Let’s hear it for nerds

November 24, 2010

“Those nerds are a threat to our way of life,” jock Stan Gable declared in the 1984 hit movie, Revenge of the Nerds.

Seems we’ve been agreeing with Gable ever since. Let’s face it: we’re anti-nerd. They’re just not our kind of people.

University of Waterloo professor Donna Strickland hears this distinctly North American attitude all the time, and it frustrates the heck out of her. She’s a physicist and astronomer and loves lasers, three things that on paper would define someone as, well, a nerd.

But Strickland is also warm and friendly and as socially adjusted as anyone. She just happens to be really smart, and her work has helped make things like eye surgery and micro-machining easier.

Strickland says the physical sciences have long had an image problem in North America, where we seem to think the only people who should study physics, computer sciences and the like are gangly, awkward video gamers who carry pocket protectors and Texas Instruments calculators.

Negative stereotypes are a real problem, she says, because it’s making it harder to attract kids into those fields. They’d rather do cool things, like be models and football players and underpaid newspaper columnists. Right?

“No one likes to be called a nerd or a geek or whatever they’re calling us now. That’s a problem,” she told me this week.

Other places don’t seem to have this hang-up on being academic overachievers in the physical sciences. Just walk into any physics or computer science building on a Canadian campus and notice how many of the students come from foreign-born families.

But that kind of talk stirs up all sort of sour feelings in Canada. Maclean’s magazine hit a sore point when its recent annual university rankings issue included an article on how Asian students are generally showing up their white counterparts on Canadian campuses.

In diving into the issue, the magazine did what it does best. It took an otherwise balanced story and stuck an inflammatory headline on top. Too Asian? shouted the headline, and the predictable outrage followed.

But beyond the calls of racism, the magazine drew attention to this strangely North American attitude that says nerds, white or not, aren’t welcome here. According to the stereotype, students of Asian descent study harder and dedicate themselves more to their schooling, and that has caused resentment on Canadian campuses.

Of course, Asians who slack and act like spoiled white kids are welcome, though. They’re not a threat to our way of life, as Gable declared.

Hearing those kinds of attitudes has to make you wonder what’s happening here. Why is hard work and placing a high value on getting good marks somehow viewed as being un-Canadian?

Statistics show Asian families put a higher priority on getting an education. More than 70 per cent of students in the Toronto District School Board who immigrated from East Asia went to university, compared to 52 per cent of Europeans and just 12 per cent of Caribbeans, according to the Maclean’s piece.

Meanwhile, North America is facing a shortage of physics teachers, engineers and scientists. Increasingly, those professions are being filled by foreign-born experts, who come from places without the hang-up around these so-called nerdy careers.

The rest of us stand around in the unemployment line, laughing at those dorks on television shows like The Big Bang Theory. But people like Strickland say it’s not so funny anymore, and we ought to seriously re-evaluate some of those anti-nerd attitudes.

Why? Well, if the movie Revenge of the Nerds taught us anything, it’s that smart, academic overachievers will ultimately win in the end. Just ask Bill Gates.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

Guelph Mercury, 10/24/10

One Response to Let’s hear it for nerds

  1. Anna Wong on November 26, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    The Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers (FACL) is greatly disturbed by the articles appearing in Maclean’s (“Too Asian?”) and the Toronto Star (“Asian students suffering for success…”) on November 10, 2010.

    These articles portray Asians, regardless of place of origin, as taking over Canadian universities and negatively altering the character of these institutions. Moreover, the article is
    particularly myopic because it fails to recognize the damaging impact on the larger issues of racism and stereotyping.

    FACL is a diverse coalition of Asian Canadian legal professionals whose purpose is to promote equity, justice, and opportunity for Asian Canadian legal professionals and the Asian community. As such, our membership has serious concerns about the impact of the articles on Asian-Canadians and on ethnic dynamics in Canada.

    The articles are a throwback to earlier generation headlines of the “Yellow Peril” and CTV’s W-5 episode “Campus Giveaway.” Today, Maclean’s and the Star are suggesting that Asians are not only moving here, they are taking over institutions.

    The reality, however, is quite different. The assertions of high numbers of Asians in universities are inconsistent with reality and are not borne out in many faculties.

    Take for example, the legal profession, which requires a university degree. The Law Society of Upper Canada conducted a report on racialization of lawyers in Ontario. The report shows only 7.9% of all lawyers in Ontario are Asian compared to an overwhelming 87.5% of lawyers who are white.

    What makes these articles particularly repugnant is that stereotyping communities is used as a journalist technique. They stir up the pot and at the same time Maclean’s absolves itself of responsibility by arguing that it is merely recording criticisms that are attributed to others. Stereotyping is destructive; it makes people suspicious of each other and creates conflict among ethno-cultural groups. The
    media then scurries behind the veil of so-called objectivity and neutrality which they frame as “responsible journalism.”

    To borrow from Premier Jean Charest in his letter to Maclean’s in September 2010 in which Quebec was described as “The Most Corrupt Province in Canada”, this article is a “sensationalist feature” and it has neither met any of the basic standards of journalism nor demonstrated responsible journalism.

    FACL supports the efforts of the Canadian Chinese National Council and
    university students across Canada to boycott products of Maclean’s parent company, Rogers Communications (including Omni TV) and of the Star and its holdings (including Sing Tao Newspaper). Maclean’s and the Star have bitten the hands that feed them. Maclean’s has lost credibility as a national publication and as the print voice of Canada. The Toronto Star, as the newspaper in the world’s most diverse city, has tarnished its own reputation.

    Yours very truly,
    Anna Wong
    Member – Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers, Advocacy & Policy Committee

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