Monday, January 07, 2019

But What If You Like Being A Nerd?

One of my Christmas presents was a book with the bemusing title Nerds:  How Dorks, Dweebs, Technies, and Trekkies Can Save America.  The author, David Anderegg, is a child psychologist who is concerned that the near-universal prejudice against nerds, especially in junior high schools, is depriving the nation of talented people who steer away from math, science, engineering, and other technical subjects even though they may like them and be good at them.  Why?  Because these about-to-be-teenagers are deathly afraid of turning into that social monstrosity called a nerd. 

In his examination of nerd-dom—its meaning, ramifications, and how preteens fear the nerd label even before they have a clear understanding of what it is—Anderegg says the bias against nerds is every bit as harmful as racial bias.  The days are long past when American schools would allow white kids to taunt black kids just because they were black.  But every day in schoolyards all across the country, popular kids use the word "nerd" to demean studious, high-performing, or otherwise eccentric classmates.  And those classmates accused of being nerds, especially if they are in the psychologically vulnerable age group around 8 to 14, quite often change their behavior to be perceived as less nerdy, even if it means purposely doing less math homework or dropping their interest in a physics science fair project.  And Anderegg rightly regards this as a tragedy.

I have more than a passing interest in this book, because I could have been literally the poster child for nerdism when I was that age.  In my senior year in high school, I became known as the Nerd Express for my habit of zooming as fast as possible from one class to another.  A photographer for the high-school annual stationed herself at a corner of a hallway where I was known to pass by at a certain time of day, and snapped a picture that National Lampoon could have used for their famous "Are You A Nurd?" poster of the early 1970s (back then the spelling hadn't been standardized yet).  Out of eighteen highlighted nerd characteristics their poster pointed out—things like high-water pants, plastic-rimmed glasses, and a slide-rule case strapped to my belt—I scored on about thirteen of them.  I can't remember exactly what my reaction was the day I saw that poster for the first time in a college dorm, but it was probably something as mild as, "So?"

You see, I wanted to be a nerd.  When my parents took me to the eye doctor at the age of ten and found out I needed glasses, I was thrilled.  All the smart lab-coated scientists in TV shows and science-fiction movies wore glasses, and I was tickled to be joining their ranks, even if it was only opthalmologically.  For whatever reason, I never felt inhibited by accusations of being nerdy or weird—I kind of liked being regarded in those terms, actually.  I hung out with a few friends that had similar interests, as my high school was large enough to have several kids interested in electronics and science.  And once I went to college, well, Caltech had probably the highest concentration of ages 18-to-21 nerds on the West Coast.  So I fit right in. 

Anderegg says that there is a spectrum of nerdishness ranging from hard-core types like me who do not give a flip about accusations of being a nerd, to a larger group of marginal nerds who are still trying to decide what their adult personalities will be.  He's not concerned about the small hard-core group who latch on to microbiology or mathematics at the age of eleven and plow straight on thereafter.  They will succeed no matter what their peers call them.

Instead, he's worried that the larger group of pre-teens who are naturally inclined toward math and other "harrd" subjects, as he puts it, will encounter so much flak in the form of nerd taunting and teasing, that they will drop their budding interests in technical subjects rather than suffering the slings and arrows of being called a nerd.  And he has more than one anecdotal incident gleaned from his child-psychology practice showing that this really happens.

His solutions to the problem involve a deep cultural change that one book alone will not achieve.  But it begins with the recognition that the nerd trope is not just a harmless and amusing label that we put on people who will always succeed in any case.  Especially for pre-teenage kids, being called a nerd can be a deeply disturbing and isolating thing, at an age when the pressure to fit in and be regarded as one of the crowd is intense. 

He calls on parents to avoid stereotyping other adults as nerds, because children will perceive attitudes that we may not fully understand ourselves.  Parents who are themselves nerds may need help in dealing with their children who get taunted as nerds, because as adults we tend to forget how serious and even painful peer interactions can be.  Even things as trivial-sounding as what kind of pants a boy wears to school can result in horrific social ostracizing, and sometimes a reasonable compromise does wonders for the child's outlook on life, even if it goes against a nerd parent's principles. 

Looking to the wider culture, TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and its progeny propagate the stereotype that brainy people are either ugly, socially inept, sexually unattractive, or a combination of the above.  It's hard to imagine how a society completely shorn of stereotypes would have much in the way of humor, but I see his point that a show whose basic presuppositions are based on the nerd stereotype doesn't help the situation. 

If we want more young people to enter "harrd" technically intense fields such as engineering, we can't keep sending them messages via the nerd trope that they are, by doing so, also dooming themselves to a sexless and socially isolated existence.  The next time you're tempted to use the word "nerd," especially around young people, think about what you're really saying and whether you really mean it.  The nerd you save may be your own.

Sources:  Nerds:  How Dorks, Dweebs, Technies, and Trekkies Can Save America by David Anderegg came out in hardcover in 2007, and the paperback edition was published by Tarcher/Penguin in 2011.  Thanks to my wife for finding it for me.  Googling "1970s poster image of nerd" will generally turn up a few copies of the well-known National Lampoon poster of the kid with greasy hair, a slide rule on his belt, and a bulging briefcase in his right hand.  That was me, all right.

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