Kirn the elder was a Princeton football recruit who felt alienated in the Ivy League and spent his life questing after a more rugged individualism than his corporate job allowed. Among other things, this meant uprooting his family to the rural Midwest, converting to Mormonism, and making an attempt at back-to-the-land living. His son, by contrast, devoted his childhood to “entering spelling bees, vying for forensics medals, running my mouth in mock United Nations,” and so forth. “I lived for prizes, plaques, citations, stars,” Kirn writes, “and I gave no thought to any goal beyond my next appearance on the honor roll. Learning was secondary, promotion was primary.” And since that last line is more or less the Ivy League’s motto nowadays, it was inevitable that he would end up at his father’s alma mater, transferring, after a year at Macalester, to a place that he viewed primarily as “a sociocultural vip room that happened to hold classes in the back.”
his summary does little justice to the entertainment value of Kirn’s childhood reminiscences, which include cameos from teachers right-wing and pedophilic (but not both), romantic interludes with a Hermann-Hesse-reading Mormon teenybopper, and the introduction of a geekish, early-model Apple computer. Nor does it do justice to Kirn’s portrait of Princeton, which is thick with incident and rife with comedy, to say that what he learned in college was to be more like the person Princeton accepted in the first place: someone conditioned for “fleeing upward . . . learning just enough at every level to make it, barely, to the next one.”
For the full flavor of Lost in the Meritocracy, you’ll have to read the book itself. All I can give you is an account of the argument, and a suggestion that things may have become somewhat worse in the decades since Kirn collected his Princeton diploma. It isn’t just that the meritocratic fever spread between 1980 and the turn of the millennium—the college admissions industry expanding, the number of applicants swelling, the U.S. News rankings looming larger even as the magazine itself went into decline. It’s that meritocracy itself became more, well, rationalized would be one word, and regimented would be another, and conformist might be a third.
If you want to see the change expressed in statistical terms, the best place to turn is the American Freshman Survey, which asks entering undergraduates whether they think it essential to become “very well off financially” or to develop “a meaningful philosophy of life.” (They are allowed to opt for both.) In 1967, 86 percent wanted meaning, and only 42 percent wanted money. By the turn of the millennium, those figures were almost perfectly reversed.
Graph the percentages, and the lines cross around 1980, the year Kirn transferred into the Ivy League. The system, in other words, was in transition—still divesting itself of the glamour of the sixties, the nonsense and radicalism but also the idealism and experimentation, and shifting gradually toward the mass production of well-groomed, well-spoken, hyper-ambitious strivers.
The trend was clear enough even then. In Kirn’s concluding flourish, he describes spending a post-collegiate evening with a high-school friend named Karl, who had stayed home to work on his family’s dairy farm and whiled away the lonely hours by becoming a voracious reader and a committed Buddhist. Hungry for conversation, Karl had been looking forward to chatting with the Princeton English major. He thought they would have a lot in common,
But we didn’t, in fact, or much less than he assumed, and I didn’t know how to tell him this. To begin with, I couldn’t quote the transcendentalists as accurately and effortlessly as he could. I couldn’t quote anyone, reliably. I’d honed other skills: for flattering those in power without appearing to, for rating artistic reputations according to academic fashions, for matching my intonations and vocabulary to the backgrounds of my listener. . . .
Flexibility, irony, self-consciousness, contrarianism. They’d gotten me through Princeton, they hadn’t quite kept me out of Oxford, and these, I was about to tell my friend, were the ways to get ahead now—not by memorizing old Ralph Waldo.
“But I kept all this to myself,” Kirn concludes. “I didn’t tell Karl. He was a reader, a Buddhist, and an old pal, and there were some things he might not want to know.”
It’s possible, of course, that the world that Kirn critiques—hyper-ambitious, conformist, effectively anti-intellectual—is just the world as it always has been. It’s easy to bemoan a system; it’s harder to supply alternatives. Leaders, innovators, and achievers have to come from somewhere, after all. Could the United States really do without the meritocratic assembly line?