Monday, June 8, 2009

Lost in the Meritocracy or Part of the Meritocracy? A Review

Parents of aspiring Ivy Leaguers have bought Ivy League tell-alls ever since elite universities first touted themselves as meritocratic. These books, the idea goes, provide two types of information for the discerning parent. First, the memoir style gives readers the specific details of how an individual--usually a self-identified outsider--gains admittance to an elite college. This forms a benchmark that parents can obsessively compare their own children to. How many AP classes did the author take? What was his SAT score? Did he play a sport or an instrument? Second, the tell-all serves as a Consumer Reports brief on the stuff the university admissions office wants to keep secret. Stuff like secret societies, all-male finals clubs, sexual harassment, and drunken festivities.

One increasingly popular task of the Ivy League memoir is to dispel the myth that these institutions cultivate intellect. Instead, these books proclaim, these schools cultivate snobbery, cutting corners, and networking. Ross Douthat's 2005 memoir, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, proclaimed that classes were the easiest thing at Harvard. Getting into a finals club was the real challenge, one that required confidence, the right clothes, and effortlessness--not knowledge.

Walter Kirn's book on his schooling from Minnesota public schools to Princeton University, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, published on the eve of Kirn's 25th Reunion, is presented in the same myth-busting vein. His publishers have touted Kirn's Princeton as an "arena climbing, ass-kissing, and recreational drug use."

Indeed, Kirn portrays himself as an outsider who landed at Princeton as a fish out of water. Nevermind the fact that his father went to Princeton, something that Kirn tries to brush off as irrelevant since his father never took pride in his Princetonian status. Kirn was a transfer student from Macalester College, and from his experience, it's easy to see why Princeton decided to stop accepting transfers. He was miserable as a sophomore living in Wilson College, "the ugliest cluster of buildings on the campus and the home to an inordinate number of glum-looking black and Jewish kids." Kirn, however, was roomed with some bona fide heirs and heiresses hailing from New York who would enjoy expensive champagne and nice furniture and then asked him to pay for it. Kirn eventually found his place as a member of Terrace Club, where "screwballs and misfits line up with plastic trays for veggie burgers and canned fruit salad."

But even with a social niche secured, Kirn's education was not. Though he took classes with such venerables as Dr. R--presumably Neil Rudenstine, whom he thanks in his acknowledgments--most of his coursework was an exercise in pretentiousness. "Boldness of execution was what scored points," Kirn says of papers. "With one of my professors, a snappy 'heuristic' usually did the trick. With another, the charm was a casual 'praxis.' Even when a poem or story fundamentally escape me, I found that I could save face with terminology, as when I referred to T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land as 'semiotically unstable.' By this I meant 'hard.'"

Though filled with snappy sentences, Kirn's characterization of Princeton is neither new nor wholly accurate. Like other college-memoir authors, he resorts to sweeping generalizations. According to Kirn, there are four major types of people at Princeton: "Those Who'd Been on Sailboats," or New England prepsters; "Those Who Strove to Serve Mankind," Woodrow Wilson School students who possess a certainty rare amongst 20 year olds; "Those Who Never Raised Their Eyes," the equivalent of computer science majors who play World of Warcraft all the time; and "Those Who Pursued Disintegration Fully," recreational drug users who then turn into five year seniors.

Yes, Kirn is writing about an older Princeton, but even then, could its students really be reduced to such stereotypes? Where were the minorities, the actual intellectuals, and the people on financial aid? Kirn would gladly place them all into a fifth category of "misfits." But even Kirn's acquaintances were more three-dimensional than his broad categories. His friend/girlfriend Nina was some what of an artiste who had a masochistic view of feminism. She was clearly wealthier than Kirn, but he never explores the dynamics of that relationship.

At the same time, Kirn's unique anecdotes are a little too special. Kirn's was by no means a "typical" Princeton experience--if such even exists. He was a transfer student at a time when the University admitted 20 a year. Parents don't need to worry that when they send their kids to Princeton, they'll end up doing coke in an Upper West Side apartment while trying not to disturb Truman Capote, the eccentric upstairs neighbor.

