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Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Plea for Nerdity

I'm one of those mothers. When summertime comes around and what seems like every other kid in existence is putting away the book-learning for three months, I get busy on my son's summer curriculum. You see, I know that kids unlearn a lot of information in those three months if they don't have some sort of educational reinforcement. Besides, my kid, for better or for worse, is just insanely bright, so bright that when they went over the scores of his first intelligence test a little over a year ago at his old school, his teacher, the principal, the guidance counselor, the school psychologist, and my husband and I were dumbfounded. That means that when he is given a consistent amount of material to learn, he just churns right through it. However, if he isn't, he just takes to skimming everything because hell still probably score in the A-to-B range on the test. I like to avoid the lazily skimming, so consistency is the key to the summer months out of school.

To make a long story medium, that is why I found myself standing in front of the education section of my local library, pawing at books. Along with the giant stack I accumulated to satiate my son's "summer school" schedule, I grabbed an additional book whose spine shouted, "Nerd!" at me from the top shelf. As I am the sort of person who enjoys when nerdity is involved, I ended up checking out and hungrily reading through Dr. David Anderegg's Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them.

Being a book written in the early 2000s, the cultural references (and some of his postulating) is a bit dated. However, that does not diminish the importance of this book. Essentially, Anderegg makes the claim (supported by numerous, though with a sometimes “out of it” older-adult spin, examples and references) that the negative association with the nerd (and geek) stereotype, as well as with those habits and subjects deemed as “nerdy” or “geeky,” is the main reason why the American education system cannot seem to better its mediocrity when comparing it to the education systems of other countries around the world.

"We act like it's all in good fun to communicate to our kids that people who are smart and do well in school and like science fiction and computers are also people who smell bad and look ugly and are so repulsive that they are not allowed to have girlfriends. And then we wonder why it's so hard to motivate kids to do well in school." 

 According to Anderegg, America is founded on the idea that it is a nation of “men of action,” while the British culture that the Revolutionary War allowed America to overthrow is a nation consisting primarily of “men of reflection.” Bookworms, in this dichotomy, cannot act. They are confined to their libraries and laboratories, while those men who possess the street smarts, social skills, and attractive dispositions do all the heavy lifting and thus, succeed where booksmart men fail. (“Men” is used here because at the time of America’s inception, women were not allowed to do pretty much anything.) Anderegg cites Ichabod Crane from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as the first fictional representation of the modern nerd sterotype. Note that at the end of the book, it is the strong, manly, not-booksmart Brom who gets the girl (partly by hazing Ichabod into nonexistence).

How this translates into a tween’s mind is fairly simple: Good at book-learning equals unpopular and asexual. (Remember that even in The Breakfast Club, it is the nerd of the bunch who ends up without a love interest.) Thus, when the time comes to decide between grades and popularity, most “normal” kids are going to choose popularity and purposefully not take those math and science classes that would result in overall higher math and science test scores on standardized tests. The nerds, of course, are psyched to take advanced courses and score well on these tests, but they are the minority and (according to their stereotypical form) without friends, significant others, or social grace.

On this premise, Anderegg seems pretty spot on. I know for a fact that my kid has, on numerous occasions, tried to make himself look dumber to fit in with the “normal” kids and the popular crowd (not that he succeeded but he tried), and despite his thus-far absence of eye glasses, he is pretty much the epitome of nerdity. This means that Anderegg might have, in fact, not taken it far enough. Sometimes even the nerds will opt out of learning valuable knowledge in order to seem “cooler.” No wonder American test scores are so far behind other countries that lack the negative nerd sterotype.
Whichever side of the fence you come down on (nerd or normal), I encourage you to pick up a copy of this book and come to an understanding about how the American way of street-smarts over book-smarts just might be destroying the future of our country. It's an iteresting read, if a bit preachy at times.

Speaking of nerds, here's how I won a recent game of Scrabble against the husband and the kid:

Got to love that seven letter 50 point bonus.

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