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?"