Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever
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Percentile is destiny in America.”
So says Walter Kirn, a peerless observer and interpreter of American life, in this whip-smart memoir of his own long strange trip through American education. Working his way up the ladder of standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and class rankings, Kirn launched himself eastward from his rural Minnesota hometown to the ivy-covered campus of Princeton University. There he found himself not in a temple of higher learning so much as an arena for gamesmanship, snobbery, social climbing, ass-kissing, and recreational drug use, where the point of literature classes was to mirror the instructor's critical theories and actual reading of the books under consideration was optional. Just on the other side of the “bell curve's leading edge” loomed a complete psychic collapse.
LOST IN THE MERITOCRACY reckons up the costs of a system where the point is simply to keep accumulating points and never to look back—or within. It's a remarkable book that suggests the first step toward intellectual fulfillment is getting off the treadmill that is the American meritocracy. Every American who has spent years of his or her life there will experience many shocks of recognition while reading Walter Kirn’s sharp, rueful, and often funny book—and likely a sense of liberation at its end.
mean the opposite, don’t really mean the opposite at all. They aren’t the only alternatives, that is. There are other words between them. And all around them.” “Fascinating. Except this isn’t France.” “You tell me to choose, but the words I’m meant to choose from—‘innocent,’ ‘guilty’—aren’t my only choices. I choose another one. ‘Unconvictable.’” Rob pressed a thumb tip under the bony ridge between his eyebrows and just above his nose. He blew out a breath and let his head nod forward until
with it, Emily Dickinson, you’ve been marketed.” He opened the book and flipped through its thin pages—I heard their fragile corners tearing—and read from a poem whose title I couldn’t see. “America why are your libraries full of tears? America when will you send your eggs to India?” “Who is that? I like it.” “Don’t get stuck on authorship.” “Tell me. Show me.” Barry closed the book. A few days later he pulled up to the house in a compact car with mismatched tires. He looked to be on the
astonished that he knew my name. I followed him outside to his car, a new European sports coupe with leather seats, where he asked me to help him with a “trust experiment” related to one of his sociology classes. He couldn’t describe the experiment, he said, because it might prejudice the results, and I didn’t press him. I wanted him to like me. I wanted him to owe me, too, perhaps. Having someone like him in my debt, if only slightly, might come in handy someday, especially if I kept on
drifted through my classes the next day, and every day for the next week, astonished anew by how little four years of college had affected me. The great poems and novels mystified me still, particularly the ones I’d written papers on, and my math skills, once adequate for the SATs, had atrophied to nothing. The science classes I’d been required to take, on geology and psychology, had been graded pass-fail, and though I’d passed them, barely, I’d already forgotten what “igneous” meant and where in
asked me who my favorite author was, I replied without hesitation: Lord Byron, as much for the life he’d led as for his writing. And when, toward the end, they asked me, hypothetically, how I would occupy myself abroad during the breaks between academic terms, I said, “I don’t believe in planning vacations. I believe in taking them.” “What a pleasure. We thank you,” the head trustee said. “I’m sure there’s much more we could chatter on about, but I’m afraid others are patiently waiting their