A couple of weeks ago I caught a very brief portion of Science Friday on National Public Radio, and the speakers were talking about the negative connotations to the words “geek” and “nerd.” Their point was essentially that doing brainy things and thinking were often perceived as negatives in American culture.
I couldn’t agree more with their point. I’d take it a step farther to say that the culture that often exists in American schools where expressions of intelligence get bullied and picked on is one of the most devastating cultural traits of the American educational system. As I was listening to the radio show, I thought back to how many times as a student I would see kids—especially boys—pick on other boys for raising their hands in class, or getting too many answers right, or getting a good score on a test. I remembered back to my childhood where I would keep an inventory of how many answers I got right to make sure that I didn’t answer so often that I’d get singled out and subsequently ostracized for a show of intelligence.
Science Friday made the point, however, that we needed a new, positive term for “geek” and “nerd,” one that wouldn’t carry with it all the negative baggage, and would celebrate intelligence for the critical role it plays in advancing the human cause. They suggested the term “Peabody,” from the dog in the old cartoon Mister Peabody. While I applaud their initiative, their choice is horrendous. First of all, kids today have no clue who Peabody is. Second, Peabody, with his thick glasses and affected air, is almost a living embodiment of a stereotypical geek. Lastly, the term “Peabody” just grates on the ears, and sounds negative at the get-go.
But then it hit me that we have the perfect answer for a new, positive term for the word “geek”: the TV show Phineas & Ferb! It’s perhaps my own kids’ favorite show, and we quote lines from the show on a regular basis around the house. In case you haven’t seen it (and I highly recommend it, even for parents, as the show is excellently written and executed), Phineas & Ferb are two friendly yet brainy elementary school brothers who on a regular basis build the most amazing creations, from roller coasters to rest stops for Santa Claus to beaches with wave pools. In essence, they use their brains to create and have fun. They have lots of friends, who love having all sorts of adventures with their two creative friends. And Phineas and Ferb are genuinely nice kids, looking to live each day to the fullest by thinking of all sorts of challenging things to make and do.
And as I was listening to the conversation on geeks and thinking about American school cultures where intelligence is often brutally slammed down, it dawned on me why Phineas and Ferb may be the most important kids show on TV. Phineas and Ferb celebrates intelligent thinking and makes being smart an “in” thing to do. It stands against that entire sub-culture in American schools that says, “If you use your brain, you’re a loser.” Instead, it flips that on its end and says, “Using your brain is cool. Creating, building, and sharing the stuff you make is a great and fun way to live life.”
And when you think about it, isn’t that one of the central messages that young kids should be getting as they grow up? So instead of “Peabody,” I give you new terms to toss into in the battle against ignorance: Phineas and Ferb. Take your pick, they’re both equally cool.