A History of My People…American Nerds

300h Kevin O’Kelly reviews Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People, in boston.com:

Of the myriad changes that occurred in American society in the late 20th century, perhaps none was so surprising and subtle as the shift toward partial acceptance – and even occasional celebration – of the American nerd.

From the late 19th century onward, it was more or less accepted that the ideal purpose of American education and parenting was to produce athletic, popular young men and women, the sort who end up in business, law, or politics. But sometime during the 1980s it began to be a lot harder to dismiss the awkward kids with thick glasses, obsessive interests, and no social skills. Sure, life was still rough for those kids, but they were learning they weren’t alone, thanks to TV shows like “Square Pegs” and movies like “Sixteen Candles.” As computers began to play a larger role in business, education, and life in general, the former class presidents were learning that the former class geeks held everyone’s future in their hands. Soon one nerd (Alan Greenspan) was running the economy, another nerd (Al Gore) was running for president, and two unbelievably rich nerds (Bill Gates and Steve Jobs) were changing the ways a lot of us lived and worked.

Blending social history, memoir, and reportage, recovering nerd Benjamin Nugent takes on a tour of the world of “my people,” who they are, and how they came to be. As the 19th-century educational movement alluded to above became pervasive in the nation’s schools (a movement perhaps best summarized by Groton headmaster Endicott Peabody’s remark “I’m not sure I like boys who think too much”), it was all too obvious that there were plenty of young men who would never fit the mold. “American Nerd” is in large part the story of how these young men (and later women) found subcultures where they did fit in.