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Revenge of the Nerds

Commentary

By Leonid Fridman

YES, we are serious! We are the Society of Nerds and Geeks (SONG), we're out of the closet--and we certainly have an agenda. Better yet, we have two agendas.

Our initial concern is to serve the political and social interests of our constituents: students who are here at Harvard first and foremost to pursue knowledge. Contrary to the stereotype some hold of Harvard, we are certainly not a majority on campus; even though most students here do try to keep up their grades, there is but a minority for whom the actual pursuit of knowledge is their top priority during their years here.

Our demands include a 24-hour library (like the ones that exist in most other large universities), a 24-hour, student-run cafeteria (instead of the high-priced, low-quality, weekdays-only Greenhouse Cafe), and a night-time shuttle bus with additional service to the bio labs.

As a social group, we want to bring together a community of students who think that studying isn't uncool, that foregoing law school or Wall Street in favor of graduate study in arts and sciences is not a mark of personal failure or of a secret fear of the "real world." We plan to serve our constituents as an intellectual network and a support group by organizing studyfests, a procrastination hot line, and discussion tables on intellectual topics in the Houses.

OUR long-term agenda is to focus public attention on the low regard America as a society has for intellectual achievement and the pursuit of knowledge.

Indeed, there are very few countries in the world where anti-intellectualism runs as high in popular culture as it does in the United States. In our language there are nothing but derogatory terms for a child who is intellectually curious or academically serious.

In fact, one of the reasons we named ourselves "The Society of Nerds and Geeks" is to draw people's attention to this telling fact about American language and culture. We think that this attitude will severely weaken the United States as an economic and political power in the 21st century.

In a January 3 Crimson editorial about SONG, Adam Berger argues that "higher regard for intellectual achievement [is not] a panacea for declining economic competitiveness." He cites China and the Soviet Union as examples of countries with high levels of cultural "pro-intellectualism" yet low technological and economic performance.

Surely Mr. Berger must be aware that the histories of these countries, as well as their politico-economic systems, may have something to do with their poor performance. SONG is by no means arguing that there is only one factor that is responsible for technological progress. SONG's credo is simply that at this time in our history, American anti-intellectualism is a barrier to the advancement of our society in general and to educational reform in particular.

OF COURSE, we are not the first ones to point out that the American educational system needs improvement. But pouring money into schools will not be nearly enough, even if our leaders will find the political will to do so.

Educational success starts at home; it starts with the vision of the good life that parents impart to their children. Only when a child understands early on that the good life is impossible without stretching one's mind and pursuing knowledge to the fullest extent of one's abilities--only then will our country have a chance to remain a leading political, cultural and economic force of the next century.

In his editorial, Berger attributes to SONG the belief that it is blue-collar "anti-intellectuals" like an unabashedly bigoted Steve Olson who "are stunting the improvement of American education."

But anti-intellectual attitudes are just as prevalent and harmful (though not as explicit) in middle-class households, where the social skills and athletic prowess of children are frequently emphasized at the expense of academic achievement and intellectual ability. Often a parent is ashamed when his or her daughter studies mathematics instead of going dancing, or when a son reads Weber while his peers play baseball.

WE ARE not clamoring for a single-minded pursuit of academic excellence. We are simply urging a shift of values.

In fact, the seemingly one-sided nature exhibited by some nerds can often be attributed precisely to their refusal as children to conform to the social milieu, to their inarticulated preference to read books rather than to get wasted at parties. Rejected by their peers for their non-conformity, many become alienated and unable to develop adequate social skills later on.

Yet Berger asserts that "nerds should be grateful to their persecutors" because it is this persecution that makes them turn to books. Even if this may be a correct explanation of the "causes" of nerdiness in some people, Berger's normative assertion is surely ridiculous, if not dangerous. By the same token, he would claim that European Jews should be grateful to anti-Semitism for having helped to produce Einstein, Freud, or Marx.

At SONG, we think that our society should strive to stimulate the love of learning via a carrot, not a stick. We should encourage kids who learn by praising them, not by ostracizing them from their peers and into the libraries.

Moreover, 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.

MANY have accused SONG of publicity-seeking. We plead guilty. Yes, we do seek media attention. If our goal is to change cultural attitudes, delivering the message by way of popular media seems a rather efficient, if not indispensable, means to that end.

In our activities, such as our weekly Saturday dinner meetings in Mather House, SONG is trying to show that the pursuit of knowledge can be both cool and fun. Come out of the closet and join SONG! Even though SONG may not be able to change the world, we stand a realistic chance of helping to focus national attention on education.

Leonid Fridman '85, a fourth-year graduate student, is a founding member of the Harvard Society of Nerd and Greeks (SONG).

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