“AND then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo, and bring back an It-Kutch, a Preep, and a Proo, a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker, too!” That typically nifty passage comes from Dr Seuss’s “If I Ran the Zoo”. The book was published in 1950 and contains the first use of the word “nerd”. How very unfortunate that Dr Seuss, whose verbal pyrotechnics have given so much pleasure to so many children, should also have given them, however innocently, the ghastly label “nerd”.
The precise meaning of the word (in its post-Seuss sense) is hard to pin down, as David Anderegg, a child psychologist and academic, argues in this thoughtful and warmly sympathetic book. It denotes a bundle of different qualities: “some combination of school success, interest in precision, unselfconsciousness, closeness to adults and interest in fantasy.”
But the word is no less powerful for its vagueness. Children intuitively understand what a nerd is, with terrible clarity. The bottom line, Mr Anderegg reckons, is that American kids grow up knowing that “nerds are bad and jocks are good”. (His focus is exclusively American: in many other countries academically high-achieving children are revered by their peers.) And this matters because these stereotypes become the basis for choices that children make about their identity and future.
Striving to do badly
Mr Anderegg draws on scores of interviews with his young patients to show what being called a nerd can do to a child. Some are driven to despair or suicide. But most cope by bending to peer pressure. “The kids who will really be hurt by the nerd/geek stereotypes are the kids who will shut down parts of themselves in order to fit in.” When these bright children start switching off their own lights to avoid being branded nerds, it is bad news for everyone—and for the economy. Mr Anderegg points to declining school performance and college enrolment in science subjects in America, and to the fact that employers in certain fields are now having to look abroad to find the best graduates.