Demise of the Nerds

Like an unexpected S.O.N.G.

For generations, they have been vilified. Their lunches have been taken from them. Women have rejected them. In horror movies, they are the first or second to pass on. And, at Harvard, they are quickly going extinct.

Of course, I mean nerds. Stereotyped as convention-going, pocket-protector-wearing, chess-playing, infrequently-showering types, nerds are one of our society’s most ridiculed groups. And, for a university with an international reputation as a bastion of intellectualism, Harvard is startlingly devoid of them.

Indeed, Harvard has pulled off the astonishing feat of branding itself as the world’s greatest university but not the world’s nerdiest. While MIT and the University of Chicago duke it out for the title of nerdiest school, James Franco and Renee Zellweger show up at Harvard to party. Somehow, miracle of miracles, Harvard is “cool.” According to David Aberegg’s recent book, “Nerds: Who They Are, And Why We Need More of Them,” this is a bad thing. But is it? In society at large, nerds are law-abiding, caring, fundamentally good folk who keep the wheels of civilization grinding. But do we need them at Harvard? Should we start nerd affirmative action programs to ensure that candidates with prefrontal cortexes the size of New Jersey are not being disserved by Harvard’s insistence on extracurricular achievement?

The lack of “nerds” does indicate a preference on Harvard’s part. Each year, Harvard receives around 27,000 applications. And, when so many of them have 4.0 GPAs and stellar SAT scores, Harvard has to decide what other criteria it wants to emphasize. Harvard’s lecture halls will always be awash with academic superstars. But what about its stages and playing fields and after-school programs? Harvard presents students with a bewildering array of options. It seeks people who will take advantage of them and, in so doing, come to define themselves in terms other than their academic attainments.

Indeed, you realize how few nerds Harvard has when you actually run into one of them. Most students, for all their arcane knowledge and intellectual curiosity, shy away from the label as well as the behaviors associated with it. Everyone mocks “that kid” in section when his only crime is speaking up repeatedly and at length to demonstrate his enthusiasm for the material. In high school, many of us were “that kid.” But here at Harvard, where everyone is presumed intelligent until proven otherwise, we can choose to be someone else.

Some criticize Harvard for this seemingly “anti-intellectual” climate. In 1990, Harvard graduate student Leonid Fridman founded the Society of Nerds and Geeks, citing a need to correct “prevalent and harmful” anti-intellectual attitudes. He editorialized: “We are not clamoring for a single-minded pursuit of academic excellence. We are simply urging a shift of values…There is no necessary connection between striving for knowledge and being a social misfit. In many cultures where intellect is valued more highly than it is here, academic achievement and social success go hand in hand.” SONG garnered national attention and then, within a few years, petered out. Perhaps the “anti-intellectual climate” was at fault. Or perhaps Harvard students simply realized that there were more effective ways of proving that nerds could attain social success than holding summits about it. Indeed, on his public profile, Fridman now appends to his title of Co-Founder of Society of Nerds and Geeks the backpedaling “yes, ‘tis sad but true.”

Perhaps Fridman realized that there is something to be said for Harvard’s anti-intellectualism. The wide array of opportunities that drives students to define themselves by characteristics other than their intellectual motiavation also creates a meta-social structure. It heightens the aspects of our personalities that we were unaware of before arriving at a school that encouraged us to classify ourselves by something other than our intellects. Here, there are literary nerds, drama nerds, math nerds, volunteerism nerds. Those at Harvard who still maintain their “pure” nerdiness are nerds among nerds, meta-nerds even. The trouble with these nerds is not, to quote Fridman, “their inarticulated preference to read books rather than to get wasted at parties.” It is their inarticulated preference to read books rather than talk to people or join extracurricular organizations without “science” in their names. And, although there is much to be said for the nerd as a species, there is even more to be said for the kind of well-rounded individuals Harvard strives to produce.

This is not to suggest that Harvard seize and forcibly reclaim ex-nerds. Far from it. Harvard is nerd rehab. You have to check yourself in. Those who seek a school filled with self-proclaimed “nerds” seek elsewhere. Dropping the H bomb may brand you as an intellectual or a Kennedy. But it will not give you much nerd cred. And that’s a good thing.


Alexandra A. Petri ’10 is an English and classics concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.