One of the funniest characters in the 1984 movie, Revenge of the Nerds, was the uncoordinated and absent-minded Arnold Poindexter. He wore thick glasses, but still couldn't see well.
We've had plenty of laughs at the expense of the Poindexters of the world, studious fellows with Coke-bottle glasses, wearing pants that are too tight and too short, a pocket protector, and an ever-present social awkwardness. As we mature, we move beyond crude stereotypes and realize we all have a bit of nerdiness, geekishness, or jockishness in us.
Such nerd humor, while harmless for adults, isn't so harmless for children. In Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them, David Anderegg, a child and family psychologist, declares that the nerd/geek stereotype negatively affects children and contributes to anti-intellectualism in America.
Drawing from interviews with patients, various studies and theories, and other sources, Anderegg traces the development of the nerd stereotype, which he says is distinctly American. He examines what kids think of the stereotype and proposes how we can mitigate the damage it has caused.
So, what is a nerd? Anderegg proffers the “Five Foundations of Nerdiness”: unsexy, interested in technology, not interested in personal appearance, enthused about things that bore other people, and persecuted by jocks.
Nerd-labeled kids are laughed at and picked on, and nobody wants to be the butt of jokes. Young people learn at an early age that being smart isn't a good thing. Some end up avoiding nerdy traits like reading, studying, and pursuing unusual hobbies. They prefer to play dumb to be accepted by peers. The implications of nerd aversion are far-reaching.
Anderegg notes that international math and science test scores for American 15-year-olds rank near the bottom among most developed countries. Fewer American kids are choosing math and science majors in college and graduate programs, compared to kids from other countries.
The problem begins early and impacts the nation on a global scale. The cultural message is that nerds are "ugly sexual failures." As kids become more sexually aware during the middle school years, Anderegg asks, "[S]hould we be surprised that middle school kids, both girls and boys, don't want to study math?"
Tracing the nerd stereotype back to America's literary days of the early 19th century, Anderegg illustrates the point with Washington Irving's well-known short story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." The bookish Ichabod Crane, "America's first nerd," is run out of town by the brawny "Brom Bones," his romantic rival. The story's not-so-subtle message is that book learnin' is for losers, and the jock always gets the girl.
Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous 1837 Harvard College address, "The American Scholar" reinforced the brawn-over-brain theme. This speech, contends Anderegg, "gives voice in the loftiest academic diction to a repeated theme in American history: that Americas are, first and foremost, men of action, not men of reflection."
This “men of action/men of reflection” dichotomy may have been important to America's pioneering spirit in the 19th century, but it hinders us in the 21st century. If America has any hope of increasing the number of native-born science and engineering students and stopping the outsourcing of science and engineering jobs anytime soon, children must also learn to value being reflection.
All is not lost. Anderegg acknowledges that not every kid is harmed by the nerd/geek stereotype. "[W]e might expect that kids with great ego strength and supportive families might be annoyed by being called nerds or geeks, but they won't suffer any long-lasting damage…The kids who will really be hurt by nerd/geek stereotypes are the kids who will shut down parts of themselves in order to fit in."
Parents of nerd-labeled kids who aren't coping well can lend support and combat the nerd/geek stereotype. A sampling of Anderegg's suggestions include teaching children that using stereotypes is lazy, turning off TV shows that "explicitly denigrate intelligence," helping kids find like-minded peers to hang out with, and at the same time, helping them blend in by getting contact lenses if they want them, because "kids really do need to live through seventh grade."
Although Nerds focuses on the nerd stereotype, these suggestions can be applied to children labeled dumb jocks or beauty queens. By rigidly and negatively stereotyping one another, we end up overlooking the broad range of characteristics that make each of us wonderfully unique.