While I can comfortably call myself a geek, being labeled either a geek or a nerd is quite subjective and sometimes the label is applied to those less deserving. This is generally based on purely socially derived factors, nothing more. Intelligence quotient is rarely taken into effect. Without properly knowing someone, where their interests lie and how they interact socially – judgment is shallow, callous and wrong. It’s this logic that has prompted Professor David Anderegg of Bennington College to suggest that the terms “nerd” and “geek” be banned from the general lexicon.
Seeing that I write for a site entitled “GeekDad” you’d think that my first response would be confusion, followed by outrage. Perhaps. But I come from a logical school of thought with massive failures in psychology in college. So it’s my thinking that there is more to this statement than what’s on the cover. In order to understand Dr. Anderegg’s meaning, we have to understand the terms. To much debate up to this point we can agree on a majority vote that “geek” implies a certain expertise on one subject. Such as photography, computers, comics, television and so on. Whereas “nerd” has an almost strictly social connotation based on the way someone appears and behaves. You can be a geek and not a nerd, or you can be both. To me, “nerd” has not always just meant someone of great intelligence, so when I read an article about the need for more “cool nerds” in the future, what I see is simply a call for more geeks as they lack the social ineptitude that seems to plague nerds.
When Dr. Anderegg calls for the abolition of these terms from the language, he’s got to be referring more to abolishing the stereotype that comes along with them, right? I pose that as a question to Anderegg, because he must know that even if the terms themselves (which are just words) were to be stricken from the lexicon, the individuals that they describe would not cease to be and new words would be created to replace them. Then it becomes a twisted little paradox with nerds still getting tossed into the trash bin for wearing glasses from the 1950′s.
In Dr. Anderegg’s defense, this statement was meant as a wry hypothetical theory. I know that’s a bit redundant, but I phrase it that way to be clear that he’s not running a headstrong and misguided campaign to remove those words. In fact, his book “Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them” is quite contradictory to his statement, but says a lot about why he made that statement in the first place.
The world does need more nerds and geeks. Math and computer sciences, green science and so on are growing fields of study and employment. The world will need intelligent people to function in these roles. This is under the assumption that all nerds and geeks are intelligent. As I mentioned before, that’s not always the case as the terms are social identifiers. So the world needs smart nerds and smart geeks, who are classed with the rest of the nerds and geeks who are just plain social outcasts.
Which is why it makes perfect sense to obliterate the stereotype itself! Easier said than done. Growing up is rough. Especially those teenage years where in most public schools social behavior is more important to children than excelling in the classroom. This further stigmatizes the geeks and nerds and proliferates their exoneration from the circle of social acceptance. For a child to admit and embrace their geekiness or nerdiness is difficult. They will face constant opposition in their behavior but it’s for the greater good. Geeks believe in what they love and geek out about, nerds believe that suspenders and a belt are cool. See, even I’m doing it.
So it’s up to society to change the stereotype, which is exactly what is happening mostly due to the outpouring of new technologies. Every kid sitting in class texting on their phones is a cell phone geek. When I was growing up, a kid talking endlessly about video games would be labeled a nerd and ostracized. Now every kid is talking about video games. Are they all nerds? I’m a little out of touch, but not too far removed from the high school set. What constitutes a nerd these days? How about a geek? I’m thinking that one is pretty much the same.
Then there are movements such as the ‘nerdcore’ music scene. Not only does it celebrate being a nerd or geek and accepting that fact as an adult, but it expands that message to the upcoming generation that there is a community and a part of the world that accepts you for what you are, that you don’t have to pander to the rest of society.
Society has to take a role in this because the more nerds and geeks (which we are assuming are the smart people that will run this tech heavy world someday) that withdraw from the world due to social stigma the worse off we’ll be for it. The nerd that is getting pantsed right now at some high school just for being a math honk, could be the kid that was going to grow up to invent the cure for cancer. Instead, his constant social torture at the hands of his so-called peers cause him to withdraw and spend his life collecting turtles. Yeah, that’s a bit extreme, but you get my drift. This kind of behavior and stigma attacks their self confidence, things they carry with them into adulthood. I don’t expect that knowing this will change a tormentors mind, but knowing this might change the nerd or geeks mind about how they handle such behavior.
On the other hand, the world has taken a lighter view of nerds and geeks in society. They are more accepted and common place among adults with less of a social stigma. Children however, have not changed their views. That will be hard to change, and probably never will. Kids will always make fun of other kids for being different. Those are the trials we have to go through to shape us for adulthood.
So then once again it comes right around to good parenting and the role of the teacher in the classroom. If nerds and geeks aren’t stigmatized at home (sadly, as they often are) or in the classroom, perhaps the jocks and so-called “popular” kids will give them less of a hassle. I really doubt it though. What geeks and nerds need to do is exactly what they are doing: what they love to do, without regard to what other people think of them.
Which is exactly what I believe Dr. Anderegg is saying and what is being misinterpreted by the NY Times. Get rid of the negative stereotypes of being a nerd or geek, replace them with the positive stereotypes of being a nerd or a geek. There will always be nerds and geeks; how society views them is the only thing we can change.
image by Flickr user Swirlspice