Monday, July 14, 2014

Look! Someone Wrote a Book about the Value of Nerds!

Incoming book review!

This book is an illumination of the problem of the idea of the nerd in America. The author, a developmental psychologist, focuses heavily on how this idea develops in children and then theorizes the effects of this label into adulthood. David Anderegg takes examples from sessions with children, pop culture (media) and college students to analyze what it means to be a nerd and how this definition changes through the adolescent lifecycle. Although the topic of Nerds is quite intellectual, the writing style is not. From an academic standpoint there is less citation than I have become accustomed to, for example, but as Anderegg points out himself on page 255-6, there is little research being done into this topic. This is not a critique of the book however, as it does not appear that academia was Anderegg’s target demographic. In the conclusion Anderegg lists some basic advice to parents specifically and Americans in general on how to address the problems that arise with the use of the nerd pejorative  and an explanation as to why this is so important to the future of the nation. With that said, in addition to parents and educators of young children, the paradigm shift of looking to culture as the problem instead of solely STEM education in America makes it likely interesting to students and researchers of education, culture, and any other popularly degraded intellectual pursuit. 

America is quickly slipping in STEM education and although I have a huge problem with ranking people according to tests (as global rankings of students are so determined) there are other indicators that support this conclusion. Anderegg points out, for example, the current concern expressed by governmental and business agents over the lack of qualified applicants for STEM related jobs (p. 254) and that nearly half of post-high school kids regret not taking more advanced math (p. 74). He then goes on to point out that although economic incentives to address this issue are gaining popularity, this is too little too late. The problem starts in late grade school or middle school – a point in time when children often choose immediate happiness (not being bullied) over future money (scholarships and/or good job prospects). Anderegg also dismantles the scheme to encourage “nerd” or “geek” pursuits through promotional campaigns siting the failure of similar attempts to discourage campus drinking.  The problem with such attempts is one of pluralistic ignorance, which basically teaches kids how to be bad by informing them of what most kids on campus do. Even though the aim is to convince kids not to do these things, humans are social creatures and want to fit in by partaking of the common culture – such as drinking. 

Addressing indirect messages – popular cultural tropes rather than directly educational campaigns – Anderegg goes on to explain that the increasing prevalence of “nerds” on t.v. is not a step in the right direction, despite some arguments to the contrary. In introducing The Big Bang Theory to the debate Anderegg writes, 

“The progress supposedly represented by The Big Bang Theory is that nerds and geeks are no longer presented as hateful or disgusting, or insane, as media depictions of mathematicians have always tended to be. Leonard and Sheldon, they’re kinda cute. They’re harmless. They’re our mascots. It doesn’t matter ... that many scientists feel the show is a big step in the direction of the Stone Age. It’s funny ...kind of like Amos ‘n’ Andy was funny.” (p. 6)

One of the problems (perhaps the main one?) with this show is that it keeps with the nerd stereotype – that they won’t get the pretty girl, but will settle for another geek. Not to single out BBT Anderegg also devotes time to discussing the “nerd transcended” theme (first introduced on page 96) such as in Beauty and the Geek, which is discussed in this book, but is also the theme of many teen drama movies (She’s All That for one example from my own high school years). Shows such as these show that people can be or are more than a stereotype, which is great, so what’s the problem? They all focus on how such people can be rehabilitated into “cool” or “beautiful” (read: valuable) people, thus suggesting that there was something wrong with them in the first place or that they were not valuable before some beauty/jock came along to save them. 

OK, but now we have geek chic, so what’s the problem? That’s great for people such as myself, old enough embrace my identity and fortunate enough to have found a local niche community to fit into, but I remember what it was like in middle/high school, and this is Anderegg’s point. By the time people reach adulthood and accept what they are, it’s already too late. By that point anyone who decided that math was too hard as a child is so far behind the curve that catching up is unlikely. It is easier (and cheaper) by that point to go into a field that won’t require higher level math or science. This is why, Anderegg argues, America is in trouble. If we are to be competitive in the world market, we need a technically capable workforce.

In summation - Anderegg argues that American anti-intellectual culture is bad for the nation and nerds are awesome. 

Next time - In defence of geek chic despite Anderegg's argument (unless something else shiny comes up)

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