Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever
by Walter Kirn
Doubleday, 211 pages, $24.95
If you were out to assemble the Platonic ideal, the parodic prototype, of the Great American bildungsroman—wherein a middle-class, top-of-his-class lad from the Middle West is saved, then savaged by the North Atlantic and, specifically, the Ivy League—how might you proceed?
You’ll first need, of course, an epigraph from the genre’s patron saint, F. Scott Fitzgerald. No nuance must undermine the theme of geography as destiny. Before his coastal migration, your hero, the self-improving provincial, must chafe against the simplicity, the orthodoxy, the complacency and cultural myopia of his putative peers. These peers will, say, offer him a bottle of cherry Schnapps on a bus ride to a sitting of the SATs, and your hero will refuse, and this refusal to imbibe the novelty liqueur of local convention will be understood as both a willful catalyst of fate and an ordained enactment of the cosmic order.
“My friends seem wounded by this,” you might write. “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 other kids—and waved it around to make sure the teachers saw me.”
Since Fitzgerald’s years in central New Jersey, and Nick Carraway’s in coastal Connecticut, the environs of Cambridge, New Haven, Princeton and the rest have undergone radical transformation, by any demographic measure. The one thing shared by all the hostile tribes now occupying our elite old colleges is the alien aspect they present Middle-American, small-town virtue.
In the age of Palin, it’s not hard to convince a reader that elitists and radicals, effete fops and militant intellectuals, constitute a single power bloc, assembled and scheming in some smoke-filled dorm room. “My first semester at Princeton,” Walter Kirn’s memoir offers, “I had four roommates who resembled no one I’d ever known.” Who’d dare deny him his caricatures, fashioned as living beings? “Peter, a foppish piano prodigy … fine-bristled mustached … robe and slippers … Benson and Hedges Menthol 100s … plinking out show tunes.” “Jennifer, the composer’s plump heiress girlfriend … limousine on weekends … party with celebrities … Bee Gees.” “Tim, the son of a New York journalist … Oil of Olay … tuck[ed] in at night … complete with fairy tales.” “And Joshua, an earnest Long Island Quaker kid … red beard … played guitar and protested apartheid.”
The moral arc of Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever was already fully formed in the 2005 Atlantic Monthly article of the same name (sans subtitle) from which it’s been expanded. In both versions, Mr. Kirn’s origin story begins, with bathos worthy of Marvel, at the rejection of that Schnapps in the back of the school bus. “And so I go on to college, and they don’t.” The board scores ratify the vague sense of unbelonging he’s harbored all along as a child in Minnesota farm country, and allow him to forgo his final year of high school for early entrance to nearby Macalester College.
Still restless, he transfers to Princeton the next year and is, of course, immediately alienated from the cosmopolitans he sought. (Further comic-book drama: Without consultation, Peter, Jennifer, Tim and Joshua buy several thousand dollars’ worth of common-room furnishings, then ban young Kirn from the room when he tells them he can’t pay. Months later, he trashes their belongings in a fit of rage, and is quietly expelled from the dorm.)
In time, Mr. Kirn falls in with a group of ironical English majors and, instead of reading Great Books, learns how to game professors with strategically aped jargon. “We toted around books by Roland Barthes, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Walter Benjamin. We spoke of ‘playfulness’ and ‘textuality’ and concluded before we’d even read a hundredth of it that the Western canon was ‘illegitimate.’ …” Myriad chemicals, and young women, are experimented with. (“There is no drug scene like an Ivy League drug scene.”) At the end of his junior year, Mr. Kirn experienced some sort of psychological break, possibly the first case of Derrida-induced aphasia in the literature. For some reason, deliverance from traumatic undereducation at Princeton takes the form of an expected scholarship for graduate study at Oxford.