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Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachieverby Walter Kirn
Synopses & Reviews
Percentile is destiny in America.”
So says Walter Kirn, a peerless observer and interpreter of American life, in this whip-smart memoir of his own long strange trip through American education. Working his way up the ladder of standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and class rankings, Kirn launched himself eastward from his rural Minnesota hometown to the ivy-covered campus of Princeton University. There he found himself not in a temple of higher learning so much as an arena for gamesmanship, snobbery, social climbing, ass-kissing, and recreational drug use, where the point of literature classes was to mirror the instructor's critical theories and actual reading of the books under consideration was optional. Just on the other side of the “bell curve's leading edge” loomed a complete psychic collapse.
LOST IN THE MERITOCRACY reckons up the costs of a system where the point is simply to keep accumulating points and never to look back—or within. It's a remarkable book that suggests the first step toward intellectual fulfillment is getting off the treadmill that is the American meritocracy. Every American who has spent years of his or her life there will experience many shocks of recognition while reading Walter Kirns sharp, rueful, and often funny book—and likely a sense of liberation at its end.
As a high school student in the 1970s, Walter Kirn knew the deal: He would win contests, prizes and plaques; and, in return, he would get the job, the girl and entree into elite social circles. In his hilarious memoir, "Lost in the Meritocracy," Kirn recounts the many ways that the American educational rat race betrayed him. He ends up miserable at Princeton, bullied by his rich roommates and ashamed... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) of his Minnesota upbringing. He majors in English because it sounds like something he already knows and applies for a Rhodes scholarship while high on speed. "Learning was secondary, promotion was primary," he writes. "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?" The collegiate Kirn considers himself "an expert social bird-watcher" and, in an effort to find his niche, mimics such Princeton species as the sailors, the drama kids and the coke-heads. But his attempts fall flat. When he tries to fit in with the sailors, he washes and tumble-dries his deck shoes until they look sufficiently worn, but they end up shrinking and giving him blisters. Kirn throws spit wads at his Ivy League education, but with six works of fiction to his name as well as regular bylines in prestigious publications, perhaps he was well served by the meritocracy after all. Rachel Saslow is an editorial aide in The Washington Post Health section. Reviewed by Rachel Saslow, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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One of the nation's best observers and interpreters of American life chronicles his own long, strange trip through American education. This is a remarkable book that suggests the first step toward intellectual fulfillment is getting off the treadmill that is the American meritocracy.
About the Author
WALTER KIRN is a regular reviewer for The New York Times Book Review, and his work appears in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Time, New York, GQ and Esquire. He is the author of six previous works of fiction: My Hard Bargain: Stories, She Needed Me, Thumbsucker, Up in the Air, Mission to America and The Unbinding. Kirn is a graduate of Princeton University and attended Oxford on a scholarship from the Keasby Foundation. He lives in Livingston, Montana.
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