Why Pop Culture Needs More All-American Nerds

Superhero nerd

More nerds.

That’s what policymakers say America needs: more people who are good at science, technology, engineering, and math.

But a growing chorus of researchers says cultural stereotypes continue to be among the things discouraging Americans from going into these fields, even as young people in rival nations are being prodded into them.

And they say people already working in technology and engineering, cloistered in places where the stereotypes are less pronounced, may be the last to see this.

“There are all these very technologically sophisticated people whose children are not burdened by these stereotypes,” says David Anderegg, a psychologist and author of Nerds: How Dorks, Dweebs, Techies and Trekkies can Save America. “Kids in Palo Alto and Cambridge really don’t suffer from those kinds of stereotypes. So people engaged in the technology world think this is a thing of the past.”

It’s not, says Anderegg and others.

“Popular culture is still very bigoted,” he says. And that’s not changing. “If it was, we’d have more engineers, and we’d have kids doing better in math.”

Instead, American 15-year-olds are stalled below the global average in the Program for International Student Assessment test of math and science knowledge, while their counterparts in places countries China, Germany, and Poland have been posting gains.

United States Education Secretary Arne Duncan says these poor results should serve as “a wake-up call.”

Instead, Anderegg says, young people are getting the message that being smart means not fitting in.

“Intelligent kids spend more time with adults, they spend more time with their parents, and we know that kids who spend more time with adults are smarter. They actually score higher on IQ tests,” Anderegg says. “But in middle school, separating yourself from adults is what makes you popular. Kids want to show that teachers can’t push them around and adults can’t push them around, and being cool means being independent of adults.”

In other countries, meanwhile, “kids are encouraged to be smart. They’re encouraged to be adept at science and math. It’s expected. And we don’t expect it,” Anderegg says

Much of popular culture in the U.S., in fact, mocks smart people.

“More young people are watching The Big Bang Theory than are watching just about anything else,” Anderegg says of the network sitcom that placed second in the television ratings this year, after only Sunday Night Football. And its characters “are not admirable, – they’re particularly unsuccessful at the thing that matters to adolescents, which is sex.”

He contrasts this with another popular TV genre: forensics dramas, which make solving crimes by being smart an enviable talent.

“Those people are admirable and have love lives. CSI and things like that are great, because those people are on the side of justice and right, and they’re smart, and they still get laid. And I don’t think it’s an accident that there are suddenly lots and lots of young people who want to be forensic scientists.”

There are other examples of the power of stereotypes—and how they can be turned around—Anderegg says. Low-income kids in inner-city neighborhoods, for instance, take up chess in places “where locally charismatic people who are interesting and smart make playing chess a cool thing to do. We need to do more of that on a national level.”

Separate work by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has unearthed an equally harmful stereotype among American teenagers—and girls in particular—that being good at math and science is an ability they’re either born with or they’re not, making it easier for them to rationalize their failure at it.

For whatever reasons, in spite of all the emphasis on science, math, technology, and engineering, young people continue to stubbornly resist going into it.

“It was how many years ago that the first President Bush said our kids are going to perform in the top levels of science and math in the world? And there have been all of these initiatives and research and the needle hasn’t moved,” says Anderegg.

His conclusion? “The cultural factors are still an issue. Kids I talk to continue to demonstrate that they are phobic for various reasons about being interested in science and math. And kids make choices when they’re kids. You don’t get to be 18 or 19 and decide, ‘Oh, I’ll major in engineering.’ By that time a lot of kids are not prepared.”

Anderegg wanted the word “nerd” put in quotation marks in his book. And while the publisher decided that would be unwieldy, he says it’s important for people to police the ways they perpetuate the stereotype by doing things such as beginning sentences with, “Well, I know it’s kind of nerdy, but … ”

“Politically correctness can sometimes be oppressive, but in this case more self-monitoring by adults may be called for if we’re serious about getting better in science and math,” he says. “We need to be vigilant about those things. And smart and educated people need to stop apologizing for being smart and educated.”

About Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus is a writer based in Boston and a contributor to newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post, New York Times, Boston Globe Magazine, and the Times (U.K.) Higher Education magazine.
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