Book Report: Nerds

In September of 1982, I started my first day at Ramona Junior High School in Chino, CA. First period PE was pretty uneventful, since we didn’t have to dress out for that initial meeting. My best friend Aaron and I stood around and talked about Intellivision Baseball, if I remember correctly. World History during second period was close to the PE lockers and went pretty much as expected too.

But right after that second hour, Aaron and I looked on the map we’d been given and noticed that third period English was completely on the other side of campus. Not wanting to be late on the first day, we did what came to what seemed like a really natural conclusion at the time: we ran.

What we failed to take into account was the scale of the map and that it really wasn’t that great a distance to cover in 5 minutes. This wasn’t lost on Tim, who would prove himself to be the coolest kid in 7th grade over the coming months. He casually strolled into class as the tardy bell rang with a smug look on his face and the collar on his Polo shirt flipped, a wake of girls swooning by his mere presence. The previous year, Aaron and I had been smart kids in a 6th grade class where we spent the whole day in one room and everybody seemed to get along with everybody else just fine. As we would soon discover, though, we would be redefined as nerds at Ramona and be the target of stereotypical teasing.

This social phenomenon that hits most American kids at this same age, and the damage it has done manifesting itself as a shrinking workforce of U.S.-reared workers with strong math and science backgrounds, is covered in great detail in David Anderegg’s Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them.

The decline in math and science proficiency among U.S. students is well documented and government has responded by throwing a lot of money at the problem to improve education in these areas. A veteran child psychologist, Anderegg’s central theme in Nerds is that the problem is largely based in the way Americans treat intellectualism and all the improved instruction in the world won’t solve it. He very effectively argues that the training required for a strong enough background in math and science once a young person enters college begins at a time in their education where many are ridiculed for showing a talent in these exact areas.

In other words, you can’t pass the Calculus AP test when you’re a high school senior unless you start doing algebra in junior high and if you understand algebra in junior high, you get made fun of for being a nerd so fewer kids get into algebra in junior high.

As you may have guessed from the beginning anecdote, this premise particularly resonated with me because it was echoed in my own experience. The numerous stories that Anderegg repeats from his practice as a child psychologist, like the 9 year old who gets teased simply for wearing glasses or the 8th grader who gets tormented for wearing sweat pants instead of jeans, are very familiar to me. Somewhere in my subconsciousness, Raynard (who’s junior high coolness was derived from the fact that his brother was the star of the high school football team) is still verbally abusing me in 7th grade for wearing Wrangler jeans (complete with the big W on the rear pockets) instead of Levi 501’s.

Nerds attempts to find out why these attitudes are tolerated by exploring a variety of social phenomena. Early on, Anderegg theorizes that anti-intellectualism in America began as far back as Ichabod Crane, who gets run out of town after losing the girl of his dreams to Man of Action, Brom Bones. Despite mechanical aptitude being seen as a virtue in the 20th century, technical prowess isn’t seen similarly today, which Nerds attributes at least in part to the conceptual nature of more recent advantages, noting that you used to be able to have to fix a car in the early part of the last 100 years in order to be able to drive one but that isn’t the case with your Tivo.

In the end, Anderegg best sums up the social delima as follows:

“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. These are the kids in the middle, who could go either way, but don’t seem to be going the nerd way. As we have seen, math and science achievement in schools keeps dropping, and math and science majors in college are disappearing. It doesn’t require a rocket scientist to suggest that there might be a link between a virulently anti-intellectual, and especially antiscientific, popular culture and the alarming diminution of science literacy among American kids.”

Two of the several remedies he suggests resonated with me, as I found that’s what got me through it all:

  • Look to the future – It won’t always be a world full of cruel taunts. Eventually, the nerds get even and get better jobs (see Gates, Bill).
  • Find a subculture – There’s strength in numbers. Find others like you and the teasing comes a little less often and you’ll find a friendly environment to grow in.

There are lots of other approaches, of course, but the overall point is that the more we help kids experiencing social ills because they are smart, the better off we’ll be in the future.

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One Response to “Book Report: Nerds”

  1. Book Report: The World is Flat | Nerd Guru Says:

    […] software development jobs, but goes as far to suggest that the day when reservations at the local Olive Garden are taken by an offshore call center aren’t too far […]

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