Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth - An Incredible Non Fiction Book about Bullying and "outsider" status

I cannot say enough good things about The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School by Alexandra Robbins.

If you're a teen dealing with the pressures to fit in... read it.

If you're a parent wanting to support your child... read it.

If you're a teacher or educator and you want a deeper understanding both of what's going on with teens and bullying, and how you can help make things better... read it.

The book is nonfiction, but reads like a great story, following five main individuals from among the thousands of interviews Alexandra did.  It also includes a lot of great research and supporting points.  My copy from the library ended up with tons of sticky note markers and scribbled scraps of paper bookmarks throughout, so I could share just a taste of how great it is. 

Here are some of the moments that really jumped out at me:

"Nothing is more unnerving to the truly conventional than the unashamed misfit."
- J.K. Rowling, as quoted on page 7

“Elementary school taught us that variety is what makes the world beautiful. In high school, variety is weird and conformity is survival.”
- High School Junior Beth Ann, as quoted on page 313

“Being gay sucks because you’re forced into silence. People assume that straight people fall in love and gay people have sex. Even my mother says, ‘I don’t understand why gay people have to come out. It’s none of anyone’s business what you do in bed,’ as if being gay is a fetish or something and only pertains to the bedroom.”
Regan, as quoted on page 93

“At school, Einstein wrote, being bullied gave him “a lively sense of being an outsider.” Although he earned good grades, he was so uncomfortable with the “mechanical,” militaristic teaching style, which was devoid of creativity, that his obvious aversion to it led teachers to push him out of school before graduation... Being an outsider helped Einstein immensely: because he wasn’t accepted into the physics establishment, he had nothing to lose by challenging the status quo… Einstein developed the theory of relativity precisely because of his different way of thinking…”

She quoted a Wired article by Isaacson, “What made Einstein special was his impertinence, his nonconformity, and his distaste for dogma. Einstein’s genius reminds us that a society’s competitive advantage comes not from teaching the multiplication or periodic tables but from nurturing rebels. Grinds have their place, but unruly geeks change the world.” pg. 162-163

“I’m happy to be part of a culture where the guys who were made fun of in high school are now the ones the jocks go to see onstage.” - Pete Wentz, frontman for Fall Out Boy, who said of his high school, “I was pretty outcast, but a lot of it was by choice. I was kind of a geek… I looked weird."  He has been open about his depression and stints in therapy. “I like the idea that everyone can get depressed and that there is a way to get through it.” Said Wentz. pg. 167

And the research Alexandra cites is amazing.

Like this fascinating discussion of group favoritism, and the 1954 Robbers Cave State Park study in Oklahoma. They divided a bunch of eleven year old boys into two groups and how, pitted against each other, the groups became enemies. And perhaps even more interesting, how, after that, once the boys from both groups were teamed up for collaborative projects, they became friendly with each other. pg. 233.

She discusses the special dynamics at work in middle school, when “social circles are most homogenous” and students are “more likely to adhere to group norms and to demand that other group members conform," and when “cyberbullying peaks.” She quotes Concordia University psychology professor William Bukowski as warning, “As this consensus is elusive, the struggles for power within groups may provide nearly perfect conditions for some group members who upset a tenuous consensus to be victimized.” And then add in the complications of puberty on top of all that…
Pg. 246-247

Alexandra also explores “reputational bias” – As she quotes one expert explaining, “popular children acquire a ‘positive halo’ and unpopular children acquire a ‘negative halo,’ which color how their behavior is perceived, evaluated, and responded to by others.” Pg. 252-253

The book is loaded with insights,

Like this quote from Quentin Crisp
“The young always have the same problem – how to rebel and conform at the same time. They solve this problem by defying their parents and copying one another.”

and suggestions of solutions,

“The best way to get a kid to be a leader is to give him something to lead.”
Pg. 303, a Connecticut teacher

“If schools celebrated student scientists the same way they celebrate student athletes, more students would be encouraged to pursue the subject. Instead, science is considered nerdy because schools help students to paint it that way... Schools effectively control which students are eligible to achieve the visibility and recognition that pave the path to perceived popularity. Too often they glorify the wrong people.”

And the book concludes with a gold-mine of suggestions that are so good I have to share just the titles... but you should read the explanations yourself!

What Students can do: 
Know that being different doesn’t mean you’re flawed,
Give everyone a chance,
Keep in mind that loneliness won’t last forever,
Try humor and confidence,
Stop trying to conform,
Find an ally, and
Pursue non-school activities.

What Parents can do:
Remove social status from your list of worries,
Don’t assume you know what your child wants,
Encourage individuality,
Have faith in your child,
Consider switching schools,
Lobby for changes in school

What Schools can do: 
Don’t try to “normalize” outcasts – they’re not in the wrong,
Respect the significance of the cafeteria,
Encourage teachers to offer safe havens,
Create superordinate goals,
Monitor for both kinds of aggression,
Employ social norms strategies,
Treat all groups equally,
Make credit requirements equitable,
Encourage upperclassmen to support new students,
Encourage unexpected introductions,
Facilitate connections rather than imposing friendships,
Offer teachers/advisors of marginalized students the chance to be visible,
Rock the vote,
Don’t punish individuals by rewarding groups,
Reach out,
Fight to promote creativity,
Improve clique relations – among staff,
Confront issues head-on, and
Have a well-known anti-bullying procedure and contact person.

(pages 376-39)

Alexandra finishes with this summation
“Outcasts may be persecuted or shunned, but they are also free… Cafeteria fringe status liberates them from the confines of rigid teen boxes, saving a student the time, energy and frustration of trying to be someone he’s not… Undoubtedly the loneliness that may accompany this freedom can be a heartrending price to pay. But most people are lonely at times. As countless students – like Whitney, like Blue – have indicated to me over the years, just because a student has company doesn’t mean that she’s not lonely. Better to be lonely and real than to hide constantly behind a mask of self-deception. The loneliness will pass.” Pg. 395

"Better to be lonely and real than to hide constantly behind a mask of self-deception.  The loneliness will pass." 

Such wise words.

"The Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth" is an excellent, excellent resource for all of us wanting to end bullying and show kids how to not just survive, but thrive.

I want every teacher (and administrator) in this country to read this book over the summer, and if I could, I'd require it! 



Beth Stilborn said...

This book sounds FANTASTIC! How I wish it had been around when I was growing up. I was a misfit -- and now value highly all the things that made me so.

Thanks so much for this post, Lee!

Anonymous said...

I read this a while ago, and was riveted. My high school years are a good while ago, only to resurface in the "Algebra Test I Didn't Study For" nightmare...
But such a good, smart, well-constructed book! Loved!

Robert Guthrie said...

Fantastic phrase, encouraging us to be misfits! "Nothing is more unnerving to the truly conventional than the unashamed misfit." Thank you IHIQWHDIR & JK.