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.
This argument has its merits. But it would be more compelling if our present bout of instability didn’t seem to owe so much to the sort of meritocratic vices that Kirn’s memoir throws into relief. I’m thinking here of the confidence that with ambition and brainpower comes the ability to master contingency, and the chauvinism that favors the fashions of the present over the wisdom of the past. Above all, I’m thinking of the peculiar mix of entitlement and cutthroat competitiveness that makes everything—your SAT score, your college GPA, your salary, your bonus—into one more way of keeping score.
What successful meritocrats tend to have in common, Kirn suggests, is “a talent for some things, a knack for many things, and a genius for one thing: running up the count.” When you consider the way the current American leadership class has acquitted itself—whether on Wall Street or in Washington—you don’t have to look very hard to see these qualities at work. Maybe Abe Lincoln or Ben Franklin wouldn’t have done better. But it’s hard to see how they could have done much worse.