A copy of Walter Kirn's Lost in the Meritocracy (a reiteration of the article with little to justify the extra 150 pages, as it turned out) came through my office yesterday, and I read it. Two things:
1. David Samuels already wrote this book.
2. I am sympathetic to skeptics of the academic meritocracy and those who question the practice of drawing America's governing and opinion elite from its peaks. I am also sympathetic to people who are themselves products of this meritocracy raising these questions. But what exactly is the purpose of writing a Catcher in the Rye-esque personal lament about all the phonies at Princeton and how their corrupt system of reward and approval drove you--a poor, impressionable, sensitive-souled writer from the boonies--into a self-defeating spiral of intellectual self-betrayal and sycophantic imposture?
Ok, the purpose is to demonstrate that the system is corrupt. But Holden Caulfield is about 16 and at the mercy of adults when he discovers the "phoniness" of the adult world. Walter Kirn is 21 when he's strung out on ground up painkiller smoked through a crackpipe and BSing his Rhodes application. I find this victimhood harder to pity. He also describes himself as a child with a freakishly precocious grasp of his own pathetic sycophantism beginning at age six, so if he knows it all along why is he still behaving this way 15 years later? Why doesn't he do something about himself? He is pretty much his own man at this point. No one is forcing him to go to Princeton and be a noxious suck-up, even if some people do pat him on the head for it.
He wants to point a finger at Princeton and the whole meritocratic machine that made him prime material for Princeton, but he can't do it without comparing himself to the kids who never became sycophantic frauds, who, as he says, were steady and studious (one of them is even an actual Asian). But to acknowledge such students in Minnesota and at Princeton is to undermine his own claim that the system kills souls. Obviously, it leaves some survivors. What makes them different? Why not cleave to the virtuous if you can identify them? It's harder to sympathize with Kirn's addled plight when he notes every single good professor he had whom he ignored and every serious student he knew whom he dismissed as just a tool. Even where he could win me over--when he discovers that most of theory is unreadable nonsense, for example--it doesn't work. Is theory unreadable nonsense really, or is he just too lazy, stoned, and dissembling to read it?
After reading The Runner and this book, I'm willing to be convinced that maybe Princeton is an especially evil, decadent, and rotten place. I don't know; I went to school in the Midwest, where people wear jeans with elastic waistbands. But Kirn's ability to coast through school by gaming the system and then write a book exposing the rottenness of school because it allowed him to coast by gaming does not impress me. It's like badass training for dweebs. You really cheated on your Spanish exam and got away with it? Then it's true; Princeton must really be a con! Imposters exist everywhere and all the time, especially when the stakes are high; it doesn't particularly diminish Princeton that it, too, hosts its share of them.
And this is his final conclusion: "A pure meritocracy, we'd discovered, can only promote; it can't legitimize. It can confer success but can't grant knighthood. For that it needs a class beyond itself: the high-born genealogical peerage that aptitude testing was created to overthrow." Right, ok. That can be arrived at without enduring a drug- and status-induced breakdown, I think. And some of his criticism is true--usually moreso when it's general observations rather than personal recollection. The educational system rewards "aptitude for having aptitude." Think of how few prizes there are for producing something tangibly great and how many are for demonstrating the potential to maybe produce something great in the future, or for succeeding at the minor tasks designed as practice for maybe producing great things (think of the honor rolls, dean's lists, and Phi Beta Kappas of school life). Is that a problem? Maybe, though it's hard to turn away and refuse anyone recognition in school unless they write the Great American Novel for their English lit final.
And for me at least, the descriptions of such intense status-envy ring hollow. Kirn has a scene in which some rich kid blindfolds him and drives him out to a castle in the middle of nowhere, only to ditch him there after saying "My family's estate. Behold, poor serf! Behold a power you will never know!" Does that really happen anywhere? Really? Again, maybe it's the elastic waistbands talking here, but it seemed like the opportunities for class war in college went largely untaken. No one seemed to form their friendships based on mutual possession of wealth, nor did they particularly exclude those without it. Everyone knew who on campus was fabulously wealthy or descended from Important People and this was a recurring subject of gossip, but it never seemed to make anyone unapproachable, and I was impressed by the general obliviousness to family wealth in casual relationships. No one ever asked me what my parents did or who they were. Such obliviousness could cause resentment too, since it doesn't typically result in much tact or "sensitivity" to the non-wealthy, but it's a different kind of resentment than Kirn's against the self-consciously exclusive and cruel rich. And this line of attack, as UD has pointed out, is susceptible to the conclusion that places like Princeton only corrupt the virtuous poor, but are fantastic experiences for the rich, so maybe rural Minnesota boys should just keep out of the club for everyone's sake.
What undermines all these laments about the soul-crushing evil of the Ivy League--Kirn's, Samuels's, Gessen's--is their tedious bitterness. What reader outside of the tiny circle of equally resentful fellow-HYP grads can sympathize? I read this and think, fine, you screwed up, but if you'd let me take your spot, I would've appreciated the opportunity, so why should I feel sorry for you? (This might, paradoxically, be the source of the sense of one's imposture--there are so many people who were denied admission when you were granted it. Are you really that much more worthy than them? Conveniently, not an issue at Chicago thanks to its high acceptance rates.) It's all entitlement (a great education must fall into my lap, for I am a great genius!), no gratitude. The average person would, I think, express at least a little gratitude for such an opportunity, even if it meant putting up with some obnoxious rich kids and some meaningless theory classes that reward students for creative misuses of terms no one can define. Add some gratitude, some sincerity, and some plausibility that you could actually know how rotten your path was and never do a thing to change it for 18 years, and I will totally sympathize with the rest of your frustration with the meritocracy.