Thursday, January 20, 2011

Lost In The Meritocracy: The Undereducation of An Overachiever / by Walter Kirn

"Percentile is destiny in America" (p. 5)

Like a lot of people Walter Kirn once esteemed the American higher education system as the pinnacle of scholarship. As a youth in rural Minnesota he ambitiously climbed his way up the ladder of honors classes, standardized tests and class rankings to a slot at an Ivy League school, Princeton to be exact. Originally a place his preconceptions had led him to believe to be a temple of elevated learning where students eagerly engaged a life of the mind, Princeton he soon discovered was a frighteningly different place altogether where social climbing, pedigree, brown-nosing and recreational drug use were the norm and the concept of scholarship had more to do with CV padding than learning and acquiring knowledge. In his literature classes, for example, Walter discovered that the object was not to analyze the structural content of course texts as much as it was to mirror the instructor's critical theories and pontificate on his or her own personalized opinions of said texts within the designated coursework--actual reading of the books was never officially required.
It wasn't as if ambition or intellectual application was lost, rather Kirn found that it had been replaced by a quasi-scholastic system in which grade-grubbing and institutional meritocracy had usurped the pursuit of truth as the chief objectives within higher education. Gradually Kirn learned to play the game as well. He assimilated himself into the realm of the right classes, preferred curriculum and, of course, the appropriate peers. Kirn, it turns out, "learned a lot"; just not quite in the field(s) he'd originally thought he would. His recollections within this memoir, funny and satirical throughout, ring true at every turn. It may not qualify as an official indictment of America's higher education system, but does suggest every so slyly that the real higher education of today's college bound has little to nothing to do with indoctrinating oneself on the knowledge of the world and everything to do with accreditation for personally specialized reasons of self-promotion. Conversely, pursuing and meriting a degree, especially one from the elite realms of higher learning, has as much to do with educating oneself on the right ways going about it than with simply appropriating a chosen field of study and applying yourself to its fundamental precepts. (B KIRN)

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