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A Princeton Education in Theory

Lost in the Meritocracy

The Undereducation of an Overachiever

by Walter Kirn (Doubleday, 2009)

It is hard to tell where the memoir aspect of Walter Kirn's reflection on his education in late Twentieth-Century America, Lost in the Meritocracy, shades into outright satire. Mr Kirn is one of our closest observers of virtual life: his novel Up in the Air reconstructs the absurd labyrinths of Kafka in the concrete of our shimmering but bogus airports. Lost in the Meritocracy reads like a training manual for draining life of meaning and consequence. Can it really be possible to emerge from three years at Princeton with a degree but no real schooling?

Mr Kirn's undoing appears to have been his eagerness to please his teachers, but perhaps it would be better to call it their eagerness to be pleased. The corruption begins in Third Grade, with the author's discovery of "art units."

That's when, art-wise, I became a fraud. With the pure, uncorrupted logic which God grants eight-year-olds, I reasoned that if art was made of feelings and feelings were secret, known only to the artist, then art could be anything you said it was. Collage by collage, tempera by tempera, I practiced producing mysterious oddities to which I could attach invented feelings. My stories about my art  became my art. "This decoupage is about how sad I get when my father leaves on a long business trip." "This watercolor shows my happiness when it snows and I can use my sled." These stories brought praise and sometimes hugs, eventually convincing me that art was about one feeling above all others: being loved. Or wanted to be loved. And once I discovered that, I got straight As.

By fourth grade, Walter has discovered that reading is something that you do for "comprehension," not for pleasure. "Comprehension," like IQ, can be tested and there's nothing like numbers to make something look scientific. Long before he graduates from high school, he understands education to be a steeplechase of contests, honors, and prizes. Then the ultimate prize admission to Princeton, as a sophomore falls into his lap. This Price is ultimate because Walter cannot see beyond it. He has no ambition to do anything except excel at school in order to get into a great college. Now that he is at a great college, his life becomes a flat tire of purposelessness. Walter has a breakdown. He remains ambulatory, but his brain's higher functions shut down, in a sort of immune response to the intellectual perversity of his academic life. (He saves himself by writing a play in verse.) The pointlessness of his goals gaining entry into coveted classes and programs just for the sake of doing so pollutes his everyday life.

Mr Kirn will not have been the first undergraduate to have a miserable time all through college, and especially not the first undergraduate of limited material resources to be demoralized by the thoughtless sybaritism of privileged classmates. A good deal of his book retails a series of largely unpleasant undergraduate escapades. (Without a lot of additional work, Mr Kirn could easily crank out a pamphlet explaining why he might be unlikely to show up at reunion.) This material is funny, in an awful sort of way, and its presence in this book suggests that Mr Kirn has not outgrown the desire to please, even if giving pleasure gets in the way of what's on his mind. What gives Lost in the Meritocracy a sharper edge is the wrinkle in time that might be called "the age of theory," and that just happened to coincide with Mr Kirn's school days.

In my private Princeton honors program, the deployment of key words was crucial, just as the recognition of them ahd been on the SAT. Because I despaired of ever grasping these theory words, style of presentation with everything. "Liminal," spoken breezily enough, and "valuational" served up with verve, could make a professor shiver and drop his chalk, but if delivered hesitantly, they bombed. They bombed before they reached one's lips, while still emerging from one's throat. Unless they were spit out promptly and with spirit, such words could actually choke a person.

The suffocating sensation often came over me whenever I opened Deconstruction and Criticism, a collection of essays by leading theory people that I spotted everywhere that year and knew to be one of the richest sources around for words that could turn a modest midterm essay into an A-plus tour de force. Here is a sentence (or what I took for one because it ended with a period) from the contribution by the Frenchman Jacques Derrida, the volume's most prestigious name: "He speaks his mother tongue in the language of the other and deprives himself of all reappropriation, all specularization in it." On the same page, I encountered the windpipe-blocking "heteronomous" and "invagination." When I turned the page I came across stuck in a footnote "unreadability."

That word I understood, of course.

But real understanding was rare with theory. It couldn't be depended on at all. Boldness of execution was what scored points. With one of my professors, a snappy "heuristic" usually did the trick. With another, the charm was a casual "praxis." Even when a poem or story fundamentally escaped me, I found that I could save face with terminology, as when I referred to T S Eliot's The Waste Land as "semiotically unstable." By this I meant "hard." All the theory words meant "hard" to me, from "hermeneutical" to "gestural." Once in a while I'd look one up and see that it had a more specific meaning, but later sometimes only minutes later the definition would catch a sort of breeze, float away like a dandelion seed, and the word would go back to meaning "hard."

