Walter Kirn on The Colbert Report (Canadian Link): http://watch.thecomedynetwork.ca/the-colbert-report/full-episodes/#clip174780
Walter Kirn on The Colbert Report (USA Link): http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/228190/may-19-2009/walter-kirn
“Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever”
By: Walter Kirn (Doubleday)
Reviewed By: Martin C. Winer
June 28, 2009
When I picked up “Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever” by Walter Kirn (Doubleday), I expected a semi-dry expose on the problems facing the American Education system with an emphasis on the Ivy League schools. The only semi-dry thing in the book was the champagne Kirn poured over two fawning exchange students during a graduation night orgy on his way to Princeton. Told with prose and wit more common to novels, Kirn details his experiences as he rises out of the rural Minnesota winning one of 20 transfer student spots at Ivy League Princeton.
By Kirn’s account it is a wonder that there is any ivy left due to the propensity of the students to smoke any mildly herbaceous looking thing.
“There is no drug scene like an Ivy League drug scene. Kids can’t just get high; they have to seek epiphanies. They have to ground their mischief in manifestos. The most popular one around … held that drugs, … especially plant based psychedelic drugs helped to break down the rigid inner partitions that restricted one’s full humanity.” (p. 124)
Recreational drug use was pervasive at Princeton as were many other illicit activities, with education taking a back seat. I was so engaged with the stories that I was half way through when I reexamined the title and asked “what is a meritocracy anyways?”
Meritocracy was introduced as a more equitable replacement for aristocracy. Insofar as education, Harvard’s James Conant championed the cause of educational reform towards meritocracy as a realization of Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a “natural aristocracy among men, founded on virtue and talents.” (Jefferson used the term ‘natural aristocracy’ instead of ‘meritocracy’ because it wasn’t coined a term until the 1958 book “Rise of the Meritocracy” by Michael Young. Incidentally it was intended pejoratively.) As with many high minded theories, the implementation often renders an imperfect reflection of the ideal.
Conant set the controversial School Aptitude Test (SAT) as gatekeeper for the bastions of higher learning guarding all the rewards of power that lay beyond. When Walter Kirn took the SAT, he discovered he “had a natural talent for multiple-choice tests [which] landed [him] without the vaguest survival instructions [at Princeton]”. (p. 6) Throughout the course of the book which details his experiences at Princeton Kirn suggests that his education consisted of learning how to succeed in the education system; this is a far cry from becoming educated.
The distinction is eloquently revealed when Kirn is asked to discuss the ‘critical assumptions’ he’s made in reading the Norton anthologies; unfortunately, Kirn had done little reading at all:
“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. I’d honed these skills on the speech team back in high school, and l didn’t regard them as sins against the [Princeton Student] Honor Code. Indeed, they embodied an honor code: my own “Be honored” it stated. “Or be damned.” 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?” (p.119)
Throughout the course of the book Kirn refers to himself as a fraud – sometimes proudly but more often with remorse. But is Kirn a fraud or instead a sufferer of “Fraud Syndrome”? Fraud Syndrome (also Impostor Syndrome) is not an official psychiatric diagnosis, but it is a topic well known and documented by psychiatrists and psychologists. It is an intellectual condition where the intellect feels disconnected from any accomplishments or abilities. If the intellect were a tree, then the tree would lack any knowledge of its roots and thus mistakenly think that its ability to grow upright was the result of undeserved serendipity.
Kirn’s notion that he somehow managed to beguile and finesse the system into accepting him to its highest ranks is significantly, and ironically, weakened by the quality of the writing he uses in making said point. What follows is an example of Kirn’s average writing:
“Certain questions which grown-ups deem unanswerable begin as answers which children find unquestionable. For example: what is Death? To me at eight years old, death was the signal for a person’s loved ones to cry and look stricken for a while and then begin dividing up his stuff.” (p. 30)
Witty and clever turns of phrases such as these are found on every other page. While this made for a delightful read, it served to undermine one of his main tenets. It seems far more likely that Kirn didn’t finesse the system, but that the system managed recognized his talent despite his own inability to do so – marshalling him exactly where he ought to be: in the commensurate Princeton English Program.
