NERDS: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them
by David Anderegg, Ph.D.

When I got to graduate school, I made short work of befriending the hackers among the composition crowd. This small group of NWErds often recognized one another across campus with a time-honored full-throated holler, NERD! But of course we recognized both parts of our own identities as nerds: that we were nerds, and we decided we were awesome because of it.

David Anderegg writes a compelling discussion of the idea of nerds and geeks as they get promulgated from high school down to middle and late elementary school culture. Where high schoolers might recognize the potential for a bit more leeway in one’s personality, middle schoolers see the world in terms of black and white, cool and uncool, “pop” and nerd. Of course, none of this is news.

What makes Anderegg’s book so interesting is the line he draws between various conclusions that immature minds draw when they begin to learn the nerd stereotype:

  1. Nerds are losers (ipso facto), so you don’t want to be one. Nerds don’t get laid.
  2. Nerds like science and math, and like pleasing grownups by doing well in school.
  3. If I want to get laid and don’t want to be a nerd, I’d better not be good at science and math.

He weaves this narrative among discussions of the Man of Action/Man of Reason dichotomy and the American history of anti-intellectualism, but ultimately he’s talking about the three points above. A couple additional interesting bits:

  • Anderegg’s concern lies more for the kids in the middle, smart kids who aren’t automatically pegged as nerds by their classmates. He says that nerds themselves are usually unselfconscious enough that they maintain their interest in science and math long enough, but that borderline kids shy away from “nerdy” classes like science and math and, by the time they discover the value those courses hold for future careers, have missed the boat.
  • As a society, we reaffirm the nerd stereotype in many ways, but it has a strange shape: he contrasts Star Trek fans with people who play fantasy football or sew fishing flies. Only the first group would automatically be labeled nerds, despite the fact that all three have intense interest in arcane subjects most people find boring.
  • Anderegg discusses Autism and its star-of-the-moment cousin, Asperger’s Syndrome, as way over-diagnosed and damaging to popular ideas about smart kids. Whenever someone’s a little different, we often label them whether or not they have any real functional impairment.
  • The last section of the book also tackles the question of adults — why do normal adults, people who understand and respect intelligence, still revile nerds? (Jealousy, fear, anxiety, striving for youth)

It’s an interesting read, and worth it if you’re an educator or a parent of a kid who will likely be smart (and who doesn’t believe their kid will likely be smart?). I know this will stay with me for a while.

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