May 2009

Jacob Silverman

nonfiction

Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever by Walter Kirn

In the United States, there's a strange distinction between the words "elite" and "elitist.” The latter became a sort of clarion call for Obama opponents during the last election, and it has become oversaturated with various associations that have made the word almost self-parodic. According to some, an elitist is a person who looks down on others, chugs overpriced, polysyllabic coffee products, and generally subscribes to the coastal brand of America-hating, self-indulgent, dangerous liberalism that its myopic antagonists, in relation to their own ill-defined cause, find both threatening and animating. But the term elite has not yet been plasticized into the absurd, and it still retains a certain connotation that can change depending on what we use it to modify.

In the case of Walter Kirn's alma maters, Princeton and Oxford, elite connotes the high quality of education available at those institutions, but it can also conjure images of upper-crust, insular aristocracy that threaten to belie any illusions of meritocracy these universities hope to propagate. And that, in the end, is a fundamental question surrounding these schools, one that Kirn's book Lost in the Meritocracy promises to answer: is their elite nature an asset, a true product of an honestly meritocratic environment? Or are they primarily fueled by money, prestige, old boy networks, superficiality, and any other number of distasteful qualities? Are they still elite, redoubts for the highly gifted, no matter their backgrounds, or have they become elitist in the truly pejorative sense?

Walter Kirn, for his experiences at both schools and his wit and incisive intellect, would seem a fine choice to diagnose these institutions. Coming from a troubled family that moved around a lot but spent most of his formative years in rural Minnesota, Kirn brings an outsider's perspective to the East, one that he acknowledges with several references to F. Scott Fitzgerald, also a Minnesotan and Princeton man. Unlike many of his high school classmates, who drink schnapps on their way to the SAT and don't think much about their futures, Kirn was, from a young age, aware that he was scaling the ladder of the American educational system and that his success would require knowing how to game the system -- perhaps more so than sheer intelligence. On that bus ride to take the SATs in St. Paul, surrounded by his liqueur-swilling friends, Kirn writes:

We talk as though we'll be together forever, but I've always known better: Someday we'll be ranked. We'll be screened and scored and separated. I've known this, it seems, since my first few years in grade school.

The young Walter seems precocious in all the wrong ways, knowing that accruing extracurricular activities and awards is the easiest way to the next level, whether it's to the top of the class rankings or to a coveted spot at an Ivy League school. (Kirn's father also attended Princeton.) Talking about his younger self, Kirn affirms:

A natural-born child of the meritocracy, I'd been amassing momentum my whole life, entering spelling bees, vying for forensics medals, running my mouth in mock United Nations, and I knew only one direction: forward. I lived for prizes, plaques, citations, stars, and I gave no thought to any goal beyond my next appearance on the honor roll. Learning was secondary, promotion was primary. No one ever told me what the point was, except to keep on accumulating points, and this struck me as sufficient.

It is this methodology that any private school veteran should be familiar with, one in which the goal is to be "not so much educated as wised up." Kirn writes about this period in his life well, and he produces a narrative of his youth that goes beyond his schooling, delicately traversing his troubled family life, their foray into Mormonism, his mother's discrete reading habit, his mentor-mentee relationship with a retired admiral, and his sexual coming-of-age. Kirn's writing is entertaining, brisk, vivid, and occasionally startlingly original, as when he describes his boxy, beige elementary school: "constructed with tax money, it looked like tax money, a fiscal line item come to joyless life." It's a description that combines satire and metaphor in a hard nugget of well-formed prose.

It's disappointing then that throughout this memoir Kirn displays the instincts of an iconoclast but none of the zeal. The bankrupt worlds of Minnesota's schools and superficial, pretentious, self-important Princeton receive brief doses of acid-tongued criticism, but rarely does a genuine critique follow. We receive diagnoses but not treatments. He's willing to poke and prod but not to tear down.

