Wednesday, November 28, 2012


In one of my classes, today, we got into a discussion about the word "nerd," after having read an essay by Grant Penrod called "Anti-Intellectualism: Why We Hate Smart Kids." In the piece, the writer claims that we, as a culture, don't respect the average intellectual and that we glorify ignorance.

We did a little quick linguistic research via smart phone and discovered that the word "nerd"  first appeared in print in Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Zoo, in 1950. There are many arguments as to the word's origins before that, though, and various college campuses and neighborhoods claim it as their own creation (there is even one theory that it came from spelling "drunk" backward, to signify someone who studies on Saturday nights instead of going to parties: "knurd."

Most people seem to agree that it was popularized by the sit-com Happy Days, as uttered repeatedly by "The Fonz."

My "anticipatory set" or warm-up activity today was to have the kids define the word. My goal, of course, was to see how many variant definitions would surface. I also wanted to see whether the word would have a negative or a positive spin in the minds of the kids. In general, their tone toward "nerds" was one of pity -- no one was a vehement nerd-hater, like "The Ogre" from that fine piece of cinematic work from the 80s: Revenge of the Nerds. Some of my students even defended nerdiness, God bless 'em.

There was one overlapping notion that was consistent: they gave "nerds" the characteristic of being unsocial. (I say "un" as opposed to "anti" because they implied that it was not a choice but a result of intrinsic awkwardness.)

Another consistent thing was that they all agreed was that "nerds" are into stuff -- that they have interests. After a while, and after some prodding from yours truly, they were forced to admit that this is a good thing; that most people's way of acting cool is to react to everything else in the world as if it is not. (I'd rather see my own children become "nerds" than a lot of other things.)

I say: long live the nerd!

Still, I don't want to be guilty of going in the direction of judging those who are not nerds as losers. My wife once asked me, when our first son was a baby (probably after I proclaimed that  he would someday be Chair of English at Harvard): "What if he grows up to be a ditch-digger?" I thought for a minute, before responding: "As long as he is a ditch-digger who reads Shakespeare, I'll be happy."


No comments:

Post a Comment