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.”

The question is whether he could get away with it in a book about how America’s leaders are educated today. Rebellions there still are, but the system is stronger and bigger and harder to buck. Our literary iconoclasts emerge from creative-writing seminars and take foundation money and faculty appointments; our activists get their feet wet by protesting on college campuses, then graduate into preexisting forms of agitation; our journalists are credentialed rather than blue-collar. The nation’s richest man, Bill Gates, is a college dropout—but he dropped out of Harvard, not his local high school. Our president has an unlikely and inspiring family story, but when all is said and done, he attended Columbia and Harvard Law, making him the fourth consecutive chief executive with an Ivy League degree.

Symbolic populism endures, of course, especially on the campaign trail. But it’s growing harder and harder to imagine anyone holding high office in the United States without a college diploma, and probably a law or business degree as well. Just look at the mockery that attended Sarah Palin’s motley college-hopping academic record, and try to imagine what her critics would have said about Abe Lincoln.

I’m being deliberately provocative here, because the case of Sarah Palin is exactly why so many people would rise to defend the meritocratic model against Kirn’s critique. Yes, they might allow, the current system has its weaknesses—careerism and conformism chief among them, and perhaps a touch of philistinism as well. But ours is a mass society, so it needs a capable mass elite. We can’t just assume that exceptional people will rise to the top from humble origins, as Lincoln and Andrew Jackson did; we need a system for recruiting them, even if that system drains away some of their exceptionalism in the process.

What’s more, goes the argument, ours is an overwhelmingly complex society, so it needs an elite willing to subject itself to years of complicated training. We certainly can’t trust Sarah Palin with the fate of the global economy, and we couldn’t even allow someone with Benjamin Franklin’s level of education, brilliant and savvy as he no doubt was, to make decisions about how to bail out the world’s tottering financial system. And if we’ve lost something by giving up the kind of decentralized, unsystematic education that produced Franklin and Sojourner Truth and Henry Ford—well, that may just be the price of progress.

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.