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?

For a long time we did. Here it’s instructive to turn from Kirn’s narrative to Daniel Wolff’s How Lincoln Learned to Read, a set of essay-length accounts of how twelve famous Americans acquired an education. My first instinct is to say that you’ll encounter a very different model for how to “advance Learning, and perpetuate it to Posterity” (as Wolff puts it in his introduction, quoting a 1642 pamphlet). But the truth is that you won’t encounter a model at all. Instead, you’ll find a wildly diverse group of educational experiences—most of them closer to Karl-on-the-farm than Walter-at-Princeton, and all of them offering a remarkable testament to the essential unruliness of the American experience.

By age ten, for example, Ben Franklin’s formal schooling is finished. He is apprenticed to a printer at twelve, begins writing regularly for the paper four years later, and decamps for Philadelphia and glory at eighteen. A woman named Belle grows up in slavery, works for subsistence wages after New York State passes an emancipation law, and reinvents herself, midway through her forties, as Sojourner Truth, abolitionist preacher. Abe Lincoln attends school for only five winters, but develops a voracious intellectualism that makes him the closest thing America has had to a philosopher-king. Henry Ford’s years of schooling leave him with a lifelong disdain for book-learning, none of which hampers his rise from machinist’s apprentice to automobile tycoon.

With Ford, a product (albeit an ungrateful one) of a centralized school system, regimentation begins to creep into Wolff’s story, as the pedagogical chaos of nineteenth-century America is gradually tamed. John Dewey and Horace Mann make cameos in the Rachel Carson chapter; Elvis, the book’s final character, graduates from a Memphis high school with enough after-school clubs to pad any college-bound student’s résumé. Between Carson and the King comes JFK, ascending to Harvard through a series of prep schools (Riverdale, Canterbury, Choate) that were already serving as incubators of a mass upper class. Still, by concluding his book just as the sixties entered their full swing, Wolff can get away with his conclusion that “whatever the particular circumstances, an American education is going to bear the marks of rebellion.”

Ross Douthat is the coauthor most recently of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, and is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.