31 May 2009

Grade Grubber

  • Walter Kirn. Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. Doubleday. May 2009.

Considered in the most cynical light, the American system of education as it now exists is a status machine, absorbing young citizens, sorting them according to rigid criteria, and propelling them into the capitalist maw marked for employment on a spectrum from professional to prole. The primary sorting mechanisms are standardized tests and grades, though other factors—athletic or artistic ability; behavior, i.e., adherence, or lack thereof, to rules—may play a role. The system is acknowledged to be conservative, abetting the elite class in replicating itself while the masses filter through the less prestigious institutions—or drop out—and embark upon less prestigious lives. Cover for this state of affairs, especially at the very top, takes the form of plucking individuals from society’s lower strata and thrusting them with subsidies into elite institutions, where they might realize their elite natures and from which they might propel themselves into elite careers. The practice, reminiscent of Plato’s myth of the metals, goes nowadays by the name “meritocracy.”

Walter Kirn’s new memoir comes tagged with the catchphrase “Percentile is destiny in America.” The book takes the form of a confession, as Kirn deploys his experiences to expose the sham of education in this country. From kindergarten on, Kirn would have us believe he was a con man, gaming the system to reach the next rung on the ladder: from public school to Macalester College, skipping senior year on the strength of his SATs; from there to Princeton as a transfer student, bolstered by a sort of bogus victory in a campus poetry contest; from Princeton to Oxford on the strength of a scholarship committee’s susceptibility to his rakish self-presentation.

This book gave me a headache in my lower-middle brow. As most of its pages are devoted to Kirn’s Princeton years, Lost is designed to appeal to a certain readership’s love-hate relationship with the Ivy League and the nation’s other elite institutions of higher education. Those readers who didn’t go—perhaps they didn’t get in, maybe they didn’t apply—will learn that Princeton was hell on earth. Glad I didn’t go there! Those with elite degrees and mixed feelings will be assuaged of any lingering guilt. The system is unjust, but don’t blame me for benefiting from it—I was young and did as I was told!

Kirn’s title proves something of a Procrustean bed, and the book teeters under the weight of its own internal contradictions. Kirn’s self-loathing often feels like self-congratulation. His whining frequently serves as an awkward setup for a boast—typically about his sexual exploits. This aspect of the memoir I found weirdly charming, and closing the book I couldn’t help but think that Walter Kirn had a pretty good time.


Kirn’s upbringing—at least what we’re told of it—was idiosyncratic. Its oddness and volatility render him a less than perfect case study in the corrupt nature of the meritocracy. His mother, a sometime schoolteacher, is not much of a presence in the book. She is glimpsed as a long-suffering saint, an amateur scholar who teaches herself foreign languages and makes an intense study of Edward Gibbon. Kirn’s father is a lawyer with a maverick streak. He is also an alumnus of Princeton, which he attended on a football scholarship, but Kirn insists, “Applying to Princeton was my idea alone. It came to me …  when I used a map …  to locate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s home. …  It looked like a house I might have lived in.” Kirn then lived in Minnesota and finding Fitzgerald’s home couldn’t have been hard; fair enough—for some of us exposure to This Side of Paradise sufficed.

In the face of his father’s (perceived) disinterest and (most likely) urged on by his mother’s encouragement, Kirn from elementary school sought affirmation in his report card. After stints in Washington, D.C., and Georgia, the family moved to Minnesota, where Kirn’s father worked as a patent lawyer for 3M, the giant mining and manufacturing firm. When Kirn reached eighth grade, his father “had a spell”—perhaps prompted by the death of his own father—and moved the family to Phoenix, where at his whim they converted to Mormonism, and where young Walter placed a tragic second in a spelling bee, flubbing the word “villain.” After his father lapsed from Mormonism, took to the bottle, and lost his new job, the Kirns moved back to Minnesota, where they bought a farm in Taylors Falls, “leaving my brother and me to the devices of one of Minnesota’s lowest-ranked schools.”

Back in Minnesota, he alone among his family persisted in Mormonism, lured to the local church by a trio of teenage beauties in the pews. One of these, Kelly, a sort of proto-Goth chick, was impressed enough by his oratory to invite him to her pickup for a bit of necking. He earned a spot on the mostly female school declamation team, which, while padding his college application, afforded him minimally supervised trips to distant motels in the company of the fairer sex. After skipping his senior year to go to Macalester, he was invited back to his high school’s prom, assigned to escort one or the other of a pair of attractive European exchange students too sophisticated for his timid hick ex-classmates. He ended up—at their suggestion—taking them both. A pre-prom threesome ensued. The road to Princeton was slick with hormones.


The Princeton chapters focus on class relations and the intellectual bankruptcy of the theory-addled English Department—a perfect mark for Kirn’s continuing academic con. Accounts of generalized narcotic and sexual debauchery as well as Kirn’s literary activities (as playwright and poet) make for titillating comic relief.

Two episodes dramatize Kirn’s experience as a middle-class provincial at sea among the decadent rich. First, he is assigned to a suite shared with three Manhattan socialites. One of them offers him champagne and after it is drunk asks for twenty dollars Kirn doesn’t have. Kirn’s relative deprivation is again highlighted when the roommates furnish the suite’s common room lavishly and demand that the unconsulted Kirn pony up his “share”—$670. He doesn’t pay, and they forbid him to touch any of the furniture for the rest of his occupancy. The next year, at the low point of a depression and tripping on acid, Kirn is lured into a “trust experiment” by “Leslie,” an acquaintance from the theater crowd. Leslie drives a blindfolded Kirn into the countryside. When the blindfold comes off, Kirn is kneeling in front of an enormous mansion. “‘My family’s estate,’ said Leslie, ‘Behold, poor serf! Behold a power you will never know!’” Kirn is abandoned on the premises and has to hitchhike back to Princeton.

