“I’ve always been the nerdy, geekish outsider who still remembers how a lot of my classmates used to torture me…”
Actor Sarah Michelle Gellar continued, “Growing up, I always felt different from other kids… All the success that the series – Buffy – has enjoyed has erased a lot of self-doubts that I grew up with. I don’t feel like the nerd or the loser any more.” [imdb.com / wenn.com 8.1.01]
[Also see article: Lily Cole and gifted kids being bullied.]
Unique pressures for gifted kids
Being different, an outsider, and called by others a nerd or other names, can be upsetting to downright painful when we were kids, but how does that kind of label impact our adult identity, and what does it indicate about social attitudes toward creatively and intellectually exceptional people?
In his article Is It Good to Be Gifted?, David Palmer, Ph.D. writes, “For kids and teens, the pressure to conform is often so great that any deviation from the norm can be distressing. We’ve all heard terms like brain, nerd, geek or worse applied to kids who seem too bookish, or too ‘into’ school.
“Of course, the potential for social problems is not unique to gifted kids; all children are susceptible to teasing, bullying, or social isolation when they don’t fit in, for whatever reason. Gifted kids, though, do share some unique pressures and developmental issues that others may not.”
Definition of ‘nerd’
A review by The Week magazine of the book “Nerds” notes the term was used by Dr. Seuss in one of his books in 1950, but “Soon enough, though, ‘nerd’ came to define something no kid wanted to be.
“Its actual definition has had shifting boundaries, says book author child psychologist David Anderegg.
“Today it connotes ‘some combination of school success, interest in precision, un-self-consciousness, closeness to adults, and interest in fantasy.’
“The lack of self-consciousness particularly unnerves other people, Anderegg says. It makes the rest of us feel obliged to keep informing the nerds that they’re nerdy.”
The review adds, “To Anderegg, the nerd stereotype is not just a fleeting playground obstacle. It represents a particularly American strain of anti-intellectualism that has plagued the culture since Ralph Waldo Emerson endorsed the idea that Americans were ‘men of action, not men of reflection.’
“Even on the playground, Anderegg says, the nerd label remains potent enough to change the course of some children’s lives. This, in turn, may affect the nation’s capacity to compete in a global economy… In 2004, U.S. colleges graduated more sports-exercise majors than electrical engineers.”
From review article: Nerds – the book.
Book: Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them, by David Anderegg.
American distrust of intellectuals
Another book emphasizes the destructive impact of these social attitudes.
In his article On The Age of American Unreason, Art Winslow reviews ‘The Age of American Unreason’ by Susan Jacoby, noting that “Half a century ago, the political historian Richard Hofstadter wrote: ‘The widespread distrust of intellectuals in America reflects a tendency to depreciate their playfulness and distrust their piety. Ours is a society in which every form of play seems to be accepted by the majority except the play of the mind.’
“The journalist Bill Moyers,” he adds, “often attacked for the pro-science, pro-rationalist content of his television programs, may have the best line here, quoted by Jacoby from a speech he delivered about Revelations-based ‘end time’ beliefs: ‘One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal.'”
Intellectuals in films
Negative views of intellectuals and artists have often been perpetuated by movies.
Writer John Clark used the film “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) as an example of the stereotype that geniuses “must be miserable, nearly always troubled. That way, we can feel better about ourselves.
“In Hollywood, you can never be too rich or too thin, but you can be too smart. It’s OK to have a beautiful face. It’s not OK to have a beautiful mind.” [From article So Smart It Hurts.]
There are, fortunately, some movies that celebrate intellect, such as “The Great Debaters” with Denzel Washington as a professor at Wiley College in 1935 Texas, coaching his student debate team for a match against Harvard.
There is a photo from it, and more about the film in my post Competing to win acknowledgment and excellence and pride – in which I note that in her Wall Street Journal commentary – In Praise of ‘Thought Competition’ – Rebecca Wallace-Segall writes about the erosion of support for stimulating intellectual engagements for teens.
“Their schools — while touting well-known athletic teams — are offshoots of the ‘progressive education’ movement and uphold a categorical belief that ‘thought competition’ is treacherous,” she wrote.
In his article Why Nerds are Unpopular, Paul Graham [author of Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age] writes about his junior high school experience: “My friend Rich and I made a map of the school lunch tables according to popularity. A tables were full of football players and cheerleaders and so on. E tables contained the kids with mild cases of Down’s Syndrome, what in the language of the time we called ‘retards.’
“We sat at a D table, as low as you could get without looking physically different. We were not being especially candid to grade ourselves as D. It would have taken a deliberate lie to say otherwise. Everyone in the school knew exactly how popular everyone else was, including us.
“I know a lot of people who were nerds in school, and they all tell the same story: there is a strong correlation between being smart and being a nerd, and an even stronger inverse correlation between being a nerd and being popular. Being smart seems to make you unpopular.”
A couple of teens comment about the challenges:
“Other kids made fun of us as nerds or called us stuck-up. It was not true, it was just that we weren’t sure how to relate to some of our peers. We were informed that we were smarter by our teachers, but to a child, that is just plain ‘different.’ We needed help understanding ourselves.” Erin, 19
“Gifted kids tend to hide their intelligence, as well as their talents, for a very simple reason: Conformity.” Claudia, 16
Those two quotes are from the book When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All the Answers: How to Meet Their Social and Emotional Needs.
But many of us can continue to like being nerds – even if that makes us unpopular and outside the mainstream. And we can appreciate others who are outsider cultural creatives.
[‘I love nerds’ T-shirt image from popgadget.net.]