It's a shame because Kirn writes so well, because he is so adept at immersing himself in the mindset of his youth, from his turbulent childhood to his drug-soaked, panic-ridden days as an undergraduate, adrift both intellectually and socially. This is the rare book that could benefit from an extra hundred pages, in which the author could step back from his closely shot narrative and offer a more holistic view of some of the landscapes he mashes through.

For example, in his first year at Princeton (after a year spent at Macalester, which offered Kirn admission without even requiring that he finish high school), Kirn's wealthy roommates lavishly furnish their common room with a truckload of goods from Bloomingdale's. They apparently did so without asking Kirn for his opinion or if he could pay, which he could not. After telling him that he's on the hook for $670, Kirn tells him that he can't afford to pay (he can hardly afford clothes). The result is his "first brush with a line of reasoning that would echo through my years at Princeton: even unbidden privileges must be paid for." Later, Kirn's roommates hold a sort of tribunal and pronounce judgment on him; since he can't contribute any money, all of the room's new furniture, including its Persian rug, would be off-limits to him, leaving the room "a concentrated version of what the whole campus would come to represent for me: a private association of the powerful which I'd been invited to visit on a day pass that, I sensed, might be revoked at any time as arbitrarily as it had been issued."

The episode is skillfully drawn, but the problem remains that we get little more in this vein. The "private association of the powerful" only intermittently reappears to exert its influence. Princeton's administration is portrayed as shadowy and removed, content to let their privileged, high-paying clientele do as they please, even acting as self-appointed enforcers of the shockingly stringent honor code. Occasionally there are encounters with others from the social class of Kirn's roommates, scions of political families, descendants of great industrialists and the "ruling class," people who spend their breaks on Cape Cod or at family compounds in Hyannisport. Yet these images are well known; the average reader is probably familiar with these stereotypes. What is the author's vision for how a place like Princeton could be made better? How can we move from brief but sincere criticism into useful critique? Does he believe his experience to be singular or symptomatic? (There is no postmortem testimony from any of Kirn's college peers.)

In place of these discussions, Kirn offers a fine narrative of what it is to be young, lost, deeply immersed in drugs, and frequently on the verge of a nervous breakdown, to which he eventually succumbs. He manages to make it through Princeton, finding a home among some of the school's numerous eclectic subcultures, having sexual dalliances, and forming a close bond with a Pakistani student called V. He even manages, after botching his Rhodes Scholarship interview, to make it to Oxford by way of a grant from the Keasby Foundation, which, we are told, is sort of a cooler, more open-minded, romantically-inspired Rhodes that also bestows grants upon young American students wishing to study in the U.K. They even include a wine allowance.

But the Walter Kirn portrayed here is too self-absorbed to tell us whether any of this is right, whether he has transcended the meritocracy or simply -- and happily -- reached its pinnacle, albeit with his own share of setbacks along the way. When the book ends after Kirn's graduation, the promise of Oxford is supposed to be seen as some kind of liberation, but how different can it be from the Rhodes experience, which we are led to believe represents many of the detestable qualities of Princeton (though only after Kirn knows he has no chance at winning)? This is where that final analysis should come in, at the very least an epilogue. After promising to examine the cost of education in America, where "percentile is destiny," we only learn that a post-college, pre-Oxford illness provides a welcome opportunity to read neglected masterpieces and to actually learn, to educate one's self honestly and, if possible, selflessly.

Kirn lives in Montana, hardly a typical place for a successful American writer, and in his literary criticism, he has shown a willingness to upset assumptions and provoke controversy. It's disappointing then that he doesn't show us what led him to this unusual situation, and that he stops short of the kind of relentless but illuminating verbal barrages of which he's capable. (See his review of James Frey's "Bright Shiny Morning" for just one example.) Perhaps the author's list of credits -- GQ, Time, The New York Times, Vogue, Esquire -- offer some insight: Kirn may be a writer willing to jab the establishment from afar, but is he inevitably part of it? With this abbreviated memoir, it's impossible to know.

Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever by Walter Kirn
Doubleday
ISBN: 0385521286
224 Pages