why she strays from it to include unbelievable dialogue, remains a mystery), but with the central characters: while trying to promote an understanding of the Cafeteria Fringe, Robbins follows a bunch of teenagers who speak as though their dialogue were written by a cheesy CW television writer. I simply could not get into the stories of these students, and did not buy the simple wrap-up to their high school lives.
I also found it unsettling that celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, etc. were the ones chosen as examples for those reading the book, as having experienced a tough time in high school. It seemed almost hypocritical, and way beneath Robbins' obvious level of intelligence.
I would, however, give her other books a try. As long as there isn't too much focus on what seems to be somewhat contrived social situations and dialogue.
No matter how old I get, school politics, i.e. the tensions between the cliques and the cafeteria fringe, never cease to fascinate me. Since the title and thesis of this book declare victory for the fringe, it was pretty much irresistible. Though it wasn’t as life-changing as I’d hoped, it was definitely a compelling read and particularly uplifting at the end.
The book tracks six young people over a year of high school. Most of them are oddballs who fit into the stereotypical labels: the loner girl, the band geek, the gay gamer. In reality, of course, their personalities extend far beyond the labels. Two of them are much more in “the norm.” One is different because she’s a Jamaican immigrant, neither white nor “ghetto,” and the other is a popular girl ready to break away from her clique. The book alternates between the six stories and adds analysis in between, covering such subjects as social media, parents, drug and alcohol use, and includes one chapter on successful people who were teenage freaks, such as Steven Spielberg, Stephen Colbert, and Taylor Swift.
If you grew up on the cafeteria fringe, most of this book won’t be news to you. Living with social rejection may be painful, but once you learn that there’s really nothing wrong with you, you’re freer to be who you really are. However, I disagree with the author that finding your niche gets easier in college. For me, college was even crueler than high school. It was the cool competition gone wild because it was without parental constraints.
This ties in with the biggest new insight I got out of this book: that teachers are as cliquish as students, and there’s something about the school setting itself that brings it out in people. Cue in Excellent Sheep and The Road to Character. School has become increasingly about achieving a competitive standard, which is inherently conformist, rather than about educating people to maximize their own unique potential. The whole system needs restructuring.
Though I enjoyed the book and agreed with most of it, parts of it were a bit redundant and could have been edited out. But if I were a teacher of high schoolers or college freshmen, I would definitely teach this book. Most teens don’t read much non-fiction or connect sociology to their real lives, but this is a non-fiction analysis of the air they breathe. If teenagers would grapple with the philosophical issues of coolness, nerdiness, bullying, ostracism, and kindness – in other words, the small-scale politics of their lives – perhaps it would bring about the large-scale solutions our schools and society desperately need.