February 07, 2008


Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them. By David Anderegg, Ph.D. Tarcher/Penguin. $24.95.

      By the time the movie Revenge of the Nerds came along in, fittingly, 1984, nerds were more than 160 years overdue for some sort of vengeance. Psychology professor and private psychotherapist David Anderegg shows how Washington Irving’s 1820 tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” first created for Americans the notion of a bookish, intelligent but socially inept character who is frightened out of his wits and overcome by a decidedly thick bully. Indeed, 35 years before Revenge of the Nerds, Ichabod Crane was terrified and chased out of town by Brom Bones very effectively in a Disney animated feature called The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which undoubtedly seemed harmless to adults in 1949 but which surely had a chilling effect on budding young booklovers.

      This sort of thing helps explain why Anderegg suggests, quite seriously, that Irving’s story should not be taught until college – it could do too much damage to younger, more impressionable students.

      This is an arguable point – Irving’s style alone takes some of the edge off the story for modern readers – but it is certainly true that nerds have not gotten much respect for a very long time (the three film sequels to Revenge of the Nerds and the TV version notwithstanding). Nerd attacks – psychologically, perhaps often resulting from nerd envy – stem from a deep-seated anti-intellectualism in American life, and unfortunately have even been fueled by some people smart enough to have known better: Anderegg points out that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1837 speech, “The American Scholar,” was an academic affirmation of the notion that the value of Americans lies in being people of action, not thoughtfulness.

      This prejudice – and it is most decidedly a prejudice – persists today, and causes severe emotional trouble for some young people, including the ones Anderegg has seen in his private practice in Massachusetts. Kids as young as age five or six can be excluded from the “in” crowd by virtue of their interests (math, technology), appearance (eyeglasses alone may be enough), and failure to do what everyone else does (team sports, for example). The ostracism can be traumatic for sensitive children – and it has troubling societal implications as well as personal ones. Anderegg suggests that the 19th-century stereotype of nerds as inferior to brawny men of action, which could actually have made a certain kind of sense during the days of Manifest Destiny and the push westward, persists today from a feeling of discomfiture. It is true that big-time sports figures who are known for brawn but decidedly not for brains make lots of money – the National Football League fields 22 millionaires at every game – but the power in society has moved decidedly in the direction of nerds, most notably in the person of Bill Gates, the world’s richest man. Thus, the disdain for nerdiness – specifically, for immersion in math, science, technology and other “unsexy” subjects – has significant negative consequences for U.S. society. After all, we now live in a world where knowledge really is power, and if companies cannot get the brain power they need within the United States, they will find it elsewhere. Anderegg’s note that U.S colleges graduated more sports-exercise majors in 2004 than electrical engineers is sobering.

      What can be done? It’s not enough to delay teaching “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In fact, dislike of nerds now seems to be only part of the deep anti-intellectual strain in the United States, where a vast number of people – perhaps half the population – believes humans were created fewer than 10,000 years ago and evolution is bunk. Anderegg has no simple solutions, which means (in practical terms) that he has none at all. “Changing popular culture is not easy. It requires, first, a recognition on the part of a majority of people that the popular culture needs to be changed.” This is the culture that currently vilifies nerds and, indeed, is often contemptuous of education in general (kids who focus on books are labeled “uncool” at exactly the ages when being cool is the most important thing in life). Anderegg eventually says that change needs to begin at home, and offers some modest ways in which it can. They are good ideas, but they are not enough. Anti-intellectualism, of which anti-nerd sentiment is an element, is alive and well in the U.S. today. The ultimate revenge of at least some nerds may have to involve taking their brains and skills somewhere else.

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