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Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them Hardcover – December 27, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
In this intriguing treatise, child therapist and psychology professor Anderegg takes a wry and well-rounded look at the legacy of everyone's (least) favorite schoolyard epithet, getting deep into the history of an idea as well as the nuts and bolts of childhood "stereotype acquisition." Beginning with a "Field Guide to Nerds" ("or Why Nerds are So Gay"), Anderegg considers typical nerd traits (and includes a "Nerd Test" copied from "Deluxe NERD Glasses" package copy), parses out the subtle but important differences between "nerd" (emphasizing appearance) and "geek" (emphasizing intelligence), looks at the cultural history and rising profile of American anti-intellectualism, from Ichabod Crane and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Seinfeld and Beauty and the Geek, as well as more recent developments in nerd-related medical diagnoses like autism and Asperger's. Knowledgeable, charming and self-deprecating throughout, Anderegg is at his best when discussing the specific cases of children he's worked with, but readers should be happy to tag along as he occasionally wanders off point (contemplating, say, the Freudian implications of his subject). For educators, therapists and others interested in child psychology, this makes an insightful, if perhaps overstuffed, resource.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Any parent or teacher (I have taught sophomores for 14 years now) should definitely read this book. I found it enlightening and revealing.
You will never look at Ichabod Crane the same again...
Dr. Anderegg spends a great deal of time deconstructing the nerd/geek and the myths that surround them. Some of this gets very tedious and, I believe, will lose the lay reader (I have a fair amount of background in this area and he almost lost me at mid-book).
Dr. Anderegg gets VERY preachy at times. This particularly true in his concluding chapter. It's funny because the people most likely to buy and read the book, are the ones who are least likely to need the preaching.
I would have liked more conversations with kids about nerds, geeks and social isolation. That would have been interesting. The chapter titles are clever, I only wish the content had been on the same level.
Dr. Anderegg points out that this way of thinking (or not thinking, really) is the cause of anti-intellectualism having deep roots in American society. He also argues that while our adults are laughing off--even ironically enjoying--nerdiness, the social stigma is still very real for young people. And for the "tween" generation, with its preoccupation with being older, younger and younger children are worried about being stuck with the label. For previous generations, at least kids could still be kids, but now things like crystal radios, coin collecting, and scouting are socially unsafe even for elementary school-age children. This does not bode well for our country's future, argues Anderegg. If math, science, and even learning in general are eschewed for fear of being unhip, where will we get tomorrow's scientists, engineers, doctors, and teachers?
Anderegg questions why working on a car's engine is considered manly and cool, but tinkering with a computer is nerdy. This is a glaring inconsistency in the anti-intellectual social stigma. But then, in the same vein, he begins to discuss the hobby of fly fishing. Fly fishing is considered admirable and masculine. It is, at worst, considered boring--but never nerdy, despite involving the intricate study of aquatic insects to make and use convincing lures to catch fish. Anderegg compares fly fishing (manly and cool) to... watching Star Trek (nerdy). Why compare these two things? That's not even apples and oranges; that's apples and flamingos. Why not compare collecting, studying, and mounting insects for fly fishing (manly and cool) to collecting, studying, and mounting insects for entomology (nerdy)? Missed opportunities and poorly thought-out arguments like this made the book frustrating for me to get through.
"Nerds" also suffers from some odd tangents about a range of subjects, from the 2000 presidential election, to the sexualization of children, to his thoughts on current trends in psychology. (In case you were wondering: ADD is over-diagnosed, and evolutionary psychology is dubious.) He almost always has some way of tying these things into his overall thesis, but this usually takes so long as to muddle whatever his original point was.
During one of his psychologist rants, I was baffled by Anderegg's treatment of Apserger's syndrome. He argues that speculation about whether the likes of Bill Gates, Thomas Jefferson, and other famous figures have/had Asperger's syndrome is an attempt to smear intelligent people as abnormal or damaged. He writes that people who are successful clearly can't have a disorder because they are successful--and thus, no "disorder"! As someone with Asperger's syndrome (someone who has had some success in life, I feel), I am offended by this treatment of Asperger's. I also wonder if Dr. Anderegg would argue that Abraham Lincoln didn't suffer from depression, and Ernest Hemingway didn't suffer from PTSD. These men were successful, so by his logic, they clearly couldn't have fit the diagnosis of any disorder, right?
The take-home message of "Nerds" is this: "Anti-intellectualism is bad." Dr. Anderegg makes some great points--some important points--but for the most part, he makes them poorly.
I did find, however, the books central thesis at best weakly compelling. The middle school nerd stereotype does exist, but I think the long term impacts are not as severe as Anderegg would indicate. Our general anti-intellectualism is a bigger issue and one that doesn't disproportionately affect the borderline middle school nerd cases Anderegg is concerned about the most. However, this is just my own observation. The trouble with the book is that all Anderegg, by his own admission, is able to do is provide in this area are his own observations: "When I began this book, I fully expected to find a world of social science research on the topic of nerd/geek stereotypes to supplement my own observations of kids and families, but it's not there." Moreover, the idea that we "need more of them" is also not substantiated except with the tropes that are used to keep the supply of scientists and engineers in this country high enough to suppress our wages. What I have observed as both an industrial and academic mathematician is that interpersonal skills are a major driver of success, both in an out of technical disciplines. That he took some pot-shots at the nonreligious, even though adult nerds are a disproportionately secular group, didn't help build trust in his powers of observation.
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