Who needs varsity-sports stardom when you can shoot fireballs from your fingertips?
As a teenager, playing the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons gave me a vicarious sense of mastery over my world, even if that world was imaginary. Fighting orcs was preferable to taking on the jocks who taunted me during gym class.
Unfortunately, my obsession with D&D also branded me a geek. But since the 1980s, so-called geek activities have gone more mainstream. Computers are ubiquitous (even if we have to call the Geek Squad to troubleshoot them). Adults play home-console Xbox games. Boy wizard Harry Potter has mass appeal. Uber-geek Bill Gates is a hugely powerful man.
Still, widespread prejudice against "Star Trek" fans and those with high SAT scores remains. American culture purports to encourage achievement in math and science but instead sends a more complex, mixed message.
Here in Boston - nerd central - it may be easier to survive as a studious, socially awkward and unselfconscious geek. Not so in the rest of America, where many young adults exhibiting nerd tendencies face persecution. Plumbing the reasons for anti-geek prejudice is David Anderegg's somewhat goofily titled "Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them."
A psychology professor at Bennington College who has a private psychotherapy practice in Lenox, Anderegg has written a spirited and thoughtful introduction to this culture war: the jocks or "pops" (popular kids) vs. the nerds. Anderegg's analysis begins by identifying key nerd traits, which can brand kids during their most approval-seeking, conformist stage, namely cutthroat middle school. According to his "Five Foundations of Nerdiness," nerds are "(a) unsexy, (b) interested in technology, (c) uninterested in their personal appearance, (d) enthusiastic about stuff that bores everyone else, and (e) persecuted by nonnerds who are sometimes known as jocks."
Then, alternating between interviews with children and historical, medical, and sociological evidence, Anderegg debunks the stereotypes and uncovers society's hypocrisy. We shun the Tolkien or calculus fanatic but tolerate the husband whose interest in model trains, fantasy football leagues, or fly-tying (or, for that matter, Grand Theft Auto) borders on zealotry. The author makes it clear that the formerly pervasive American role model of a both strong and smart Odysseus type has devolved into a brawn-against-brains battle: Man of Action (Andrew Jackson, Superman, the affable and joky George Bush) vs. Man of Reflection (John Quincy Adams, Clark Kent, the annoying know-it-all Al Gore). Guess who wins?
The author goes as far as to suggest the bias against nerds may be the nation's next civil rights struggle. Racist and anti-gay epithets, once common, are routinely condemned by parents and kids. Yet Anderegg rightly points out that parents' anxieties about technology are projected onto their kids' brainiac classmates. It's acceptable, he writes, "to communicate to our kids that people who are smart and do well in school and like science fiction and computers are also people who smell bad and look ugly and are so repulsive that they are not allowed to have girlfriends. And then we wonder why it's so hard to motivate kids to do well in school."
Fortunately, "Nerds" ends with useful ideas to change the culture. But Anderegg's promised land, where World of Warcraft players would be as revered as football heroes, lies far away. Instead, as our numbers of engineering and computer science majors tumble, other nations, primarily Asian, vault ahead. And when the geeks do inherit the earth, America will be left scratching its head and wondering why it was picked last for the team.
Ethan Gilsdorf is working on a book about fantasy escapist culture. Contact him at email@example.com.
Nerds: Who They Are and
Why We Need More of Them
By David Anderegg
Tarcher/Penguin, 274 pp., $24.95