January 30, 2006

Page 19

One of the meanest tricks the adult world plays on our children is to allow kids to grow up thinking that sports and jocks are important. The primary and secondary school system put a great deal of emphasis on sports, and kids are encouraged to worship sports stars, both national and local. Pep rallies are not given for the math team (Scott placed 3rd and went to the regionals twice in junior high school) or the programming team (likewise in college), but they are held for all of the sports teams, once or twice a year in most cases.

Why is it a trick? Well, think about it. If a kid likes to draw, chances are pretty good that when they grow up, they can become and artist or architect or drafter - some occupation that uses that inclination. If the kid likes to sort pencils, there's all kinds of office work their suited for. If they are a nerd that likes to fiddle with wires and electricity, they can become an electrical/electronic engineer, a computer person, a power-systems expert, or some other highly-skilled (and well-paying field).

What happens to all of those jocks when they grow up? Take a look around - how many slots are open for professional athletes, as a percentage of the population? How many kids are directed into athletic pursuits in secondary school, as a percentage? The numbers are kind of out of whack, aren't they?

Now, we're pretty open about this when we talk about minorities, and how they are deceived about sports as being a route out of the ghetto, but what about the bigger picture? How many people, in general, think that being a sports star in high school is somehow real and important? Yet a few short years later, they have a major collision with reality, and the next thing they know, they're selling life insurance, or used cars, or maybe they got a phys ed degree and a teaching credential, thinking they could teach gym or be a coach, and now they're stuck teaching math and science to the underachievers in junior high, because there's a big mismatch between the need for jocks in the real world and the supply of them our school systems are producing.

Yet we continue to worship the jocks and beat up the geeks. No wonder the countries of the world where that isn't true, where they have no such streak of anti-elitism, are eating our collective lunch. Japan may not be the club to beat America over the head with, but look at outsourcing to India and to China. Look at how many engineers and scientists are being graduated from schools in those countries, and realize that our educational system can't even master teaching basic literacy to our immigrant population.

When smart people grow up, they go in one of two major directions when it comes to how they relate to other smart people. If they have bought into the mythos that the jocks and the pretty people are the "best," and have bought into the ethos of anti-elitism, they are filled with loathing for themselves and for other smart, nerdy people. These sorts of people are insecure, territorial, and heavily invested in trying to show off to the cliques they weren't able to crack in secondary school. They are frequently vicious, and in general they just aren't that good. They and the jocks and cheerleaders can infest an organization, but they aren't as important as they think they are. They don't create new things, they don't do important work, as they are trying hard to hold onto the status quo.

If a kid has been told, when growing up, that they're OK as they are, no matter what those other people think of them, when they do grow up, they come to realize that the world outside of school has flipped around. What seemed important in school no longer is, and the people who were (self-)important then are nobodies now. That kid, grown up, likes to associate with other smart and nerdy people, the smarter the better. These are the people who head to places like Silicon Valley, not simply because they want the opportunities that are there, but because they want to associate with a lot of other people like them.

A long time ago, it actually was important to be faster and stronger than the other guy, because you were physically competing directly for the same source of food. That's a long, long time in the past, and those skills are no longer relevant in today's world. In the sort of heavily specialized society we have today, where the important competition is among ideas, the person who is best suited at working with ideas is the most successful. Posted by scott at January 30, 2006 03:38 PM