OUR CORNER: It’s time to turn geeky into ‘cool’

While I consider myself more of a wordsmith, once in a blue moon I’ll do something to exercise the left side of my brain.

While I consider myself more of a wordsmith, once in a blue moon I’ll do something to exercise the left side of my brain. Sometimes this will be sudoku, sometimes a math workbook and, at its most fun, a game-building guide that lets me make my own video games.

Though none of these have a direct benefit to my career, I like doing them because they are like mental spring cleaning. My thoughts adopt an organization, lucidity and ability to prioritize that did not exist before.

One of the most heinous pieces of misinformation in education, I think, is the idea that there are “right-brained” and “left-brained” people and that there is little point for a person of one persuasion to pursue interests in the other. I know the underlying concept originated in good brain science, but I don’t know how it became a popular rule of thumb: probably from a clever high school student that didn’t want to do his math homework anymore.

An even more heinous idea of separation is that there is school work and social life/sports/fun, and that the ideas coexist but rarely mingle. In this view, school work is a necessary evil in order to experience dances, friends and everything life is really about.

This is not only wrong, it’s dangerous and dangerously seductive. From middle school through college, kids come into their own socially and it is often easier to unite against the hardship of work, mingling in misery, than it is to accomplish and celebrate each other’s accomplishments.

I attended a high school in Orange County, California, a strange and affluent bubble closely associated with business conservatism, the Ayn Rand Institute and the idea that anything outside the gated community was “ghetto.” Academic achievements were recognized in truly grandiose awards ceremonies that I’ve seen nowhere else.

And yet there was a definite split among students. I have noticed that the children of successful families go one of two ways: they either become achievement-oriented and successful themselves, or they become lazy for want of nothing and spend time cutting class and partying in local parking lots. The achievement-oriented kids spoke condescendingly about the other side, but many of them seemed to be jealous of their “freedom” and didn’t look upon their high school accomplishments as being “real,” that there was a “real world” that they weren’t experiencing because they were too busy doing things.

How do we fix this? I think the obvious answer is to make being achievement-oriented – even geeky – cool. But this presents another problem. Cool is by and large a bottom-up phenomena, so to make geekiness cool, kids have to believe it is cool.

For schools, this means not only celebrating academic achievement in award ceremonies, it means celebrating such achievement every day.

For parents, it means monopolizing kids’ free time with smart activities.

Last summer, I was fortunate enough to be hired onto the instructional staff of the University of Washington Tacoma’s MSL program – that’s Math, Science and Leadership. The program is a four-week day camp (though program coordinator Adrienne Ione hates calling it camp) focusing on seventh- though12th-grade students who either belong to groups underrepresented in math and science fields, or will be the first member of their family attending college. During the school year, the program checks in once a month and a student who attends the program for all eligible grades has essentially completed an additional year of school.

The work is vital because these are groups underrepresented among college-bound teens. They are smart enough to be accepted into the program, but they may not come from a social group that emphasizes academic achievement. Hence, most of them are the swing group in the schism between achievement-oriented students and underachievers. One parent confided in me that many of the MSL students would be hanging out in the streets if they didn’t have the program.

There was a lot of resistance. Many of the kids were made to attend by their parents. They would rather do anything with their summer than go to school. From the instructor side, every other day seemed to bring some fresh hell to deal with.

It was the most difficult, frustrating and ultimately rewarding job I’ve ever had, because a funny thing happened. By the third week, the student who would rather be playing Halo was absorbed in programming a Lego robot or designing a building in Google SketchUp. The student who would rather be at basketball camp had designed an experiment measuring human exercise capacity. And though they’ll never say it to your face, they might secretly tell another instructor that they think you’re cool.

And if that means it’s become a little bit more cool for them to be geeky, that’s alright in my book.

More in Opinion

Supreme Court resets the playing field

The ruling on the Masterpiece Bakery v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case wasn’t a win for the right or a loss for the left; it’s a chance to do things right the second time around.

Supreme Court ruling shows sanity, moderation

The 14th Amendment equal protection clause does not negate the First Amendment religious freedom clause.

Initiative signatures are the new greenbacks

As of Wednesday, June 6, petitions for four statewide initiatives were getting circulated.

Public record battle brings in a mediator

A taskforce is also being put together, but it’s not clear who will be on it.

One almond latte, if you please | Wally’s World

There was a time in the distant past when a friend and… Continue reading

Eyman risking retirement funds on car tab initiative

Will the $500,000 investment be enough to get the initiative on a ballot?

U.S. isn’t the only nation flirting with trade wars

There’s another brewing between Alberta and British Columbia.

I wish I could stay in Enumclaw | Guest Columnist

There is a kindness and decency and desire to be a community in Enumclaw.

We live in frightening times

Our country is being torn apart from limb to limb, coast to coast.

Voting habits tied to feelings of security

The dangers of authoritarianism are a far greater threat to the nation than seeing rising racial equality and religious diversity brought about by immigration.

Gun rights advocates won the battle, but may lose the war

NRA leaders will need to decide if it’s worth putting resources into a fight in a Left Coast state versus investing in efforts to keep Republicans in control of Congress to prevent ideas like this initiative from becoming federal law.

Trump not accomplishing as much as supporters think

This is in response to Craig Chilton’s letter claiming Trump’s presidency is not a mistake because of all of his “accomplishments,” 81 signed pieces of legislation.