What Are We Going to Do About Schools?

Steven Gambardella
12 min readMar 1, 2024
The Breakfast Club’s archetypal characters are heroes because they finally come to terms with the absurd situation they are in. (image: Universal Pictures publicity, fair use)

In a notorious 2003 essay, entrepreneur and self-proclaimed nerd Paul Graham addresses a question that few would ever think to ask — Why are nerds unpopular?

In answering such a simple, but surprising, question, Graham guides us through a series of widening concentric circles as he addresses nerdom, high school social dynamics, the schooling system, suburbia, society, and finally the economy. It’s a personal, poignant, analytical, pointed, and benevolent read, breathtaking in its scope and reach, its intriguing twists and turns.

Graham comes to the conclusion that nerds are unpopular because the schooling system is fundamentally broken. When he pulls us back to take a cold hard look at the schooling system, we see that the endemic cruelty we all witnessed as young people isn’t inevitable.

But let’s focus on the immediate concerns of the question before we unpack the rest. Why exactly are nerds unpopular? What exactly marks the nerd out in this way?

The distinguishing feature of being a nerd is being intelligent. “There is a strong correlation between being smart and being a nerd,” Graham writes, “and an even stronger inverse correlation between being a nerd and being popular. Being smart seems to make you unpopular.”