Even if the book fails to illuminate any new insights about Princeton, Kirn does shed light on a failure of the American education system as a whole through his account of his pre-Princeton education. In our current "meritocracy," what passes as merit-worthy are a series of high scores on standardized tests, the ability to win spelling competitions in elementary school, knowing how to get A's playing to a teachers' interests, and winning poetry contests by artfully mimicking others. Above all, the meritocracy awards the ability trick others into believing in you. Kirn uses this skill throughout his book. Though filled with many entertaining anecdotes, the book ultimately does not grapple the larger questions. Kirn doesn't question where his ambition came from, or why it's inherently dangerous for a meritocracy to base itself on percentiles and SAT scores.

Perhaps Kirn is avoiding these questions because he doesn't want to know the answers. After all, he is a product of the meritocracy. He did well on his SAT's, went to an elite university, and is now a successful writer. Kirn, like any self-respecting Princeton alumnus, would hate to think that his success was based on a game who's rules were in his favor.


AC said...

We are all encouraged to downplay the importance of native intelligence, and the role of intelligence as a selection criterion for college. Of course this makes sense: a large part of the reason for college is to obtain an expensive (and thus hard to fake) credential of our intelligence for future employers. Hence many employers are more impressed by our Ivy League diploma than by the contents of our transcript.

As an institution dedicated to providing these expensive indicators, it makes sense for colleges to try to discredit the importance of intelligence: if employers were to switch to using IQ tests instead, colleges would be out of business.

Emily said...

Thanks for writing a much more nuanced review than many of the others I've read. I think you get at a lot of the book's problems, most centrally Kirn's tendency to over-generalize (though I should say that I really enjoyed the book, and there's a lot in it to which I can relate).

The only thing I'd take issue with is that it seems to me you're suggesting that the reason Kirn was unhappy at Princeton and ultimately turned to drugs as a coping/fitting-in mechanism is because he was a transfer student. I don't think that's indicated by Kirn's experiences, and it could have as much to do with coming from a different part of the country and a different socioeconomic/cultural background. I know I often felt culture shock in my first year at Princeton, now that the university no longer accepts transfers—and like Kirn, I have an alum parent, too. However false a sense it might be in a reasonably diverse environment, in my experience it is very easy indeed to feel alienated at Princeton, and not something easily explained away by a transfer policy.

Anonymous said...

The book is wonderful when read more as a novel than as a critique of Pton and all Education.....Character, voice, narrative are all're sad when you have to stop reading......

Anonymous said...

This guy is just as much a product of Princeton as someone who marches in 40 consecutive P-rades. Princeton inspires strong feelings, both positive and negative, and he obviously professes to have the latter. To me, he sounds like just another Terrace hipster, with an entitled malevolent streak brought on by drug use and privileged upbringing. But what do I know.

Anonymous said...

Though not quite finished with the book, I appreciate this review. One wonders whether or not Kirn is aware of the irony of being one of the beneficiaries of the so-called meritocracy. He thinks he's lost? Try being in the Ivy League and having to leave because of money and illness, and ending up in an inferior occupation. It sucks a whole lot worse than going through some mental anguish - so common in intense schools - then finishing, going to another prestigious school, and becoming a successful writer. Sucks a WHOLE lot more. Additionally, there is the question of credibility. A public school teacher put a hand on his nipple while he was in the lunch line? Nobody noticed this? And cussed with the f word and more in a class? Hard to believe. Are we supposed to take this as hyperbole in the service of humor? If so, then what else isn't true? And he's relatively poor, but his father is a patent lawyer and a Princeton grad himself. Man, that's really the pits, isn't it? Just can't get into privilege bashing and affected soul searching when the writer is himself so privileged, and still playing the same game. I won't be reading any more from Kirn.