Young Americans

American kids and their parents navigating the twenty-first century.

We're number 23!

Why stereotyping nerds and geeks pulls us all down.

Well, the latest PISA results are in! Yes, indeed, America, we're number 23 in international comparisons of science achievement among schoolkids. But take heart- in reading. we're number 17!

In my work on this subject, I keep asking the "why" question. Why is it that despite all our big fancy initiatives, our children are still doing so poorly, compared with kids all over the world, in science and math? My answer to this question is, we vilify nerds and geeks, that's why. Just this week, I gave a talk at the TEDx Brussels conference, the topic of which was "But...who is going to save the world?" We were invited to think big, and so I did. Here's the text of my remarks:


The subject of my talk today is anti-intellectualism in general, and cultural products which instruct us, and more importantly instruct our children, that there is something wrong, sinister, or disgusting about certain kinds of intellectual work. Specifically, my work has been concerned with nerd and geek stereotypes, that is, the cultural channels by which children learn that math and science are not human pursuits...are in fact inhuman pursuits. (In pursuing this line of reasoning, I hope to live up to my occasional reputation as a depressing scold. )

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

One initial caveat: I am talking here about anti-intellectual cultures and their products. There is a great deal of variation in anti-intellectual cultural products across the globe. I am coming from an American experience, living as I do in a deeply and increasingly anti-intellectual culture (for evidence, I give you Sarah Palin). I hope you will forgive my parochialism. But since American cultural products...movies, television, music....are now our most reliable and persistent exports, what you hear about from me today may be what you hear from your own children tomorrow. I have at times argued that although American children are taking a beating in international science and math achievement tests, we have a secret weapon to redress this imbalance: TV shows like The Big Bang Theory or Beauty and the Geek., which, when your children watch them, they will become as ignorant of science and math as our children are. Then we will have caught up, or caught down as the case may be.

How do I know what I am talking about? I spend my days: talking to children and parents. I am a developmental and clinical psychologist, and so children and parents talk to me in relative ease and privacy, and they frequently do me the great honor of telling me what they really think about all sorts of things, including intellectual achievement. I hear stories like the following:

Max, a fourth-grade student, sits in my office talking about school. He is very smart, with two highly educated professional parents, and they are worried about his lack of interest in doing his homework. He remarks in passing that there is a kid in his class who is a real nerd. "Really?" I say. "What do you mean by that?" He looks at me with disdain: don't I know what a nerd is? Yes, I think I do, I say, but I want to know what he thinks. A nerd is someone who always does what he is told. A nerd does well in school because that's what the teachers and parents want. A nerd, is, to Max, the same thing as a suck-up: a kid who is eager to please the authorities. And whatever else Max knows about nerds, he knows he doesn't want to be one.

Or consider the caser of Al, a seventy-year-old grandfather, as he sits in my office talking about the good things in his life. His grandson, Matthew, a joy in all respects. Matthew is an excellent student; he is the smartest kid in his class. He plays the piano like a pro. Thanks to his multinational parents, he is conversant in three languages. But don't get me wrong, Al says; he's not a "nerd." What do you mean, I ask in my innocent voice. Al replies, "He's a real boy- you should see him on the soccer field! And he has tons of friends!"

Of course I understand exactly what these people mean when they say these things. I have been ingrained in this complicated cultural stereotype. But it is complicated, in the way of some other bizarre cultural stereotypes that are hard for outsiders, and children, to learn. For example, when we talk about WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) we are talking about people who drink martinis, wear unspeakable plaid clothing when at play, have oodles of money, and speak in a peculiarly lock-jawed manner about golf and sailing, but never talk about their oodles of money. I know...it's weird, but all Americans know who they are and what their signifiers are, even if they don't really exist in real life: they exist in cultural space, which is where all stereotypes exist.

Nerds exist, so to speak, in the same space. What a nerd is is a complicated thing, and it takes some fairly consistent indoctrination to get it; but once you get it, you get it in all its weird complexity. If you don't get it, some contemporary discourse is completely incomprehensible. For example, a recent news article in my hometown paper featured a description of a game invented in 2005 at Goucher College, an outdoor chase game like tag featuring people pretending to be zombies. After a brief description of the game, the reporter asked a participant, "Is this game only for nerds, or can non-nerds play it as well?" What he meant was, "this sounds rather complicated; is it only played by creepy people who embrace complication, or can we normal people enjoy it as well?" But he didn't need to explain that in the newspaper; everyone who has been sufficiently indoctrinated knows what he meant.

The nerd space usually involves the five cardinal principles of nerdity. When kids are learning the nerd stereotype, they learn the following five things:(a) nerds are unsexy, and have no hope of getting laid; (b) nerds are greatly interested and accomplished in science and technology; (c) nerds are uninterested in their personal appearance; (d) nerds are very enthusiastic about stuff that bores the crap out of everybody else; and (e) nerds are persecuted by non-nerds, sometimes known as jocks. Once kids master this formula, they understand that this is the last thing on earth they might wish to be.

Now, kids are not born knowing this: we, the adult world, teach the content of this complicated stereotype to them. This is the cultural transmission piece: adults teach kids that people who love science and math are unappealing, sexless losers. How exactly does this happen? Let me give you just one example:

These are a pair of "nerd glasses" that I bought at my local toy store about 3 months ago. They help people dress up like a nerd. They also indoctrinate: on the back, there is a helpful quiz entitled "Are you a nerd?" Here are some of the questions: "Did you skip a grade in elementary school?" "Did you get higher than 600 on your math SATs?" "Did you have your very first drink on your twenty-first birthday?" "Was your last intimate relationship in an MMORPG?" These questions indoctrinate the uninitiated into knowing the five cardinal principles of nerdity: by reading this, kids learn that nerds are smart, tech-savvy losers. This is the cultural indoctrination (along with the TV shows) we need to consider.