If Fraud Syndrome ever does make it one day to be an official diagnosis, then Kirn should appear on the Public Service Announcement poster. The text is rife with examples of Kirn’s detachment from his talent and feelings of being a fraud:
“My genuine tears [over the news of John Lennon’s death] flowed along with my false tears, as they did the distinction between them blurred. I wasn’t ashamed of this. My fraudulence, I was coming to understand, was in a way the truest thing about me.” (p. 77)
“The need to finesse my ignorance through such trickery [(using catchphrases)] — honorable trickery to my mind, but not to other minds, perhaps — left me feeling hollow and vaguely haunted. Seeking security in numbers, I sought out the company of other frauds.” (p. 121)
“I grew to suspect that certain professors were on to us, and I wondered if they too, were fakes.” (p. 122)
“[My poems] were concerned with grander matters such as the creeping loss of “personhood” in an era of technological change. How I’d hit on this theme I wasn’t sure, but the more time I spent on it the more convinced l grew that I’d borrowed it.” (p.140)
“I confessed that my poems were all a sham and that [my] Bittman [character] was a hybrid version of Eliot’s Prufrock and Berryman’s Henry two famously beleaguered characters from the North anthologies.” (p.144)
“I felt in [my friend’s] company, as in no one else’s, that my bullshitting was a defensible activity, a circular approach to enlightenment.” (p. 168)
One of Kirn’s Princeton encounters offers a possible cause for Fraud Syndrome. Kirn has a conversation with Julian — undoubtedly Dr. Julian Jaynes best known for his book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” – in a bar following the production of one of Kirn’s plays. Julian explained that the human mind was actually two distinct entities, that in ancient times were:
“… virtual strangers to each other. When a thought arose in one of them, the other one, acting as a receiver, processed the thought as a voice, an actual voice. … But who was this being? … Man had answered these questions in many ways. He’d conceived of gods and spirits, angels and demons, trolls and fairies. Muses.” (pps. 93-94)
When Julian asked Kirn: “did you ever feel, during the composition of your script, that someone else, not you, was in control?” Kirn replied: “Honestly, I feel that way a lot. Down deep, in a quiet way, I feel it constantly. And sometimes it shakes me up a little.” (p. 94) Perhaps this is why Kirn was unable to identify with his obvious talent; it felt external to him. While Kirn makes this point incidentally in his book, it is nonetheless a very important one. While Kirn fails to connect with his talent due to this separation of the mind, many more do something far worse: Many fail to express their talents at all – failing to listen to that other ‘voice’.
While Kirn fails to impress upon me that his placement at Princeton was either coincidental or accidental, he does make some well taken points about the education he received once there. It seems that when reading in the English program, pretension superseded comprehension.
“We … concluded, before we’d read even a hundredth of it, that Western canon was “illegitimate,” a veiled expression of powerful group interests that it was our duty to subvert. In our rush to adopt the latest attitudes and please the younger and hipper of our instructors, … we skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we’d never constructed in the first place.” (p.121)
“To thinkers of this school, great literature was an incoherent con, and I — a born con man who knew little about great literature had every reason to agree with them. In the land of nonreadability the nonreader was king it seemed. Long live the king.” (p.122)
Kirn found that many of the supposed ‘greats’ they were asked to read were completely incomprehensible by students and professors alike:
“Here is a sentence (or what I took to be 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 as the language of the other and deprives himself of all reappropriation, all specularization in it.” On the same page I encountered windpipe-blocking “heteronomous’ and “invagination.” When I turned the page I came across – tucked in a footnote –“unreadability.”
