Lost In the Meritocracy

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Walter Kirn explains how he was Lost in the Meritocracy — or, rather, how he gamed the system to no real end:

Kirn grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, when technocrats were thoroughly systematizing American public education. In his suburban grammar school, subjects like art and music were formed into “units” and “modules,” implying that “learning could be engineered, and that it had been, perhaps by government scientists — the same ones behind the Apollo program, maybe.” At the same time, the teachers were squishy, easily flattered and willing to coo over any creative daub that seemed to express “feelings.” “Art” could be whatever he said it was, Kirn realized, and producing it was the equivalent of such apple-polishing activities as emptying the classroom pencil sharpener. When he concocted bogus stories about the emotions that supposedly inspired his projects, he won “praise, and sometimes hugs, eventually convincing me that art was about one feeling above all others: being loved.”

So there you have it: the young Walter Kirn quickly learned that achievement could be precisely quantified, but also that the system for arriving at that quantification could be gamed. “I was the system’s pure product,” he writes, “sly and flexible, not so much educated as wised up.” He figured out how to turn a teacher’s question inside out and parrot it back in a simulation of thoughtfulness. If asked, “How does racial prejudice contribute to inner-city hopelessness?” he’d reply, “Is our conception of ‘inner-city hopelessness’ perhaps in itself a form of prejudice?” A maestro of multiple choice, he managed to ace his SATs despite having cracked only three “serious novels” by the age of 16: “Frankenstein,” “Moby-Dick” and “The Great Gatsby.”
In one respect, Kirn lucked out: his college years coincided with the ascendancy of “theory” in American academia. Since hardly anybody understood the deconstructionists to begin with, it was that much easier for Kirn to bluff his way through, powered by bravado alone. Better yet, theory was intent on proving the illegitimacy of all those great books he’d never read. “We skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism,” he writes of his cohort, “deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we’d never constructed in the first place.”

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