Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Book Review: Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever (2009) by Walter Kirn.

Knowledge isn't power, according to Walter Kirn's memoir, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever.

It's a "reckoning...a way to assess your location, your true position, not a strategy for improving your position." This was a lesson he received from his "surrogate father"--a retired admiral when he was about four. However, Kirn "lost [his] bearings. [He] veered off course. [He] went away to school." Kirn's disorientation reached its zenith during his time at Princeton.

To Kirn, formal education devolved into a game of mimicry, trickery, and fakery.

"With virtually no stored literary material about which to harbor critical assumptions, I relied on my gift for mimicking authority figures and playing back to them their own ideas as though they were conclusions I'd reached myself.... To me, imitation and education were different words for the same thing, anyway. What was learning but a form of borrowing? And what was intelligence but borrowing slyly?"

Kirn learned how to deconstruct without knowing how to construct anything. "We skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we'd never constructed in the first place."

Kirn learned other artifices. "I couldn't quote anyone, reliably. I'd honed other skills: for flattering those in power without appearing to, for rating artistic reputations according to academic fashions, for matching my intonations and vocabulary to the backgrounds of my listeners, for placing certain words in smirking quotation marks and rolling my eyes when someone spoke too earnestly about some 'classic' or 'masterpiece,' for veering left when the conventional wisdom went right and then doubling back if it looked like it was changing. Flexibility, irony, self-consciousness, contrarianism. They'd gotten me through Princeton....I'd found out a lot since I'd aced the SATs, about the system, about myself, and about the new class that the system had created, which I was now part of, for better or worse. The class that runs things."

Through this "elite" educational process what Kirn really learned was cynicism and its ultimate end: nihilism. It nearly broke him. He curiously clawed back by learning (on his own) obscure words and their definitions. And thinking back to the advice he received from his mentor as a child. It's odd that the book took about a quarter century to write or be published. It contains references to being at Princeton when Lennon was shot (1980), and yet it was published this year. Nevertheless, its message translates to today.