There is something very wrong with the system of values in a society that has only derogatory terms like "nerd" and "geek" for the intellectually curious and academically serious.
A geek, according to Webster's New World Dictionary, is a street performer who shocks the public by biting the heads off live chickens and snakes. It is a telling fact about our language and our culture that someone dedicated to pursuit of knowledge is compared to a freak biting the head off a live chicken.
Even at a prestigious institution like Harvard University, anti-intellectualism is rampant: Many students are ashamed to admit even to friends how much they study. Though most students try to keep up their grades, there is but a minority of undergraduates for whom pursuing knowledge is the top priority during their years at Harvard. Nerds are ostracized; athletes are idolized.
The same thing happens in U.S. elementary and high schools. Children who prefer to read books rather than play football, prefer to build model airplanes rather than get wasted at parties with their classmates, become social outcasts. Ostracized for their intelligence and refusal to conform to society's anti-intellectual values, many are deprived of a chance to learn adequate social skills and good communication tools.
Enough is enough. Nerds and geeks must stop being ashamed of who they are. It is high time to face the persecutors who haunt the bright kid with thick glasses from kindergarten to the grave. For America's sake, the anti-intellectual values that pervade our society must be fought.
There are very few countries in the world where anti-intellectualism runs as high in popular culture as it does here. In most industrialized nations, not least of all our economic rivals in East Asia, a kid who studies hard is lauded and held up as an example to other students.
How can a country where typical parents are ashamed of their daughter's studying mathematics instead of going dancing, or of their son's reading Weber while his friends play baseball, be expected to compete in the technology race with Japan or remain a leading political and cultural force in Europe? How long can America remain a world-class power if we constantly emphasize social skills and physical prowess over academic achievement and intellectual ability?
Do we really expect to stay afloat largely by importing our scientists and intellectuals from abroad, as we have done for a major portion of this century, without making an effort to also cultivate a pro-intellectual culture at home? Even if we have the political will to spend substantially more money on education than we do now, do we think we can improve our schools if we deride our studious pupils and debase their impoverished teachers?
Our fault lies not so much with our economy or with our politics as with our values and our image of a good life. America's culture has not adapted to the demands of our times, to the economic realities that demand highly educated work force and innovative intelligent leadership.
If we are to succeed as a society in the 21st century, we had better shed our anti-intellectualism and imbue in our children the vision that a good life is impossible without stretching one's mind and pursuing knowledge to the full extent of one's abilities.
And until the words "nerd" and "geek" become terms of approbation and not derision, we do not stand a chance.
LEONID FRIDMAN, a doctoral candidate in mathematics at Harvard, is a founding member of the university's Society of Nerds and Geeks.