Subsidizing Childhood

I've been reading this essay by Paul Graham on the cruel social dynamics of childhood. It's not profound, novel, or surprising, but he gets the overall portrait right: middle-school status hierarchies are self-generating, require full-time effort from those who would be popular, and single out those who cannot commit to such striving for for active persecution.

What caught my eye was the following passage; similar sentiments crop up in a couple of places.

think the important thing about the real world is not that it's populated by adults, but that it's very large, and the things you do have real effects. That's what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.

When the things you do have real effects, it's no longer enough just to be pleasing. It starts to be important to get the right answers, and that's where nerds show to advantage. Bill Gates will of course come to mind. Though notoriously lacking in social skills, he gets the right answers, at least as measured in revenue.

Now, this was a new one on me. The traditional analysis is that the value hierarchies of schools are messed-up because they substitute fairly arbitrary, almost capricious, goals -- being on the football team, say -- for "true" goals, like academic success. The more nuanced version of this analysis points out that even where schools value the "right" things, there is so little they can do to influence students' social systems that football-worship and cliqueishness still prevail.

But Graham is saying something slightly different. He's saying that schoolkids are isolated from the consequences of their actions, particularly the economic consequences. And this is a very interesting line of argument, becuase it very quickly takes you to some very strange places indeed.