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The Tentacle


April 15, 2008

A Change in Direction Needed

Nick Diaz

As your son or daughter and their friends were moving from elementary school to middle school, you may have noticed that a number of them did not want to be identified as “smart kids” – even though they had always done rather well during their elementary years. Some of them were afraid that they would be picked on by other students if it were known that they were bright. Others just wanted to fit in.

 

Many middle schools have difficulty recruiting enough students to be members of the MATHCOUNTS competition team. As a middle-school math teacher and competition coach for many years, I’ve heard this complaint by many of my fellow coaches. Of my 12 or so MATHCOUNTS team members at The Barnesville School, for example, only one is a girl; female students are particularly hesitant to be counted among the “smart kids” at many middle schools.

 

It simply isn’t cool to be smart, even at suburban and exurban middle schools that boast of some of the highest test scores in a given state.

 

From 2003 to 2007 I coached the MATHCOUNTS team at one of Frederick County Public School’s middle schools, one that prides itself in academic achievement. Of the 800 students, many of them on the Honors track, only 10 or so typically signed up for the math competition team.

 

I suppose many of these students simply don’t want to be treated like Screech on Saved by the Bell, or Urkel on Family Matters. If you haven’t seen reruns of these 90’s shows in a while, you may remember that Screech and Urkel are very bright students who are basically ostracized at school because they look weird and act strangely.

 

It seems to be socially acceptable for popular students to lock Urkel in a locker, or flush Screech’s head in the toilet, simply because they don’t like smart students. Considering that stereotypical portrayals seem to be a common way to depict gifted teenagers on primetime television, they represent a viable, yet inaccurate, source of socialization information. For many misguided, (or unguided), students, life on television sitcoms is a model for their own lives.

 

According to Carl Sagan, author of The Demon-Haunted World, “the dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites, lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudo-science and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance. The number one videocassette rental (1995) is the movie Dumb and Dumber.”

 

Beavis and Butthead remained popular, and influential, for many years among young television viewers. The plain lesson is that study and learning, not just of science and mathematics, but of anything at all, is undesirable and to be avoided at all costs.

 

Television reached new depths several years ago when a sitcom called Dweebs was aired.  In this show, several computer programmers, the dweebs, ran a computer business. However, they couldn’t interact effectively with other people since they were socially ignorant. They were saved by a dumb, but beautiful, young woman who knew nothing about computers, but had social charm and skills.

 

Luckily, Dweebs was such a bad show that it never had much of a following and was soon taken off the air. It is, nevertheless, one manifestation of our societal attitude toward bright students.

 

Not long after that, the show The Nerd aired briefly with a similar message. If you’ve never seen the television lineup that our children watch on a given night, you should. Note how we’ve gone form Doogie Howser, which portrayed a very bright young guy in a fairly sensitive manner, to shows in which we once again tell our children that, if they study hard and do well in school, they can grow up to be social outcasts like the dweebs or the nerds.

 

After watching an evening of such television, students can play nasty video games that glorify antisocial behavior and plain stupidity.

 

These negative stereotypes are not new.

 

*  Family Ties featured the bright kid, Alex Keaton, a social outcast because of his intelligence.

 

*  Square Pegs had an exceptionally smart teenage female star who was skinny, nearsighted, and just plain awkward.

 

*  Growing Pains showed a 13-year-old straight-A student, Carol, who was ridiculed by her brothers for her intelligence.

 

*  Head of the Class portrayed students who were mental giants and social misfits.

 

About a decade ago, the National Commission on Working Women examined more than 200 episodes of daytime and prime-time television programs with adolescent female characters. Girls’ physical appearances were shown as more important than their brains. Of course; intelligent girls were, more often than not, depicted as being social misfits and only attractive to intelligent boys who were also portrayed as misfits.

 

It is difficult, if not impossible, to encourage students to do well, particularly in mathematics and science, when they are faced with such ridiculous stereotypes everywhere they turn. As a society, we need to act before the media drag our children even more deeply into the black hole of believing that it is nerdy to do well in school, especially in the areas of mathematics, science, and technology.

 

I remember the cover story in Time magazine not long ago about the lives of several multimillionaires who were making their fortunes with computers. The title of this feature article was “The Golden Geeks.” Why were these people labeled “geeks?” I suppose because it sold magazines…

 

A three-hour television chronicle of the 30-year history of the personal computer was titled, “Triumph of the Nerds.” This program continually referred to the computer geniuses who brought about the PC revolution as nerds, predictably.

 

Computer programmers are not the only professionals shown as nerds or geeks. Why is it that "Beakman," who has a really great television science show, has to look so weird?

 

At least Bill Nye, the Science Guy can have a good television science show without looking like a geek. Ask any teenager, or even any preteen, what she or he thinks that students gifted in mathematics and science look like, and it is likely that the answer will include an image that looks like the nerdy scientist from Back to the Future – male, with glasses, a pocket protector, and a very strange hairdo. We need more shows like Apollo 13, in which scientists are shown as dedicated, intelligent professionals who lead exciting, fulfilling lives.

 

If we want to encourage students to become mathematicians and scientists, they must have good role models in their everyday lives and culture. When students constantly see television or movie characters ridiculed for being bright or for learning mathematics and science, they accept these behaviors as a model for their own lives.

 

If these students are not lucky enough to have exceptional teachers like Patrick Weaver at Urbana Middle, or Walkersville’s John Nicodemus – or if they do not have mathematicians or physicists for parents – they should at least see these examples on television and at the movies.

 

Even for students who do desire to learn mathematics and science and may have support in the classroom or at home, it is difficult to overcome the culture that tells them that they are "geeks."

 

We must wake up immediately and stop glorifying those students who are "Clueless," "Airheads," and "Beavis and Butthead." If we do not change our ways, when we go "Searching for Bobby Fischer" we are going to find that we are "Dumb and Dumber."

 

We no longer have television shows that ridicule people on the basis of their race or religion. We need to make it equally unacceptable to have movies and television shows that ridicule bright students and scientists.

 



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