Even though it’s a 30 minute drive to my nearest public library, I don’t mind much because it’s well-stocked with tons of attractive backlist stuff. While some of these like Thomas Cahill’s Desire of the Everlasting Hills and Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer’s Banished I’ve been wanting to read for a long time others like Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed and Benjamin Weiser’s A Secret Life were complete unknowns to me. Time and time again during my Saturday library visits I’ve found myself grabbing one or two of these older books to read. One such book that caught my eye was Walter Kirn’s 2009 memoir Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. Something about the slim memoir intrigued me so I scooped it up along with a few other books and headed to the checkout desk. Weighing in at 224 pages it took me no time to finish it and when I did, I wasn’t disappointed.
Growing up on a farm in rural Minnesota Kirn was one of those high school students who excelled academically not because he was industrious, scholarly, or intellectually gifted but because he knew how to game the system. Charming, articulate, able to think fast on his feet and a decent debater he pleased his teachers and outshined his peers in any classroom setting, Most importantly, he was a whiz when it came to standardized tests and after he aced his SAT he found himself courted by colleges and universities across the country. One of those schools, Macalester College welcomed him with open arms. He would spend just a year at the highly respected liberal arts college because to Kirn Macalester was just a stepping stone to something greater. Kirn wanted to follow in the footsteps of the novelist F. Scott Key Fitzgerald, another native Minnesotan and attend Princeton.
To say Kirn’s time at Princeton was eye-opening would be an understatement. Princeton might proudly advertise to the world it accepts only the best and the brightest the majority of the students Kirn encountered resembled characters from some New York-set 80s post-modern novel. With a few exceptions (most notably a Pakistani majoring in philosophy) his fellow Princeton students were shallow, entitled, substance-abusing wealthy scions only there to party, have meaningless sex and make connections to be used once they left college and entered the business world.
Academically, things weren’t much better. Kirn had the bad luck to attend Princeton during an era when post-modern deconstructionist theories of everything were en vogue. Instead of reading, let alone learning from the assigned texts, in order to please their professors Kirn and his fellow students merely parroted back the wordy but meaningless gobbledygook served up in class. Like some strange religious cult the ultimate purpose was forced conformity, not enlightenment.
But no matter cynical Kirn’s Princeton experience might have made him, in the end he survived, graduated and just like many Ivy League grads went on to do great things. (His 2001 novel Up in the Air would be made into a film of the same name starring George Clooney.) One can only guess the time he spent at Princeton for good, bad or otherwise helped make him the person he is today.