That word I understood of course.” (p.120)
For Kirn, university was a process in learning to jockey jargon words and phrases effectively. Phrases like ‘semiotically unstable’ (referring to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”) and words such as ‘hermeneutical’, ‘gestural’, ‘recursive’, ‘incommensurable’ were all synonyms for ‘hard’. Kirn was extremely confused by the works he read but he realized that confusion was not something to be escaped by understanding, but instead something which could be exploited by mirroring it back at its source.
“I was a confused young opportunist trying to turn his confusion to his advantage by sucking up to scholars of confusion. The literary works they prized — the ones best suited to their project of refining and hallowing confusion — were, quite naturally, knotty and oblique. The poems of Wallace Stevens, for example. My classmates and I found them maddeningly elusive, like collections of backward answers to hidden riddles, but luckily we could say “recursive” by then. We could say “incommensurable”.” (p.122)
Kirn was adrift in a sea of confusion but it seemed that he was managing to navigate it by drinking the sea water and rolling with the currents. It wasn’t long before Kirn’s thirst for meaning caught up with him, just as he had become completely intellectually dehydrated, basking in the scorching sun of the top percentile. Kirn suffered a collapse, unable to continue the charade:
“For a few weeks I was still able to write, but it was a punishing, grind, self-conscious labor. I began most of my sentences with “the.” Then I went looking for a noun. “The book” was often the result. Next, I seemed to remember, should come a verb. “Is” is a verb. It because my favorite verb. I liked it for its open-endedness — the way it allowed for a wide range of next moves. “The book is always . . .” “The book is thought to . . .” “The book is green and . . .” Impermissible. Yes, a book might be a certain color, but starting an essay with the fact wasn’t what college was all about. What was it all about? It was about making statements that weren’t obvious for people who made such statements professionally. “The book is a gestural construct possessed of telos.”
There I could rest. I’d done it. An hour’s work.” (p.178)
Eventually Kirn recovered after undertaking a course of self guided education which he found more fulfilling. He continued his academic career at Oxford as a recipient of the “Keasbey Prize”. Kirn draws two broader conclusions from his experience.
The first is a ‘roll with the punches and everything will turn out alright’ sort of message. “… I discovered the truth — if words like “truth” mean anything. And even if they don’t perhaps. Pause in your knowing to be known. Quit pushing — let yourself be pulled. Stop searching, frantic child, and be found.” (p. 205) This advice may bear meaning for someone like Kirn with an innate and wonderful talent. Its relevance to the rest of us who must work at it is somewhat questionable.
The second conclusion comes out more strongly in the interviews surrounding the book, but it is mentioned briefly. In an interview (The Colbert Report: May 19, 2009.) Kirn claims that the current meritocracy does not reward depth, but instead rewards the “ability to define ‘incipient’. “Basically people who are very good at cross word puzzles end up running the country.” “They are able to shine in every cocktail party they attend, but when it comes to running the economy, fighting the war on terror, … not very good.” Kirn is referring to Donald Rumsfeld and to certain Lehman Brothers board members, who are Princeton Alumni. Given Kirn’s experiences, it is easy to imagine jargon slinging economists brandishing terms like “Collaterized Debt Obligations” and “Credit Default Swaps” using them as talking points, rather than understanding their deeper implications. Terms like these undoubtedly are mentioned in numerous A+ Ivy League Economics theses, confounding both the authors and the readers while leading to economic ruin.
This second summation is made in the book when Kirn discusses a run in, after graduating Princeton yet before going to Oxford, with an old friend who was self taught and well read.
“We had a great deal in common, Karl said.
But we didn’t, in fact, or much less than he assumed, and I didn’t know how to tell him this. To begin with, I couldn’t quote the transcendentalists as accurately and effortlessly as he could. 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, they hadn’t quite kept me out of Oxford, and these, I was about to tell my friend, were the ways to get ahead now–not by memorizing old Ralph Waldo. 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 for worse. The class that runs things.” (p. 210)