Live and Learn

How the meritocratic assembly line has let us down
May 16, 2009

Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever | By Walter Kirn | Doubleday | 224 pages, $24.95

How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Educations That Made Them | By Daniel Wolff | Bloomsbury | 352 pages, $26

It wasn’t the best publicized of the many literary feuds that Tom Wolfe conjured up around the 1998 publication of A Man in Full, but his waspish attack on Walter Kirn was surely one of the more misguided. Kirn had given Wolfe’s book an unkind notice, and the white-suited eminence responded by going after Kirn’s own impending novel, Thumbsucker, a coming-of-age story set in eighties Minnesota. He hadn’t read the thing, but a plot summary was circulating, and that was all it took. “Thumbsucking,” Wolfe informed one interviewer, “sums up most of American fiction today.”

This one-liner was the zingerish version of an argument that Wolfe had been amplifying for nearly a decade: an attack on the solipsism and gamesmanship of the contemporary literary world, joined to a call for a more journalistic fiction, in whose service novelists armed with notebooks would sally forth like Balzac or Zola to capture the bizarre and teeming bigness of America. As a critique of card-carrying fabulists and postmodernists—John Barth, say, or Paul Auster—this argument made a certain sense. But as an attack on the author of Thumbsucker, it made no sense at all. Indeed, if you were looking for a rising writer who embodied exactly none of the faults that Wolfe found in contemporary fiction, you could have done worse than start with Walter Kirn.

Indeed, Kirn, who was born in 1962, has spent the last decade depicting America (and the American heartland, especially) in all its gonzo, God-bothered, Ritalin-addicted glory. There are few writers who move as effortlessly from reportage (a profile of Warren Buffett here, a sojourn among evangelical chastity-boosters there) to literary criticism to the personal essay; there are fewer still who channel the gifts they’ve honed as journalists into novels with as much bite and zip as Up in the Air (2001) or Mission to America (2005).

Now Kirn has turned to memoir. In Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, he takes a disillusioned look back at his climb from a childhood in rural Minnesota to Princeton in the early 1980s. As in his novels and his journalism, his mode is narrative and his style is picaresque. But his latest book’s essential intention is argumentative: this is a true-life Bildungsroman doubling as a brief against the way we educate our ruling class.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Such briefs are common enough, but in most cases they’re frankly political: conservative critiques of tenured radicals, or left-wing attacks on the corporate university. Kirn’s argument has the advantage of being personal, philosophical, and essentially nonpartisan. Lost in the Meritocracy offers grist for right and left alike, but what it really does is suggest the ways in which higher education’s radical and corporate sides actually interlock—producing kids who can spend their academic careers dabbling in deconstructionism without ever questioning the broader system in which they’ve been embedded.

I should pause here to disclose two potential conflicts of interest. The first is that I once edited an essay that Kirn wrote for The Atlantic, an experience that left me favorably disposed to him in general (though he did vanish on a camping trip when I needed him to approve some copyedits). The second conflict, and perhaps the more serious one, is that I wrote a book several years ago—about attending Harvard in the years immediately preceding 9/11—that overlaps with Kirn’s latest effort in small ways and large. Under those circumstances, my enthusiasm for Kirn’s critique of meritocracy should be taken with at least a pinch of salt, since in praising his diagnosis, I’m effectively praising my own.

But that doesn’t mean he isn’t right about it.

Kirn’s book begins on a high school bus ride to the sats, as his carefree classmates pass around a bottle of schnapps and he tenses for the life-determining test to come. Then it flashes back to cover his childhood, which was spent in a headlong flight from elite America (on the part of his father) and a headlong rush into its arms (on the part of Kirn himself).

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?

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.

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. 

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.