- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE EDUCATION OF AN OVERACHIEVER

By Walter Kirn

Doubleday, $24.99, 211 pages

Reviewed by Martin Morse Wooster

Twenty years ago, I was an editor at the Wilson Quarterly. One day, I spent a half-hour filling in for the receptionist and got a call from a nasal-voiced gentleman who asked for a former editor who had left to work for Insight magazine. When I explained that he had stopped working for the Wilson Quarterly months earlier, the gentleman asked for a former intern, who had left to work for American Demographics. I patiently explained that she, too, hadn’t had any association with the magazine for months.

“Oh, well, I’m from Princeton,” said the nerd, “and I’m trying to make connections.”

That collegiate hustler is not present in Walter Kirn’s fitfully entertaining memoir of his Princeton years, but lots of other stereotypes are. Mr. Kirn’s goal is to throw buckets of cold water on the notion that an Ivy League degree admits you to the upper crust of American society.

Mr. Kirn’s autobiography must be considered novelized because he reconstructs dialogue from decades-old conversations for which no independent sources exist. Mr. Kirn is a good writer, and many of his anecdotes are amusing. But like far too many memoirs these days, “Lost in the Meritocracy” quickly descends into an irritating — and unsubstantial — pity party where no one has any fun.

By Mr. Kirn’s account, Princeton in the mid-1980s was a school where no one had to actually learn anything. He writes that he succeeded at Princeton because he learned “other skills: for flattering those in power without appearing to, for rating artistic intentions 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 early 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.”

Mr. Kirn’s professors, by his account, taught that nothing was worth learning. His English professors were postmodernists who cared little about literature but reflexively gave A’s to students who casually used such pretentious words as “liminal,” “valuational” and “semiotically unstable.” A philosophy professor taught that Immanuel Kant was the last great thinker who seriously tried to construct a system about how the world worked. Because no one else since Kant had even tried, this philosopher said, philosophy was just a language game that lacked meaning and substance.

The students with whom Mr. Kirn had contact were equally bad. There were, of course, the usual artsy types, typical of any creative-writing department, who played at being writers until the unhappy day when they would graduate and have to find real jobs. But Mr. Kirn also encounters far too many children and grandchildren of privilege who feel that their famous names give them unlimited license to be obnoxious. In one appalling scene, one “descendant of a legendary industrialist” drugs and kidnaps Mr. Kirn and takes him to the family estate, “an actual castle, with countless tall windows, pediments, and columns.”

“Behold, poor serf!” the kidnapper says. “Behold a power you will never know!”

Mr. Kirn’s venom extends to practically everyone with whom he has contact. The Princeton development office reminds him that a Princeton degree admits him to an exclusive club, for which he will have to pay and pay and pay through substantial donations. Mr. Kirn even sticks it to the Keasbey Memorial Foundation, which gave him a year’s study at Oxford for free (including a “wine allowance”). Mr. Kirn portrays the foundation’s administrators as desiccated old prunes who give him the fellowship so he can have the fun they never had in college.

“Lost in the Meritocracy” is one man’s experience, not a universal account. Mr. Kirn admits that a great many Princeton students were science majors who didn’t have time to be decadent or dissolute because they actually were studying and learning.

It’s not even clear that Mr. Kirn’s experience is typical of Princeton English majors. Princeton’s English department is large enough that the journalism majors don’t have much to do with the creative-writing types. There were many English majors in Mr. Kirn’s time who dutifully spent their college years filing for the Daily Princetonian or stringing for other newspapers and didn’t have time to play at being artists or consume massive quantities of cocaine. Mr. Kirn makes no mention of them.

Mr. Kirn’s memoir is entertaining, and readers who enjoy seeing the snooty scions of privilege fall on their exquisitely tanned faces will have a good time. However, “Lost in the Meritocracy” is not an indictment of American higher education or even of Princeton. It’s just one man’s sorry story, as insubstantial as most memoirs are today.

Martin Morse Wooster is the author of “Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds.”

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