Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Cool nerds

An interesting article by Carl Wilson (apparently the start of a month-long series) in Slate looks at the word “cool” in its past and current incarnations. It’s a lot more readable and to the point than jazz critic Ted Gioia’s fundamentally trivial book The Birth and Death of the Cool, but I found myself hung up on his comment

 You’d be unlikely to use other decades-old slang—groovy or rad or fly—to endorse any current cultural object, at least with a straight face, but somehow cool remains evergreen.

As it happens, I was just recently having a conversation about the word nerd. I have a very clear memory that when the ’50s nostalgia wave broke in the mid-1970s (so I was about 8 years old), I encountered the word in TV programs like Happy Days as an antiquated idiom. I had never heard anyone use the word, and I associated it with my parents’ childhoods. When I was a student the prevailing word for someone too bookish to be cool (such as myself) was weenie. As late as 1993, according to an OED citation, Scientific American felt the need to explain

 ‘Nerd’..is movie shorthand for scientists, engineers and assorted technical types who play chess, perhaps, or the violin.

And I remember encountering the word again in the self-righteous name of the Society of Nerds and Geeks (SONG), an undergraduate club that popped up at Harvard about 1989 (when I was a graduate student in mathematics). This was a self-conscious attempt to co-opt these words, which at the time were exclusively terms of abuse, along the lines of the way what was formerly the sexual invert community, or whatever, renamed itself gay, and later queer. Harvard mathematics graduate student Leonid Fridman, who advised the club, published an op-ed on Jan 11, 1990 in the NY Times arguing that the popular disdain for the brainy and bookish would put the US at a disadvantage in competing with its economic and military competitors. (Remember, this was still the Cold War.) The article concluded with this plea:

Until the words “nerd” and “geek” become terms of approbation and not derision, we do not stand a chance.

This dream has come to fulfilment more than could have been imagined in the linguistic sense, but my impression is that there has been little change in the effective social status of academically-inclined American youth. Fridman’s NY Times op-ed is mysteriously unfindable in the Times online archive, so I have copied the text below:

America Needs Its Nerds

Leonid Fridman There is something very wrong with the system of values in a society that has only derogatory terms like nerd and geek for the intellectually curious and academically serious A geek, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary is a street performer who shocks the public by biting off heads of live chickens. It is a telling fact about our language and our culture that someone dedicated to pursuit of knowledge is compared to a freak biting the head off a live chicken. Even at a prestigious academic institution like Harvard, anti-intellectualism is rampant: Many students are ashamed to admit, even to their friends, how much they study. Although most students try to keep up their grades, there is a minority of undergraduates for whom pursuing knowledge is the top priority during their years at Harvard. Nerds are ostracized while athletes are idolized The same thing happens in US elementary and high schools. Children who prefer to read books rather than play football, prefer to build model airplanes rather than get wasted at parties with their classmates, become social outcasts. Ostracized for their intelligence and refusal to conform to society’s anti-intellectual values, many are deprived of a chance to learn adequate social skills and acquire good communication tools. Enough is enough.   Nerds and geeks must stop being ashamed of who they are. It is high time to face the persecutors who haunt the bright kid with thick glasses from kindergarten to the grave. For America’s sake,.the anti-intellectual values that pervade our society must be fought. There are very few countries m the world where anti-intellectualism runs as high in popular culture as it does in the US. In most industrialized nations, not least of all our economic rivals in East Asia, a kid who studies hard is lauded and held up as an example to other students. In many parts of the world, university professorships are the most prestigious and materially rewarding positions. But not in America, where average professional ballplayers are much more respected and better paid than faculty members of the best universities. How can a country where typical parents are ashamed of their daughter studying mathematics instead of going dancing, or of their son reading Weber while his friends play baseball be expected to compete in the technology race with Japan or remain a leading political and cultural force in Europe? How long can America remain a world-class power if we constantly emphasize social skills and physical prowess over academic achievement and intellectual ability? Do we really expect to stay afloat largely by importing our scientists and intellectuals from abroad, as we have done for a major portion of this century, without making an effort to also cultivate a pro-intellectual culture at home? Even if we have the political will to spend substantially more money on education than we do now, do we think we can improve our schools if we deride our studious pupils and debase their impoverished teachers? Our fault lies not so much with our economy or with our politics as within ourselves, our values and our image of a good life. America’s culture has not adapted to the demands of our times, to the economic realities that demand a highly educated workforce and innovative intelligent leadership. If we are to succeed as a society in the 2lst century, we had better shed our anti-intellectualism and imbue in our children the vision that a good life is impossible without stretching one’s mind and pursuing knowledge to the full extent of one’s abilities. And until the words “nerd” and “geek” become terms of approbation and not derision, we do not stand a chance.

Comments on: "Cool nerds" (2)

  1. A simple analysis of the difference between “nerd” and “geek” has been done by this blogger: http://slackprop.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/on-geek-versus-nerd/

    • Thanks. Useful information. I don’t have any memory of the history of geek, though I remember clearly that when the Society of Nerds and Geeks sprang to life in 1990, I thought of geek as a much ruder word.

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