Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever

The best memoirs spin out of the collision of two fronts, the weather that lives inside the writer and the weather in which the writer lives. When an intimate climate bangs against the meteorology of the outer world, the reader is twice elevated.

Among recent memoirs, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, J. R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar, and Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father achieved this expansive duality. Walter Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy: The Overeducation of an Underachiever doesn’t quite make it. As it tracks his strategically manipulated entry into Princeton and the “ruling class” — all due to his ability to game the system and flatter the gatekeepers — it occasionally scores high on satire and (suspiciously) triumphant self-abnegation. Kirn knows how to toss off lines like, “I chose to major in English, since it sounded like something I might already know,” but he struggles to lash his experience to the larger world with any big — or even little — bangs.

At times it even feels like Kirn is channeling David Sedaris. But as a humorist, Sederis is licensed to reduce the world to clichés — it’s part of the strategy on which humor is erected. As a writer with palpably grander ambitions, Kirn should be seeking a deeper quarry.

Occasionally he finds it. Lost in the Meritocracy succeeds best in its first obligation of authentic self-reporting as it unpeels this “confused young opportunist.” But what works initially — for example, the crucial revelation that he feels like a successful fraud — collapses under the weight of incessant repetition. These memes-on-a-loop give the book an infomercial quality. It feels like a sales job.

Kirn is a well-regarded novelist and reviewer who first published an excerpt from this stump of a memoir in the Atlantic in 2005. The book covers a truncated portion of his life — albeit an intense and defining period — from the end of high school through college, with some flashback infill. Kirn grew up in the country’s midsection, and elements of a bildungsroman darken the Minnesota landscape as he recalls the difficulties of being the smart kid in intellect-dismissing, arugula-absent, low-NPR-penetration markets.

The book opens as the author and the rest of his high school class are on a bus headed for the SATs. He knows it is “the test that will help determine who will get ahead in life, who will stay put, and who will fall behind.” Kirn has long prepared for this day, and sees far past the comforting camaraderie:

We talk as though we’ll be together forever, but I’ve always known better: someday we’ll be ranked. We’ll be screened and scored and separated. I’ve known this, it seems, since my first few years in grade school?when I raised my hand slightly faster than the others kids — and waved it around to make sure the teachers saw me.

Kirn, who comes across as a less-likeable Al Gore, demurs when these losers offer him a slug. “A few of my closest buddies seal their fates by opening pint bottles of cherry schnapps the moment we leave the high-school parking lot.” It’s his Lisa Simpson moment.

Kirn ended up on that bus courtesy of his narratively incomplete father, who, like some anti-Moses, led the family on a series of journeys to under-promising lands. They lived on “a small farm that we cultivate, Amish style,” Kirn writes, but then points out that his father “isn’t a farmer, he’s a patent lawyer, and our family’s excursion into vintage agriculture (like our conversion to Mormonism, which preceded it) is just one more phase in his campaign against convention and conformity that began?when he joined the 3M Corporation and sacrificed? his sacred freedom to the dictates of the herd.”

While Kirn’s father — who, interestingly, isn’t named in the book — refuses to please, Walter’s problem is that he is a chronic over-pleaser: “Growing up I’d respected authority, feared punishment.” A more fully realized memoir would have explored his relationship to his father and teased out his own compensatory reaction to his father’s personal choices.

Lost in the Meritocracy, which on one level is also an indictment of how easily our educational bureaucracy can be traduced by ingratiating bullshit, pivots on Kirn’s assessment of his shrewdness — his very braininess — as a toxic gift that turned him into the undereducated overachiever of the book’s subtitle. He knows a lot but understands far less; his multitude of wins is actually a multitude of sins. His academic ascendancy only amplifies his self-doubt, as does his fish-out-of-water status at elite Princeton (where, with Freudian fatefulness, his father went).

In fact, one wonders why someone as clever as Kirn was shocked by Princeton’s uppityness. He transferred there from Macalester, claiming (rather defensively) that his father played no role; it was just the vague influence of an F. Scott Fitzgerald–Minnesota nexus. But there are no surprises at Princeton: the school’s reputation — its eating clubs, its hierarchy — is folkloric. So combined with Kirn’s paternal pedigree and obvious alertness, his much-billboarded outsider status seems manipulatively willful.

Economic disparity is another marker of Kirn’s social marginalization. In a pivotal moment in Kirn’s freshman year, his wealthy roommates — or more accurately, their gilded dads — all contribute to tricking out their suite with fancy furniture and accessories. But because he can’t afford his share, Kirn is banned from even sitting on the sofa or walking on the Persian rug. “The suite was now a concentrated version of what the whole campus would come to represent for me,” he writes, “a private association of the powerful which I’d been invited to visit on a day pass.” When they all leave for the holiday, Kirn stays behind and completely trashes the room, down to clipping the “harp of wires under the raised lid of Peter’s Steinway.”

