Ridicule That's Getting On Our Nerds

By Rachel Hartigan Shea,
deputy editor of Book World
Tuesday, January 1, 2008


Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them

By David Anderegg

Tarcher/Penguin. 274 pp. $24.95

On this New Year's Day, spare a thought for the hapless nerd. Clad in too-short, too-tight pants, armed with a pocket protector, glasses firmly taped together and pimples unpopped, the nerds of this nation most likely rang in the New Year with a rousing game of World of Warcraft. They probably didn't even hear the ball drop at midnight.

That is, if there really is such a thing as a nerd. Have you ever actually seen someone wearing a pocket protector? (Where would you even buy one?) And too-short, too-tight pants are the uniform of male fashionistas, not physics majors. As for pimples, well, nobody's pores are perfect.

Nevertheless, the stereotype of the nerd persists -- dangerously so, argues David Anderegg in "Nerds." Indeed, nerds are just about the last group of people it's safe to mock in polite company, which infuriates Anderegg, a professor of psychology at Bennington College in Vermont and a practicing psychotherapist: "We act like it's all in good fun to communicate to our kids that people who are smart and do well in school and like science fiction and computers are also people who smell bad and look ugly and are so repulsive that they are not allowed to have girlfriends. And then we wonder why it's so hard to motivate kids to do well in school." In his breezy book, Anderegg deconstructs the stereotype, traces its history and makes the case that it undermines individual kids and the country as whole.

The nerd stereotype is a peculiarly American prejudice, which Anderegg (with substantial help from historian Richard Hofstadter's "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life") traces back to our nascent literary days. Indeed, he places the blame for American nerd aversion squarely on the shoulders of Washington Irving and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson, in the seminal 1837 speech titled "The American Scholar," gave "voice in the loftiest academic diction to a repeated theme in American history: that Americans are, first and foremost, men of action, not men of reflection." Irving had already put imaginary flesh on those bones, in the person of Ichabod Crane, the awkward scholarly schoolteacher scared out of town by his romantic rival, the pretend pumpkin-head Brom Bones, "a new American type: the anti-intellectual hero." Anderegg very seriously advises that "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" should not be taught until college for the damage it could cause to young psyches.

(It should be noted that another literary icon actually coined the word nerd, which first appeared in 1950 in the completely irrelevant, and typically fantastic, context of Dr. Seuss's "If I Ran the Zoo": "And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo, and bring back an IT-KUTCH, a PREEP, and a PROO, a NERKLE, a NERD, and a SEERSUCKER, too.")

The man-of-action archetype may have served the country well when there was a frontier to be conquered, but it is crippling in this technological age. Pause for a moment to consider this terrifying statistic: "In 2004, we graduated more sports-exercise majors from U.S. colleges than we did electrical engineers." Yes, exercise is important, the foundation of good health, etc., etc., but it's probably not going to keep technology jobs from fleeing to India and China.

So why is a stereotype born of the 19th century so insidious in the 21st? Anderegg lays out a few persuasive reasons. For one thing, the transformation of Emerson and Irving's effete intellectual into the socially awkward, technological whiz reflects our anxiety about how, these days, "the direction of material success as well as power is all on the side of nerds and geeks." One only need look to billionaire Bill Gates, whom Anderegg calls "Nerd Exhibit A." More troubling, though, is that "in a hypersexualized culture," kids, even young ones, denigrate anything that might be viewed as unsexy; nerds and math and science are decidedly unsexy.

Anderegg sprinkles "Nerd" with accounts of conversations he's had with some of his young patients, and it is in these snippets that readers get a sense of how empathetic he is with the children labeled as nerds and even the children doing the labeling. When an elementary school student admits that her new glasses have meant social death -- a crisis that's causing her to get physically sick -- he gently advises her mother to get contacts to help her fit in. He does the same for a middle-schooler whose habit of wearing sweat pants has given his classmates reason to torment him; Anderegg tells the kid's mother to buy the poor boy some jeans just to give him a fighting chance. And when another mother worries about her son's dropping grades in science, while proudly explaining that he's not a nerd, Anderegg delicately points out that she can't mock the kids who do well in that subject and still expect her son to get A's.

Anderegg points out that there's very little research on what effect the nerd stereotype has on how kids learn and interact. (He keeps mentioning areas for study, so much so that one wonders why he didn't take on some of this research himself.) And one may quibble with his narrow definition of the subspecies, as someone who is interested just in science and math. At my middle school (in Nevada, grant you, one of the prouder bastions of anti-intellectualism) anyone who showed enthusiasm for any sort of learning was labeled (or feared being labeled) a nerd. But Anderegg's clear-eyed look at a damaging cultural truism does nerds and jocks -- all Americans, really -- a service.

And so, I say, in the spirit of the New Year, let us all make a resolution to uplift nerds, rather than cut them down. We may all have a little nerd inside us, struggling to be free.

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