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Unhallowed halls

Kirn gives higher ed a failing grade



Midway through his first year at Princeton, Walter Kirn decided to become an English major, mostly because "it sounded like something I might already know." Pretty quickly, he learned what many an English major before and since has also learned: that a snappy sprinkling of theoretical terms (bullshitting, in other words) "could turn a modest midterm essay into an A-plus tour de force." Using phrases like "gestural," "heuristic" and "semiotically unstable," gave Kirn and his classmates the linguistic tools to skip "straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we'd never constructed in the first place."

Lost in the Meritocracy
  • Lost in the Meritocracy

That a college education often resembles little more than clever finesse is only one part of a larger indictment in Kirn's latest, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overacheiver. In this shrewd, engaging memoir, Kirn, who now lives in Livingston, illustrates a disturbingly accurate portrayal of the American meritocracy, specifically the kind extant in higher education. The book offers both a strikingly relevant discussion ofthe absurdities of meritocratic advancement (perhaps not as talent-based as we like to think) as well as an extremely amusing satire of Ivy League undergraduates—think drug-addled Marxists who regard flushing the toilet as a form of "unpaid labor" and trustafarians who party on their families' sailboats like there's no tomorrow ("but tomorrow was coming, laden with obligations.")

Though the chapters that detail Kirn's years at Princeton exist as the memoir's narrative crux, it's the opening chapters, wherein Kirn describes his childhood and adolescent years (when he learned that "percentile is destiny in America"), that give a certain depth to the memoir. Kirn's father, a self-loathing patent attorney for the 3M Corporation joined "in his campaign against convention and conformity," the Mormon Church. Then, when that conversion didn't really take, the elder Kirn moved the family to rural Minnesota in order to farm a small plot of land Amish-style (while commuting to 3M in St. Paul). When the younger Kirn arrives at Princeton, he's, more or less, a Minnesota farm boy with high SAT scores and a lumberjacky flannel shirt that "filled me with shame about my regional origins."

It's easy to believe Kirn felt displaced among social and academic elites. In one circumstance, both tragic and comedic, he's banished from the common room his wealthy roommates have decorated with a Persian rug and a chintz sofa—for which he wouldn't pony up almost $700-—rendering the suite "a concentrated version of what the whole campus would come to represent for me: a private association of the powerful."

However, the major indictment in Kirn's discussion is the absurdity of advancement itself. Throughout, Kirn is relentlessly self-castigating. Nonetheless, he describes an attitude fairly common among overachievers: "I knew only one direction: forward. I lived for prizes, plaques, citations, stars, and I gave no thought to any goal beyond my next appearance on the honor roll. Learning was secondary, promotion was primary. No one ever told me what the point was, except to keep on accumulating points, and this struck me as sufficient. What else was there?"

After writing pretentious plays (his first was called Late Modern, an Apocalyptic Comedy) and bedding (or almost bedding) girls who live beneath Truman Capote ("I'll call upstairs...Truman's the best..."), Kirn eventually succumbs to the general malaise of many a college student who eat too little, do too many drugs, and who ultimately come to agree with the establishment, which "no longer seemed to want me once it decided, by some fluke, to have me."

Eventually, however, Kirn rallies. By the end of his senior year, he's a finalist for a prestigious fellowship funded by the estate of a generous spinster, whose will provides "a generous wine allowance" as part of the fellowship. Kirn aces the interview: "It appeared I'd come through, and by doing what I did best: treating the room as a text and reading it, first to myself and then aloud, to everyone."

One can't really escape the feeling that Kirn has done the same with us: treated his audience as a text and then delivered something we might like to hear. His accounts of Princetonian elites are wickedly schadenfreude-esque. He is appropriately disparaging of Princeton, and yet he recognizes its currency in the real world ("I at last knew my power and my status as what I'd forgotten I was: a Princeton man"). Like any good memoir, Kirn's narrative is both funny and cuttingly self-reflective.

Lost in the Meritocracy is, unerringly, a good read. However, unlike many memoirs, it's not simply a self-indulgent read. Though Kirn attended college in the early 1980s, his commentary about the so-called meritocracy feels alarmingly prescient. In the past month alone, the Chronicle of Higher Education has published two essays that describe the lack of education in higher education, titling one essay "America's Most Overrated Product: the Bachelor's Degree." Countless other journals have called for, essentially, the demise of the university system as we know it. Kirn's memoir illustrates an educational system that seems more about a systematic approach than an educational one, and beneath his memories of angst and bad literary theory there lies a message, and it's one we ought to listen to. The Cave:Advertising:02 Production Art:IndyLogoDingbat2002.tifB:'erary th",,"")>

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