Nerds is a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it to parents of kids who've been teased for being nerds, and those who haven't. He has a few main points. In our anti-intellectual culture, nerds (often so labeled for being socially un-self-conscious, and deeply interested in things other people deem weird or hard like math) are the low end of the social totem pole. Kids learn that being a nerd means, by definition, that you are unattractive to people and will likely never win over members of the opposite sex. The most gifted mathematicians will pursue their gifts anyway. But kids on the margins might shun such subjects in order to maintain their social standing. By the time they get to late high school and realize it's all silly -- and that you need a lot of math to get the best jobs in society -- it's too late.
Anderegg also probes the depths of the nerd and jock archetypes, criticizing the Legend of Sleepy Hollow for giving us the weird bookish character of Ichabod Crane, and wondering if Pres. Bush's habit of giving reporters nicknames won over these former nerds during his first election campaign. He takes on the ease with which amateur psychologists diagnose Asperger's syndrome, and pleas for parents to stop putting down "nerdy" kids in their own conversations. We asked him a few questions:
LV: In your book, you note that "nerds" are a particularly American phenomenon. Why is that? Certainly not just because of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow! I would venture to say most people haven't read the book.
Anderegg: I argue that the concept of “nerds” vs. “jocks” fits right over a much older American idea, an idea as old as our country: that of the practical, upright, physical and “natural” American kind of intelligence that was opposed to an older, desiccated, European book-based intelligence. This idea is enshrined in much of early American letters, including, for example, Emerson's famous address “The American Scholar” as well as popular works like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
People make fun of "nerds" who would never make fun of, say, African Americans. But is there a racial element, when it comes to Asian Americans? You note that there are no popular Asian rock stars, possibly because of the nerd stereotype.
Asian Americans are often seen as “nerdy,” probably because of their supposed attachment to pleasing adults. Among kids, especially younger kids, being “nerdy” is associated with doing what adults want you to do (homework being one, but only one, of the things that adults want you to do). So kids who do what they are supposed to do get the label. Asian kids are often seen as being attached to the good opinions of adults: being what used to be called a “goody-goody” and being a “nerd” are very close in many kids’ eyes.
You posit that
Popular culture has become more sexualized for kids. I argue that as kids, both boys and girls, become more indoctrinated about how important it is to be “hot,” anything that contributes to them being seen as “not hot” will be shunned. Girls have always been taught that being smart is not sexy; the difference is that, in a hyper-sexualized popular culture, boys are now getting that message as well. If you haven’t ever watched “Beauty and the Geek,” watch it and you'll see what I mean.
Can girls be nerds?
Girls can have the attributes of nerds but the nerd stereotype is pretty exclusively male. If you ask people to describe a prototypical nerd, 99 out of 100 will describe a male.
Asperger’s seems to have become the nerd-disease. Why do people like to “diagnose” improbable people (such as Bill Gates) with Asperger's?
The concept of "spectrum disorders" is popular, and scientifically valid. Asperger's Disease is seen as being the upper end of the autism spectrum. But no one seems to know where the spectrum ends and normal variation begins. Normality is not a point; it is also a spectrum, and Americans have very little understanding of the idea of normal variation: people can have varying degrees of eye contact, for example, and still be normal. So any little quirk is now described as a “touch of Asperger's.”
Has Harry Potter made it socially safe for kids to be interested in wizards again?
Would the culture change if there were, say, a TV show featuring a lot of hot mathematicians? Certainly a lot of our richest folks these days – hedge fund managers – are mathematicians. And they get hot dates. Does this change anything?
We have a long way to go on that one. There is a TV show called “Numb3rs” which features a hot mathematician, and it helps. But historians of popular culture have noted that, until very recently, almost every
What can parents do if their kids are being teased because of nerdiness?
Kids who are labeled as nerds need peers. Parents can find other kids who share their own kids’ interests: chess clubs, summer camps where kids do computer programming, etc. Once nerd-labeled kids know they have peers, they feel a lot better: they can always stay in touch via e-mail, even with summer camp friends. Nerd-labeled kids also need to be reminded that their own peers will outgrow their rigid conformity: by the end of high school, most of this stuff goes away. Parents can also help nerd-labeled kids go underground: it’s not the end of the world to get your kid contact lenses and help him dress like the other kids. If it feels like a disguise, so what? It can be explained as a useful disguise...like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility.