Wednesday, June 4, 2008


I keep hearing about teenagers who don’t know things they should -- like how to write, or geographical facts about their country and the world, or who certain national leaders are. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about why this happens. From my own experience, I can tell you one factor -- the growth of cool.

Kids don’t want to appear smart because it’s not cool. There’s a social deadliness attached to any form of studious behavior, even as light as casual reading. In fact, even sincerity or thoughtfulness is regarded skeptically by many teens, especially boys, who seem pressured into a kind of smart-alecky disengagement.

Now, some of this just comes with being a teenager. But I really think we need to turn around this contempt for learning.

From my own years in school, back in the Pleistocene Era, I remember the ridicule that would rain down from peers who perceived me, rightly or wrongly, as smart. I did continue to read, and I continued my nerdy habits like stamp collecting, thanks to a couple of good friends who were prone to similar hobbies. But I really do believe that one of the reasons I didn’t study harder in school is that it wasn’t cool, and was socially condemned.

The National Honor Society chapter at my high school was virtually all girls. I remember my mom looking at the photo in the yearbook and saying, “Where are the boys?”

Answer: Trying to be cool.

And I think it's only grown worse since then, with our media culture saturating kids with images of what's cool and what's not.

Why do kids think learning is a bad thing? Why are we socialized to hide our innate intelligence, to strive for a lower denominator? Is there a way to change that?

(Photo: Williamsburg, Brooklyn, May 2008)


  1. I remember being tormented on the bus because of my trombone.

    The worse part is, and I'm speaking from the perspective of 'father of a little girl', is that the behavior characteristics you identify now apply to girls almost equally. The number of You-Tube type videos out floating about showing girls beating the snot out of each other for 'respect', girls pummeling teachers, girls counting their sexual conquests on their myspace pages. Kids are way too concerned, now more than ever, with stuff that is too surficial and transient and shouldn't be given a whit of attention...boys or girls. Makes me worry for my kid, and wonder if I can instill in her the same kind of interest in learning that we had as runts. (My grades not withstanding!)

    Don't we sound like a couple of old farts!

  2. Dennis went thru the dumb cool phase when he was a kitten. Actually it seems to be just one crazy phase after another.

  3. I have several young people (over 21) in my family who hate to read or watch the news, say they are "not political" so they don't have to vote or think about anything political, ever. In a situation where people are gathered and discussing all sorts of things they sit looking dazed and bored, because they have no clue. Their interests in films, music and art are so very narrow, they can't even discuss that. They get together with their like-minded friends and chatter away about how stoopid everyone is!

    I also noticed that these are the ones who hate to volunteer, show distain for the poor, and would never do a walk-a-thon. Most of my family are avid do-gooders and interested in everything-- so these young slugs stand out in the group.

    There is a listlessness that comes with not learning, not wishing to evolve.

  4. unfortunately this is not confined to teenagers or young people.... best evidenced by our current presidnt. during his 2000 run for president e was dating a 30yr old guy at the time who actually stated that he was baking w because he identified with bush and was an average joe (read: dim like him) - later we learned this guy was also a drunk - just like w - though w has been a dry drunk since finding jesus & thereby erasing the 'sins' of his earlier days...don't know if it was this guys stupidity, republicanism or alcoholism, but soon emma dumped him! oh, wait don't need to go there...

    in college I read the book 'anti-intellectualism in american life' by richard hofstadter (think it was written in the late 60s) it had a powerful impact on my thinking - seems that being dumb has been 'cool' for a looooong time in america! ...I should try and find this book and skim it see if it still holds up, I expect it's buried in one of boxes of books in the attic store room (eh, another place I don't want to go!)

  5. unfortunately, not confined to the States either. We had the same phenomenon in Canada with the boys not wanting anyone to know they could speak in real sentences or talk of other things than hockey.
    Same thing is happening here in France with the kids all wanting to ape gangland as depicted on American videos. So: follow the money, right? Some folks are making gazillions by dumbing down other people.
    Can I get back to you on that? :-)

  6. I grew up trying to be invisible and I largely succeeded. I was smart enough, but not so smart as to draw attention to myself.

    One of the high school kids in the store told me today that he recently discovered that Ethiopia is a country. Hopeless.

  7. yup, same over here too. Though - whilst this is more an instinct than based on extensive knowledge - i think its much more true of state schools and comprehensive (hence more true of 'working class' environments) than it is of private schools. And so it contributes to the ongoing and growing economic privilege power class divide... and so it goes...

  8. Striving for the lowest denominator because it's usually a healthy population 'down there'!