Thursday, January 24, 2008

Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them

Today we welcome to Gifted Exchange author David Anderegg, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Bennington College in Vermont. Anderegg also maintains a private psychotherapy practice in which he sees many children struggling to fit in to the rather rigid social systems school kids create for themselves. He recently wrote the book Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them about his experience with this particularly nasty stereotype.

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 America's mediocre performance on international comparisons in math and science can be laid directly at the feet of the “nerd” stereotype that implies that people who are good at math and science are unlovable. We've been first in the world before; what changed?

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?

Maybe. The movies help. For many kids, interest in anything that requires a lot of effort (like reading a 700-page Harry Potter book) makes one automatically a nerd. That's why interest in The Lord of the Rings used to be a badge of nerdiness as well. But now that both these fantasy productions are movies, it’s easier for more kids to be interested, and the stories have lost a lot of the nerdiness that used to attach to them.

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 Hollywood movie ever made which featured a mathematician depicted that character as criminal or insane or both, usually both.

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 Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility.


Anonymous said...

I just want to comment that I find nothing more attractive than an incredibly intelligent man. The smarter the better. I don't care if he is a 'nerd.' I'm in the minority, but I'm not alone.

Also, it's worth noting that I'm female and never fell under the nerd stereotype--I'm not smart enough.

I do wonder, however, if perhaps I'm more evolved.

joyousmom said...

My husband and I both qualify for Mensa and were teased for being "nerds" in high school. We now have an 8 year old daughter who is profoundly gifted. In our household, being a "nerd" is a badge of honor. We have taught her that being smart is just another part of who she is. So when people at school call her a nerd, she just smiles and says, "Thanks!" She understands that other people think she's a bit strange, but it really doesn't seem to bother her much. We'll see if that changes when she hits adolescence!

Anonymous said...

I agree!
Jocks generally don't age as well as "Nerds" either.
When I met my husband in 1990, strangers thought we were a mis-match. Now, I have a "hot" husband who can also help our kids with accelerated math and science!

Jeremy said...

I like the Harry Potter references in this context (and in the recent post about residential schools). When our oldest daughter was tested for the district's gifted program, it felt like we were Hermione's parents getting the first letter from Hogwarts. Muggle-born!

magpie mom said...

As the mom of gifted child, it's hard to watch as in middle school he is labeled as "nerd". I told him not to label himself. I think if schools would put the emphasis back on academics and not on sports it would help. Our school actually post game scores every day. You can find out if Johnny had 5 goals in the soccer game, and he is praised. But, for my child who is in 6th grade and competes with the 8th grade MathCounts team, there is no recognition. Sad to see the state of our schools and the focus of "education".

Jerry said...

Hello, my name is Jerry and I am the father of one daughter and five sons with the exception of the two baby boys they are all gifted and members or waiting to save there money to become members of mensa. And the thing that I have been dealing with is a public school system that has little to no interest in gifted education especially in the area of Salt Lake we live in (lower income) so what we did was, take our nine and ten year old to the community college here and have them take the math placement test then took the results to the college and local HS and they are able to do HS online with proctored tests at the HS and concurrent enrollment at the college this may help some parents out there. It is hard to understand why my boys were in basic 4th and 5th grade math when they placed in math 1010 Algebra at the CC.

edk said...

It's not just other kids who pick on the gifted (nerds, et al.). Teachers do it too. Check out these comments posted by a woman named Sibyl on another forum:

"You know, I've actually been the victim of a teacher who loathed me and gave me different grades than the rest of the class even if I got the same number of answers right on the tests.

"She enjoyed it when I would answer wrong, because she would let the entire class know that 'Sibyl didn't get all the answers right, even though she is "gifted" and supposed to be smarter than all the rest of you!' She enjoyed trotting out this humiliation on a regular basis. She occasionally made my grades lower because 'You are "gifted" and should therefore be held to a higher standard.'

"My mother went down there and had some angry words with her a couple times, and one day after a particularly bad bit of abuse from this teacher I went crying to the school counselor for help. The nasty old woman cooled down a bit, but she was always rotten to me. The other teachers were appalled by her behavior, but it's pretty hard to get a teacher fired, especially one with so much seniority, so she kept teaching. And abusing."

And, presumably, screwing over (and up) other gifted children. By the way, this was on a childfree forum. I surmise that part of the reason Sibyl doesn't want children is the risk that something like this might happen if her children, too, are gifted. The very people we should be encouraging to have more nerds are choosing not to have any children at all.

MamaCole said...

A friend sent me this post and it's so relevant to me. I think I'd like to read this book!

My son just started middle school on Long Island, in New York. He has always been one of the smartest kids in class. Now, I believe he might be trying NOT to be smart. I think he's distracted by social goals and being smart does not align with being cool.

Sports are so over-emphasized in this school district. And I agree - it's shortsited. After high school who's likely to be more succesful, the top wrestler? or the top Mathlete?

As parents, we know it's all a false world of social norms in Middle and High School.
How do we help our children to understand this?

Heather Annastasia said...

As a form of consciousness-raising, when a kid in a classroom, or my own kids, want to tell me about someone with whom they are smitten, I never ask what they look like. I ask how smart they are. And they're always just as willing to talk about how beautifully their beloved can read a poem or how quickly he or she can solve and equation.

As for the getting picked on...

I'm sure no one is going to agree with me on this one, but hear me out.

By boys (twins) were having problems with another set of twins at school. The other twins were big burly kids, and a good half-a-foot taller than my boys because they had failed a grade (so they were at least a year older as well). The problems ranged from cutting them in line to calling them "bitch" (few bullies I've seen stick to a word as benign as "nerd" these days).

My boys told the teacher many times, but she seemed unwilling to do anything. I told my boys that the teacher can send a kid to the office or make him sit out of recess, but she couldn't make anyone respect them. I told them that unless they wanted to be tormented by bullies for the rest of their school days, they needed to stick up for themselves.

Much to my surprise, the very next day, one of the boys cut my son in the lunch line and my son punched him. Certainly, when the bully ran away, my son should have left it at that, but being caught up in the moment after months of intimidation, he chased the bully out onto the playground and continued to punch him. (He didn't leave a single mark on the bully, but he did make him cry.)

After a week or so of tension, the bully became his friend, and now all four of the boys are friends. What's more, when I subbed in the bully's class for a week, we got a new kid who wouldn't come in the classroom; he was outside clinging to his mother, crying. It was the "bully" who seemed most concerned, telling me about how he had felt coming to a new school and not knowing anyone. I paired the new kid up with him and told him that it was his job to show the new kid the ropes and make him feel at home. He did a great job.

The "bully" was still a handful in the classroom, but it was less meanness and more restless energy. I later found out that the "bully" is gifted himself (but not his twin), which means that next year when they all go to middle school, they'll likely be in the same core GATE classes.

bobo said...

Being nerdy/intellectual and social aren't mutually exclusive, and there is really no reason to undermine a childs adolescent social life by signalling that it is OK to be weird.

In most of the texts I've read recently about nerds and such, there has been a nasty undertone of elitism while arguing not to judge nerds by their awkward behaviour - as if that awkward behaviour was some kind of proof of genius or something. It's strange how rigidly people can believe in lies, just to keep up a big ego.

Aditi said...

This is a bit peculiar in US because in most other cultures, including Asian, I find nerds may be seen as different but are respected and not put down. They are labelled geniuses which could be actually seen as positive.