David Anderegg challenges an old, culturally ingrained prejudice in his book Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them. He provides five overall aspects to the stereotype of nerdiness:
- sexually unappealing,
- intrigued by learning,
- disinterested in personal appearance and hygiene,
- interested in offbeat subjects or obsessive about one or two subjects, and
- persecuted by people who are "normal", whom Anderegg frames as the jocks.
Anderegg is most interested in the effect the nerd label has on kids as they grow up and seeks to reveal why the problem is so troublesome. He frames much of his argument on anecdotal evidence, citing a lack of research on the topic, and skims the surface of the issue of why being a nerd can be a bad thing for young children. Most of his theories about where the nerd label becomes troublesome relies on his work with children, which are rare treats in the book - he uses his stories of working with children who are afflicted by the nerd label, a label they will only come to understand after it has hurt them.
These stories, accompanied sometimes by parental reactions highlighting the true source of the nerd stereotype, are few and far between and would have made the book stronger. His point about the nerd label gets lost as he breaks down the past of nerds and what being a nerd means, and it's quite possible he will lose readers in making overly broad statements. The book is meant to focus on a specific age range, and as he mines the myths of nerd/jock culture, his statements about how this label being harmful is a very age-specific affliction fall to the wayside.
Although he uses the nerd/jock dichotomy quite often, even using examples like the presidential election of 2000 between Al Gore (the nerd) and George W. Bush (the jock), he is not delving into his subject, possibly because he's touching on something deeper that's become ingrained in our culture and couldn't figure out how to make it work. This works for and against him in his narrative, keeping it light enough to be understood by someone not versed in much psychology and sociology, but not exploring deeply, which might disappoint those looking for more science and hard facts. He uses the available research to his advantage, but most of the book focuses on his own conjecture, although he warns to be careful of taking his opinions as fact; he encourages further thought on the subject.
The overarching theme of the book and what Anderegg fails to unpack for his reader is that it's not simply about the nerd/jock label. The nerd label is tied up heavily with anti-intellectualism and sexuality, making the book seem trivial when its true focus was born out of Anderegg's pleasure of working with children and his desire to understand and help their development. This ties back to Anderegg's list of items that define nerdiness: although all are important, (a) sexual appeal and (b) intrigued by learning are the most important parts and feature as the two items that make the nerd/geek stereotype so pervasive and damaging cultural leak. Anti-intellectualism and sexuality aren't things most people worry about when considering who Anderegg is targeting as victims of being labeled nerds: children and young teens.
Interestingly, Anderegg argues that this concept of the nerd/geek stereotype has been trickling down for decades and the problem has finally come to a head as newly invented eight to 12 age group - "tweens" - pine after the independence of being older. He cites the huge surge in marketing toward this demographic. The tweens want to grow up, so there's an influx of eight to 12-year-old kids acting in a sexual, sometimes sexist, manner as the marketing that's shoved at them exposes them to a world they're not ready to deal with yet. They're not ready to be sexual; they're not ready to make the cognitive distinctions necessary to parse the complicated adult/young adult stereotypes, and so they end up suffering.
In this case, Anderegg says they end up suffering because they can't parse this idea of nerds and geeks which is tied up with the sexual media and intelligence which they have not yet gained, leaving them to possibly reject intelligence and label anyone who doesn't a nerd. All of these issues are exacerbated by the trickle-down effect, discussed by Anderegg in a conversation with a parent over how they wished their child would answer questions in class, but that they didn't want them to become a nerd.
He follows the myth of the nerd back to what he perceives as its beginning. He lays the anti-intellectualism movement at the door of Washington Irving, who wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a classic "nerd versus jock" story and one of the earliest and most popular American short stories. Also, he highlights Ralph Waldo Emerson and breaks down what he believes caused the schism between those who would be intellectuals and otherwise: American men are Men of Action (jocks), not of Reflection (nerds). Anderegg buoys up his examination of this idea by dismantling parts of American mythology, such as Superman: Superman disguises himself as a nerd, his whole presence hidden behind one simple pair of glasses, and he says,
"But Lois and Jimmy and Perry White never quite get it. How come? Because they all grew up in America, and they grew up knowing their were two kinds of people. Men of Action and Men of Reflection. And they knew that no self-respecting Man of Action would ever disguise himself as his polar opposite. It would be indecent, or psychotic, or...un-American."
He hits on so many points of how this stereotype influences our culture that it's impossible to summarize them all. He slots Superman's nemesis, Lex Luthor, as the "evil genius," a standard archetype of a character. Therefore, the nerd label has become ingrained in our language, which Anderegg explores a bit, as well.
This book is juggling a lot of balls and the issue becomes how some stay on the ground and never get picked up. This movement Anderegg frames as a culture war between nerds and jocks is actually a much bigger argument about what it means to be intellectual and how our society shapes sexuality and how these things play into and use elements from our own modern culture to hurt creative, bright kids who don't fit the mold. Anderegg's thesis only falls apart because it's trying to do too much. In the end, it's still rewarding food for thought, whether a reader ends up agreeing or disagreeing with Anderegg's assertion about the problem facing our young people and how we can help more kids love to learn instead of scorning learning and specialized self-expression as nerdy activities.