The Princeton years, with their alcohol, drugs, sex, and almost no rock ‘n’ roll, constitute the bulk of the book. And though it has some fine touches, Kirn’s depiction of his experience on campus (and in fact the entire book) is undermined by an assembly line of stereotypes. Consistently, in fact, Kirn’s character-development skills fail to rise beyond the theme-song level of “Gilligan; The Skipper, too; a Millionaire and his wife.”

Here are just some of the one-note mannequins Lost in the Meritocracy offers:

Kirn’s high school teachers were:

Mrs. Hannah: “A brown-eyed hippie girl with feather earrings and Navajo-like, lustrous dark hair.”

Mr. C.: “The English teacher whose wife’s first pregnancy had forced him to quit the grad-school program that he hoped would turn him into a novelist.”

Mr. Ka: “Our fussy Korean accounting instructor.”

The two Mormon girls he lusted over were:

Eliza: “Pristine and unattainable.”

Celia: “Restless and impressionable.”

His Princeton friends include:

Adam: “A Jewish science whiz from the New York suburbs.”

Leslie: “A handsome blond campus prince — the descendent of a legendary industrialist.”

Barry: “A self-proclaimed Marxist from New York City?the only child of a classics professor and a nightclub singer.”

And even his ultimate benefactress isn’t spared this cruel reductionism:

Miss Marguerite Keasbey: “The spinster heiress to a vast asbestos fortune.”

We hope for memoir, in its rawness of recollection, to break down stereotypes, not fortify them. Might one or more of these pre-packaged, shelf-stable characters have had depth below the surface? If not in the moment, did time deepen them? But none of them are remotely brought to life in Lost in the Meritocracy — Kirn’s take on Princeton is as nuanced as the Marx Brothers’ take on the college life in Horsefeathers.

The author even unwittingly admits to his character-in-a-box instinct. Describing a girl at Princeton, he writes, “I could tell she’d grown up in New York like the rest of them, and I thought I could even guess which neighborhood: the Upper West Side. One of her parents was probably a professor, of history or philosophy, most likely.” At worst this is a kind of literary bigotry. At best, it’s sloppiness — or padding. So is the chronic repetition syndrome of the book’s themes. Kirn felt “outcast status,” his friends were “comrades in estrangement,” “screwballs and misfits.” He was an “addled loner.”

We are also relentlessly pounded over the head with a roll call of descriptions for the raw ambition that turned him into a soulless academic careerist and trickster.

Four years ago my SAT scores launched a new phase in a trajectory that I’d been riding since age five.

A natural born child of the meritocracy? I lived for prizes, plaques, citations, stars, and I gave no thought to any goal beyond my next appearance on the honor roll.

I rely on gimmicky maneuvers such as rephrasing teachers’ simple questions?designed to provoke class discussion that I can dominate with my amped-up, flash-card-based vocabulary.

If my schooling had taught me anything, it was how to mold myself — my words, my range of allusions, my body language — into whatever shape the day required?

And then, in case we didn’t get the message, the prospect of graduation reveals it yet again: “The only game I’d ever learn to play — scaling the American meritocratic mountain — was, I feared, about to end.”

To be fair, there are some crackling good lines in the book. Kirn wonders if a student’s “Quaker passion for justice — so keen in the matter of black South Africa — extended to individuals.” He and his fellow English majors “skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literature that we’d never constructed in the first place.” And, aphoristically, “Anxiety over poor grammar ensures poor grammar.”

As the book concludes, Kirn’s gnawing self-doubt climaxes in a breakdown. He becomes aphasic — “cracks-up,” in a nod to Fitzgerald — and recovers through a combination of the usual ministrations: he writes a play, he meets a woman, he spends hours in bed repeating words and their definitions in alphabetical order. He also blows a Rhodes scholarship and wins the Keasbey — a grant from a quirky foundation that appreciates his oddity and sends him off to Oxford.

But before he leaves for England, he finds himself back home and feverish. Conveniently, he’s “standing before the bookcase containing my mother’s classics for the masses.” (Apparently, his gift for condescension hasn’t been damaged by his travails.) Rather than read to win, he decides to read for its own sacred sake; he lets the books “absorb” him: “And so, belatedly, haltingly, accidentally, and quite implausibly and incredibly, it began at last: my education.” So that’s the deal. Boy meets books. Boy makes books work for him. Boy has a breakdown. Books meet boy.

What’s singularly absent from Lost in the Meritocracy, though, is any serious consideration of the nature of the meritocracy itself. The word is of recent vintage; Michael Young coined it for his 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, in which it wasn’t exactly used as a compliment but as a caution for a world in which a gifted elite was being pitchforked out of power by the masses.

It’s not clear what Kirn thinks of the concept his book rotates around. Does he believe that a pure meritocracy is possible or desirable? Is he troubled about the Darwinistic fate of those who are losers in the American Idol competition for talent? What about affirmative action, athletic scholarships, and legacies (which he benefited from)? Where does he fit in Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of Outliers, which raises doubts about the self-made success story? For such a culturally connected social critic, these are curious oversights. Had Lost in the Meritocracy loosened the knot that is looped and relooped around the neck of its subject — and widened its aperture — it might have encircled larger themes, and been a better book. Kirn is surely capable of it.