There is no suggestion here that Walter was cheating, or playing the "theory" game with some unfair advantage of his sleeve. On the contrary, he seems to have mastered the art of turning his disadvantages his lack of critical understanding, the very short list of books that he has actually read into strengths, simply by behaving in the manner desired by his professors. As an intelligent young man, Walter Kirn had the moral responsibility of seeing to his own education, but it is not letting him off some sort of hook to complain that the authority figures in his general vicinity utterly failed to insist on better performance. No doubt there were professors who saw right through him, and who turned their backs on his displays of virtuosity. They were no more helpful than the ready enablers, the shivering, chalk-dropping purveyors of theory. Had Mr Kirn washed out of Princeton, it would have been a sign that the institution stood for some measure of academic excellence. In fact, however, Mr Kirn not only graduated but was nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship, and he actually snagged a Keasbey.

Perhaps the line at which memoir becomes satire is the oft-recurring moment when Walter's father disappears on one kind of trip or another hunting or business. Satire allows the author to drop any charges that might be pressed against his father for negligence. To be sure, the elder Mr Kirn appears to have been an extremely confused man, a patent attorney who required the pain of subsistence farming in order to find life meaningful, not to mention the intellectual quietus of membership (elective in his case) in the Church of Latter Day Saints. Every now and then, a curtain blows open and we catch a glimpse of drearily uncommunicative father-son interaction. At the end of Walter's first Christmas break from Princeton, his father (also a Princeton alum) drives him to the airport. At the end of the previous semester, for reasons that needn't concern us here (the episode is fundamentally extraneous), Walter did some property damage in his dorm rooms, and now he dreads facing the music.

"So it's been good? You're getting used to it?" My father had asked the same thing at Christmas dinner and I'd answered it the same way I did now.

"It's different." It's a different kind of place."

"I can't disagree. And it's tough sometimes. I bet. But made the best friends of my life at that damned place and you will, too, if you make a little effort."

I didn't respond. Too anxious. And now too sad. I'd met my father's wondrous college friends all three or four of them though only briefly, and never more than twice. They lived spread out around the country, mostly in the East, and every few years one would pass through Minnesota and show up at our dinner table, where my brother and I were expected to receive them like long-lost relatives. They always got drunk before the meal was over. Often, they arrived drunk. Then they told stories about getting drunk. For a few days after they left my father would talk about how much he missed them, how much they meant to him, what fine guys they were, but then a year would go by without him mentioning them, except when he was drunk.

By the time we cleared the congestion and delays I was wondering if I should go back to school at all. I might be arrested on arrival. I'd certainly be given another bill, a fantastically large bill that I couldn't duck and that my father would learn about eventually, possibly from a judge, who'd make him pay it. I considered confessing in the car to him; we still had fifteen minutes before the airport. I studied his profile, trying to gauge his mood his character, really and guess how he'd respond. He was dressed for work in an old suit bought from a thrift store called Next to New. Refusing to pay full price for office wear was part of his rebellion against the business world, as was his fondness for Copenhagen snuff. He spat a big gob of it out his rolled-down window and the subzero January air instantly froze it in a fan shape on the backseat window behind his shoulders.

"You know how you say about 3M sometimes that they discourage being your own man?"

"I guess I've said that. Or felt that. Sometimes. Why?"

"Princeton can be like that, too."

"I'm sure it can be. That's just the world for you, isn't it?" he said.

He craned his neck, merging back onto the freeway, and shot into a gap between two trucks. The daredevil move convinced me to stop talking. Instead of listening, he'd been gauging road speeds. I think he wanted me to know it, too. I think he was trying on purpose to cut me short. Desolation was rolling off me in waves and he wasn't stupid; he sensed I had bad news. He'd probably sensed it since I'd gotten home. But bad news angered him, I'd always felt. It might require him to perform some duty, and duty, to my father, always meant loss of freedom, never an opportunity for strength.

I knew this because I thought the same way.

Of course, there is always the possibility that Lost in the Meritocracy isn't satirical at all.

Many things can be expected of schools. The toughest thing that we can ask for is an annual bumper of graduates who have not only thought about the world but picked up the habit of thinking about it more comprehensively. A school that kindles a world view in students that they might be persuaded to change, by reasons that they would be capable of defending in argument, has really done all that can be hoped for. But such schooling is very difficult to implement, and there's a possibility that it works only with the smarter students. We can expect a school to stuff students with knowledge about the world. This is difficult but manageable; the risk is that the information imparted in fifth grade may turn out to be useless six or seven years later. The least that can be expected of a school is that students will be housed safely during daylight hours, while their parents are at work.

The easiest thing for a school to do is to turn out students who perform well on competitive examinations. This serves no social function whatsoever, but it is what most schools in fact aim to do. In Lost in the Meritocracy, Walter Kirn presents himself as evidence of the bankruptcy of American education at the highest levels. (August 2009)

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