Now, I know what you are thinking. We know that's ridiculous! We outgrew all that, right? We by the time we got to be young adults, we knew that nerds aren't so bad; they might even be cool (indeed, sometimes young adults dressing like nerds are vilified for trying to too hard to be cool: one might refer to a very popular recent British music video chastising faux hipsters with the phrase: "dressing like a nerd but you didn't get the grades...") I know; have had innumerable conversations with young hipsters who know, they just know, that anti-nerd prejudices are a thing of the past. Yes, they are a thing of the past: your past. When we get to be young adults we know the whole nerd/geek stereotype is a ridiculous cultural trope, but we didn't know that when we were 11 years old. This is where the developmental psychology comes in: when kids are learning this complex stereotype in middle childhood, they are also forming identities about who they are, what they are good at, what they want to be, etc. But 11-year-olds think in rudimentary, un-nuanced categories: the idea of a once-vilified-but-now-cool-because-ironically-embraced identity is beyond them. What 11 year olds know is that they don't want to be caught dead being nerdy. And unfortunately they make decisions- about what to study, about whether they are a "science person" or a "math person"- right about the same time. This is why we need to pay attention: because kids, real kids, make life-changing decisions while in the grip of this stereotype.

Now I know that people with real scientific power, real mathematical talent, like many in this room, were not dissuaded from their life choices by this foolishness. But you probably had powerful social support, from powerful grown-ups in your lives, who supported your interests, and who somehow got you through the lean years when (if you are American or British, or Australian) your interests and abilities meant social death. Nerd stereotypes have little long-term effect on the truly excellent. But the mid-range kids, the ones who need science and math to stay employed in a modern economy, are the ones most brutally affected. In the US at present, unemployment is high, but jobs go unfilled: jobs which require just two years of post-high-school training in science and technology are way beyond the reach of many unemployed Americans....after all, they decided long ago that they just aren't "science people." These are the people being decimated by anti-intellectual stereotypes. These are the people we need to help, for their own well-being and the well-being of our own economies.

We have been invited here today to think big, so I am going to end my remarks with a theory: a theory that bridges the gap between developmental psychology and economic development. Let's call it Anderegg's Postulate of Economic Decline. America, as we often hear, is land of creativity: divergent thinking and inventiveness are our strong suit; we invent the things the world wants because we are encouraged to "think outside the box." If those who celebrate American inventiveness are right, then divergence is an American attitude: an anti-authoritarian enculturation of children in which originality and self-expression are highly prized, leading to the development of inventive adults. But creativity, real creativity, is a combination of convergent and divergent thinking: one needs a solid foundation of facts and domain-specific knowledge combined with a superstructure of divergent thinking. This is just another way of saying you can't be a programming genius if you don't first learn to program.

So my point is, one can take this sort of thing too far. If the enculturation includes a contempt for foundations, a contempt for learning itself, or at least for learning difficult things that one cannot invent on one's own but need to be taught by grown-ups, then the culture itself will cease to be inventive. Nerdiness is, as every child like Max knows, is at its core, a measure of the proper felt relationship between children and grown-ups. Max knows that other American kids, and a lot of American adults, will not like him if he is to interested in pleasing adults. This is known all too well by Asian-American kids, whose close relationships with adult authorities and whose willingness to please their parents makes them the target of relentless nerd-bashing.

So Anderegg's Postulate is about how rapid technological change sows the seeds of its own destruction. In cultures that are changing rapidly, adult authority erodes precipitously. Tech-savvy kids can break rules faster than ever, leaving adults feeling helpless but also feeling ridiculous. In such cultures, everyone, even the adults who should know better, are desperate to appear to be cutting-edge, to appear to be young and sassy: and in their desperation, they embrace a mindless youth culture which erodes their own authority (thus products like the nerd glasses). Complication, discipline...calculus...are too nerdy for people to embrace. But a culture like this cannot sustain creativity on the strength of rule-breaking alone. With little support for children to acquire the knowledge base from which to diverge, one ends up with unprepared people whose major strength is sassiness. One ends up with all sorts of kids like the ones I know: kids who believe they will make a career making video games because they spend so much time playing them. Kids who think they can be professional musicians without knowing how to read music, and without practicing their instrument. Malcolm Gladwell's now-famous 10,000 hour rule- that one can be a genius as a grownup if one spends 10,000 hours practicing one's craft in youth- leaves out the fact that most children do not spend 10,000 hours doing anything without adult encouragement. A truly successful creative culture/society requires a balance between the parental authority required to strongly encourage children to learn basic knowledge and also learn a tolerance for divergence, for valuing originality. Cultures which are out of balance, as the nerd stereotype shows, are cultures in which effort and discipline are devalued by kids and grownups alike: rapid technological change leads to a manic valorization of youth, and therefore all grownups act like, and want to be, children. There then erodes the support for the acquisition of the solid knowledge base from which to creatively diverge.

Who will save the world? Inventive people, who are passionate about their work. Who will foster inventive people? We will, by creating the conditions by which world-savers come into being. Not by desperately kowtowing to youth, not by showing what hip adults we are by devaluing what we ourselves have to offer. We will save the world by finding a proper balance between discipline and divergence. Not by desperately trying to feel young and fun by making fun of nerds. In so doing, we are simply creating a world of people who are too ignorant to be truly inventive.

 

 

 

David Anderegg, Ph.D., is a clinical and developmental psychologist on the faculty of Bennington College and a child therapist in private practice in Lenox, Massachusetts.

more...

Subscribe to Young Americans

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.