Geeks Get Wild
THE chic new student organization on campus deserves credit. Never before at Harvard has a group of book-loving introverts attracted so much attention. The dozen or so diehard academics who constitute the Society of Nerds and Geeks (SONG) have been receiving more national press lately than many small European nations.
They basked in their 15 minutes of fame (coverage in The Crimson, anyway) and then stayed on stage for more. A bite-size article in the Wall Street Journal was next, followed by a feature in the New York Times, a wire story by the Associated Press, interviews with radio stations around the country and the coup de grace, last month's interview on CBS Morning News.
Publicity is one thing; but every organization needs an agenda. SONG's wish list includes a 24-hour library on campus and regular shuttles to the biology labs. They want Harvard Nerds ("You know who you are," they say with a wink) to join them at one of their Friday night study breaks.
But more importantly, they want respect. "Until the words `nerd' and `geek' become terms of approbation and not derision," reads their Manifesto, "we do not stand a chance."
YES, they have a Manifesto. Maybe it was those long 15 minutes of fame, or maybe it was just an overdose of calculus. But somewhere along the line, the Nerds broadened their agenda.
Campus issues shrink before the lofty questions they now pose. Here's one: What happened to American economic hegemony?
The Nerds will tell you in two words: anti-intellectualism. "There are very few places in this world," says the Manifesto, "where anti-intellectualism runs as high in popular culture as it does in the United States."
If America wants to remain technologically and economically competitive, SONG members insist, it must adopt the Asian (and, to a lesser degree, European) reverence for education.
It's a straightforward, attractive doctrine. No Gramm-Rudmann, no protectionism, no comprehensive industrial policy. The war for economic competitiveness will not be won on the battlefield of finance, they say, but on the battlefield of values.
WHERE is this battlefield? It's in the mind of all Americans. Take Steve Olson, for example. Olson is a self-proclaimed spokesman for the blue-collar work force of America. Writing in a Newsweek commentary, he railed against the Nerds--the same ones he used to beat up in grade school--who are now running the factory where he works, the newspaper he reads and the rest of his country.
Olson doesn't hide his blue-collar prejudices against academics and others. "At least our bigotry is open and honest and worn out front like a tattoo," he proclaims.
The Nerds say that anti-intellectuals like Olson are stunting the improvement of American education. The prevalence of Olson's attitudes in schoolyards across the country, they say, is a considerable social barrier. It's so much easier for a 10-year-old to reject nerdy virtues than to suffer humiliation.
Whether attitudes like Olson's diminish American competitiveness is unproven. But taken to its extreme, anti-intellectualism demonstrably impedes technological progress. During the Cultural Revolution, for example, when professors were ridiculed and universities were shut, China suffered a "lost generation" of technical experts and academicians, a loss it is still trying to make up.
For the Japanese, however, with their ferociously competitive university entrance exams, academic achievement is the highest mark of individual distinction. Jews, who comprise an undergraduate constituent at Ivy-League institutions far out of proportion to their numbers, are a similar example.
The Geeks' vision is an America where all citizens revere education as much as do the Japanese and Jews.
BUT there's something suspect about SONG's grand vision. It's unlikely that a higher regard for intellectual achievement is a panacea for declining American economic competitiveness.
The Geeks' thesis is an odd combination of old-fashioned conservative thinking--just change attitudes and everything else will follow--and nouveau Nerd militancy. They challenge the orthodox liberal view of education; instead of radical legislative action, the Nerds want a cultural catharsis. But their solution misses the point on several issues.
SONG is playing a chicken-and-egg game. Do Nerds become Nerds because of social ostracization, or do they suffer ostracization because of their nerdiness. SONG would claim the latter. A Nerd, as they tacitly define it (they never do so explicitly, preferring to keep membership wide open) is a lover of knowledge who suffers socially because of it.
Might the Geeks have it backwards? Tomorrow's Nerds may enter the world predisposed to intellectual pursuits, but their minds are still tabula rasa. Might it be the social humiliation they suffer--a result of funny looks, facial blemishes, body odor or one of a thousand other causes--which steers them away from crowds and towards libraries?
If this is so--and it certainly is in many cases--then the Nerds shouldn't be railing against their own persecution. They should be grateful for it, because it makes them what they are.
SONG members are also rather naive to think that a cultural elevation of the intellectual is the cure-all for economic stagnation. In the Soviet Union, a university professorship is among the most revered occupations, and Soviet schoolchildren often aspire to a life of academia.
Yet the entire country (with the exception of the military) is suffocating in a technological vacuum. According to a delegate of a U.S. computer exhibit in the Soviet Union, many Russians are amazed when they first see that a Xerox machine "knows" how to copy the Russian alphabet.
The USSR (and there are plenty of other examples) demonstrates that however much the pursuit of knowledge is revered, political forces play a critical role in fostering or impeding economic success.
For all its faults, the SONG Manifesto is a eye-opening document. And before SONG's celebrity status disappears in a puff of chalk smoke, they may just succeed in bringing American antiintellectualism down a notch or two.