David Anderegg

David Anderegg Ph.D.

Young Americans

A Rising Tide Sinks All Boats

A look at why American kids can't seem to master science and math.

Posted Apr 25, 2008

If you read today's New York Times, you might have noticed that this week is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the report on our nation's schools entitled "A Nation at Risk."

The country went all wobbly in 1983 about what the report described as the “rising tide of mediocrity” in educational achievement: people got really worried about what our kids didn't know.

As a response to that wave of national concern, then-President George Bush signed an heroic resolution in 1990: "By the year 2000, United States students will be the first in the world in mathematics and science achievement." Given the dismal results of the last 25 years, it is probably not surprising that no heroic resolutions seem to be forthcoming from any quarter. Other than failed educational initiatives, what’s new in the last 25 years? Is there anything that might account for our kids’ continuing incompetence, especially in science and math?

Well, let’s answer that question with a question. Have you seen “Beauty and the Geek”? If you’re not a devotee of “reality” television, you may have missed this lovely little show. It’s the one where young Americans are portrayed as coming in exactly two varieties: smart and hideously unattractive, or beautiful and dumb as a box of rocks. The “geeks” are labeled with identifiers under their names, like “Perfect SAT scores,” or “Biomechanical engineer” as if these factoids were enough to establish what the show goes on to demonstrate: people who excel in science and math have no hope of getting a date. (This week, the show actually televised one of the "geeks" picking his nose.) The “beauties” come off just as poorly, shamelessly reifying every blonde joke you’re ever heard. The "geeks" are usually guys, and the "beauties" are girls. But one thing that is new in the last twenty-five years is that kids of both genders face relentless pressure from contemporary media to be “hot, ” and they face relentless vilification if they are “not.” If math and science are the royal road to nerdity, as “Beauty and the Geek” so baldly states, why would any kid ever want to go there?

Of course, anti-intellectual prejudice doesn’t stop real intellectual achievers: presumably the “geeks” on television persist in their careers despite the disparagement they encounter. The real damage from nerd and geek stereotypes might be to those middle-of-the-road kids, the kids who might take an interest in math or science but who, because they watch too much television, think that math and science are social poison.

As pediatric studies have conclusively demonstrated, television watching is inversely proportional to grades in middle and high school. Maybe it’s not just about time for homework: maybe it’s the constant drumbeat of stereotyping that tells kids they must be “beauties” or “geeks,” but they cannot be both.

Etymologists of slang tell us that the term “nerd” first appeared in print in 1953, but it did not gain national currency until it was repeated over and over by none other than “the Fonz” on the popular sitcom “Happy Days.” The show ran from the years 1974-1984, right around the same time the “rising tide of mediocrity” started lapping at our kids’ ankles. Is there a connection? You do the math.