Lost in the Meritocracy
The Undereducation of an Overachiever
By Walter Kirn
(Doubleday, Hardcover, 9780385521284, 224pp.)
Publication Date: May 19, 2009
List Price: $24.95*
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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 Kirn’s sharp, rueful, and often funny book—and likely a sense of liberation at its end.
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.
“A funny, self-mocking memoir about how persistently Mr. Kirn went astray. . . . Great fun.” —The New York Times
“The witty, self-castigating story of the author’s single-minded quest to succeed at a series of tests and competitions that took him from one of the lowest-ranked high schools in Minnesota to Princeton.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Very few people could get away with complaining about attending Princeton University, but Walter Kirn does. . . . Darkly hilarious.” —The Plain Dealer
“Scathing and funny. . . . Too delicious.” —Newsweek
“Hilarious. . . . Kirn recounts the many ways that the America educational rat race betrayed him.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Tough, funny, and moving. . . . What’s such great fun about the book is the intense good humor with which he looks back, and the wonderful portraits he provides of the side characters in his life. . . . There’s a kind of joyous cackle behind these colorful scenes, and a sadness, too, both finally giving way to a clean-edged wisdom that infiltrates his story as he leads us toward his moral awakening.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Tartly funny.” —Newsday
“The revelation that skating on the surface of knowledge might kill him if he didn't cut it out was Kirn’s alone, but its impact registers far and wide.” —Elle
“A diverting memoir that has less to do with grades and standardized test scores than with a Mormon-raised farm boy’s difficulty adjusting to the temptations and prejudices of an Ivy League school.” —The Miami Herald
“A smart, ambitious writer. . . . Kirn’s sentences would be a delight even if they were empty. That they address a serious subject—the Ivy League training that is less about learning than about preparing its beneficiaries to join the ruling class—seems like a bonus.” —Bloomberg News
“A fine narrative of what it is to be young, lost, deeply immersed in drugs, and frequently on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” —Bookslut
“Kirn shows, better than any recent book, how our educational system is perverted from beginning to end. . . . Kirn’s is one idealist’s stirring recollection of what it took to awaken himself from the sloth imposed by the Ivy League’s bureaucratic-meritocracy.” —The Daily Beast
“Our only wish was for more.” —McSweeney’s