Both of these scenes appeared in Kirn’s 2005 Atlantic essay “Lost in the Meritocracy: How I traded an education for a ticket to the ruling class.” Both at the time seemed sensationalistic and, well, preposterous. In each version, Kirn calls the serf story “a strange prank that could have been taken straight from a bad novel about collegiate social Darwinism”—which sounds a bit like a liar’s tell. In the book, the episodes are expanded, and we learn that Kirn’s estrangement from his roommates wins him the affection of Nina, a disaffected child of the Upper West Side who enjoys brutal sex. Kirn also takes revenge on the roommates by vandalizing the common room after they leave for winter break. He is spared disciplinary action but moved to off-campus housing by the administration. In the case of Leslie, Kirn explains not only that his abductor is jealous of Kirn’s success in campus experimental theater, but also that Leslie is a homosexual and had spread a rumor that he seduced Kirn on the afternoon of the serf incident.

Somehow both episodes seem at once more believable and more unseemly in the retelling. And we are inclined to accept Kirn at his word when he says, in a prefatory note, that the book includes no “deliberate deceptions.” But whether or not any of the material is fabricated, Kirn comes across as an unreliable narrator, not so much deceptive as disingenuous. There is something especially fraudulent about the way Kirn constantly accuses his younger self of being a fraud. Yet self-exculpation always follows quickly upon self-laceration. (Usually relieved by a comic sexual escapade, e.g., a coke-fueled one-night stand in Truman Capote’s Manhattan apartment building with an art dealer’s daughter called—of course—“Holly.”) All the while, Kirn the con man (and stud) is also Kirn the victim—thrust by the system of standardized tests into bubble-filling displays of aptitude, by his poststructuralist professors into jargon-loaded ballets of meaninglessness, and by class-induced self-loathing into drug abuse.

Kirn stretches this pose to its logical epiphanic extreme: he never really read a book until he escaped Princeton. On the final page, Kirn, back in Minnesota and bedridden with pneumonia, takes down from his mother’s shelf The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “Then I did something unprecedented for me: I carried it to my steamy bedroom and actually let it absorb me, page by page, chapter by chapter, straight on to the end. A few days later I repeated the feat with Great Expectations, another canonical stalwart that I’d somehow gotten through Princeton without opening… . And so, belatedly, haltingly, accidentally, and quite implausibly and incredibly, it began at last: my education.” A conclusion as miraculous as it is banal: Now that I finally got away from all those classes, professors, and libraries, I finally learned to read.


High test scores are not the same thing as intelligence; getting good grades is not the same as learning; and the American system of higher education is far from egalitarian, despite its reigning pretense of diversity. I don’t know of an educated person who would disagree with these statements. But nor at this point in time is academic achievement entirely divorced from intellectual merit. From what I have observed, academic opportunism, the ability to con the system and the openness of the system to cons, has never outgunned a passion for, say, literature, history, mathematics, science, or complexity itself.

Where academic opportunism leads is admission to law school, business school, med school, or (in the old days) a job on Wall Street. But those who chase such opportunities are less often con men since kindergarten than earnest strivers who compromise whatever high ideals they might harbor in the face of economic realities: the urge to maintain the class they were born into, the desire to improve upon it, or the imperative of servicing student loans. Ross Douthat dramatized such pressure in his 2005 meritocracy memoir Privilege. Though in large part a conservative culture-war tract, concluding with an encomium to William F. Buckley, Jr., and his yacht, Douthat’s book presented a more thoroughgoing critique of the experience of meritocracy’s mechanism, as he watched his earnest but directionless and under-advised Harvard classmates drift into careerism.

The effects on our society of that careerist drift were analyzed by Christopher Lasch in his posthumously published 1995 study The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. Drawing on the work of Michael Young (who coined the term meritocracy in his speculative dystopian work of 1958, The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033), Lasch saw the new elites as an ungrateful bunch, smug in their conviction that their social mobility was earned, and contemptuous of the Middle America they had left behind. Expansion of elite recruitment to those who are good at filling in the bubbles resulted, according to Lasch, in “the unreal, artificial character of our politics,” a leadership “with a secret conviction that the real problems are insoluble,” and—as he might have predicted, given a few more years to witness the orgy of deregulation that followed his death—our present financial meltdown. Was there ever a purer or more gaudy display of the meritocrat’s sense of entitlement than AIG employee Jake DeSantis’s New York Times op-ed refusing to pay back his bonus in taxes? One wonders if his roommates ever asked him to chip in on a couch.

“Making money,” writes Kirn, “didn’t interest me. While my classmates signed up for on-campus ‘face-to-faces’ with Wall Street investment firms …  I scanned the horizon for another test to take, another contest to compete in. … For me, wealth and power were trivial by-products in the great generational tournament of aptitude. The ranking itself was the essential prize.” Here, we see, the young Kirn was a romantic. But I doubt he was quite the deranged romantic the old Kirn makes him out to be. His telling of the tale of his cynicism is more cynical than the cynicism it describes. At Princeton, he was an approval-seeking, and approval-deprived poet and playwright who at times suffered a debilitating drug habit. He got laid, it seems to me, a fair amount. He read W. B. Yeats and John Berryman and wrote plays with titles like Soft White Kids in Leather (which, by the way, was later staged at the Edinburgh Festival). Though the son of a lawyer, he was too often a poor boy in a rich man’s house. A frank memoir about this experience, one undetermined by the publishing trends of the moment, might have been funny, even—when young Kirn hits bottom—moving. But this market-tuned book, fastened to a social problem about which its author has little of substance to say, and sweetened with just enough Hollywood-style titillation, seems destined to be made into one of those movies that nobody sees. No matter. Kirn has already cashed out. The con is complete.

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