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Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever Hardcover – May 19, 2009

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (May 19, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385521286
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385521284
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,017,361 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Calling something “irreducible.” Searching for a contest, no matter how trifling, that he’ll be sure to win. These are just two of the tricks Kirn used to shuttle himself through high school, Princeton, and on to Oxford, and such soulless maneuvers are what frame this memoir of duping the educational system. Even as a child, Kirn quickly learned that school was not about learning; it was about reciting the code words teachers most wanted to hear—a salient fact that will ring painfully (and shamefully) true to A-students everywhere. This pandering is most acidly portrayed as eight-year-old Kirn reacts to a teacher’s declaration that art isn’t about drawing dinosaurs, it’s about “emotion”—leading Kirn to draw a bunch of squiggly lines around his triceratops to indicate “feelings.” Kirn sprinkles his otherwise finely honed thesis with more typically memoir-ish recollections, which range from meandering to brilliant, but most of the book plays like a mirror-angle Catcher in the Rye, this time from the point of view of one of Holden’s dreaded phonies. --Daniel Kraus


“A funny, self-mocking memoir about how persistently Mr. Kirn went astray. . . . Great fun.” —The New York Times

“The witty, self-castigating story of the author’s single-minded quest to succeed at a series of tests and competitions that took him from one of the lowest-ranked high schools in Minnesota to Princeton.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Very few people could get away with complaining about attending Princeton University, but Walter Kirn does. . . . Darkly hilarious.” —The Plain Dealer 
“Scathing and funny. . . . Too delicious.” —Newsweek
“Hilarious. . . . Kirn recounts the many ways that the America educational rat race betrayed him.” —The Washington Post Book World

“Tough, funny, and moving. . . . What’s such great fun about the book is the intense good humor with which he looks back, and the wonderful portraits he provides of the side characters in his life. . . . There’s a kind of joyous cackle behind these colorful scenes, and a sadness, too, both finally giving way to a clean-edged wisdom that infiltrates his story as he leads us toward his moral awakening.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Tartly funny.” —Newsday 
“The revelation that skating on the surface of knowledge might kill him if he didn't cut it out was Kirn’s alone, but its impact registers far and wide.” —Elle
“A diverting memoir that has less to do with grades and standardized test scores than with a Mormon-raised farm boy’s difficulty adjusting to the temptations and prejudices of an Ivy League school.” —The Miami Herald
“A smart, ambitious writer. . . . Kirn’s sentences would be a delight even if they were empty. That they address a serious subject—the Ivy League training that is less about learning than about preparing its beneficiaries to join the ruling class—seems like a bonus.” —Bloomberg News
“A fine narrative of what it is to be young, lost, deeply immersed in drugs, and frequently on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” —Bookslut 

 “Kirn shows, better than any recent book, how our educational system is perverted from beginning to end. . . . Kirn’s is one idealist’s stirring recollection of what it took to awaken himself from the sloth imposed by the Ivy League’s bureaucratic-meritocracy.” —The Daily Beast

“Our only wish was for more.” —McSweeney’s

From the Trade Paperback edition.

More About the Author

WALTER KIRN is a contributing editor to Time magazine, where he was nominated for a National Magazine Award in his first year, and a regular reviewer for the New York Times Book Review. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, GQ, Vogue, New York and Esquire. He is the author of four previous works of fiction: My Hard Bargain: Stories, She Needed Me, Thumbsucker, and Up in the Air. He lives in Livingston, Montana.

Customer Reviews

As others have noted, it's not clear why Kirn wrote this book.
Dr. Cathy Goodwin
Reading this book took a couple hours, and that's a couple hours I'll never get back.
Waltons Fan
Skip this book altogether if you legitimately care about education.
Emily Joy

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

96 of 99 people found the following review helpful By Someone's Mom on May 20, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I just finished devouring this book which I ordered immediately after reading the excerpt published in the New Yorker. I'm from approximately the same generation as Kirn and felt a bit like he was sharing a dirty secret when I read the original excerpt. Most of the book, with the exception of two chapters at the beginning and one at the end, focusses on his Princeton years -- and his "dirty little secret" is more or less that the elite institution he entered in the early 80's democratized, but only sort of. In other words, he had what it took to get into Princeton, but he didn't have what it took to be accepted at Princeton, which, according to him was: a sailboat, cases of champagne, rich family and connections. The eating clubs held some form of secret interviews and people like him were rarely accepted, and his roomates didn't seem to understand that anyone could actually be poor and not be able to afford things like new furniture for the suite.

But in this book, he focusses on so much more than the living situation -- he talks about the awakening he experienced when he discovered that the English department was more interested in literary criticism than in literature, and he admits that he kind of "faked his way through" large chunks of his education (what psychologists would call 'the imposter syndrome.') Parts of the story are quite scary, leading up to what he refers to as a breakdown.

Personally, I would have liked to have known a bit more about how he eventually made peace with his experiences at Princeton, how he has fared since then, and most importantly, where he plans to send his own children for their education.

I feel that his story paralleled my own story at Wellesley, which I entered at approximately the same time period.
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36 of 36 people found the following review helpful By James on July 22, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Walter Kirn was a Nonfiction Writer-in-Residence at the University of Chicago this past year. When a student organization screened the movie based on his novel Thumbsucker, Kirn dropped by to do a Q&A. He briefly mentioned this book, which he was writing at the time, expanding an essay he wrote in The Atlantic about his life at Princeton.

When I heard the title, "Lost in the Meritocracy," I immediately searched for it online. Like Kirn, I also hailed from a relatively small town and graduated from one of the Ivy League universities. I was thoroughly disillusioned by the sharp contrast between the ideals of an "Ivy League education" (whatever that signifies now) and the reality of a university filled with flippant super-rich kids, recruited athletes, distant professors, peers who cheated relentlessly ... I hope that there are more authors like Kirn who can make public the disheartening state of undergraduate education in the U.S.

But I strongly advise you to read the original essay "Lost in the Meritocracy" first. I am a huge fan of this essay: it is tighter and has a clearer purpose.

There is some fresh material in the book that is well worth it. One of the first chapters describes Kirn's experience with "Uncle Admiral," a sort of mentor when he was very young. It ends with perhaps the wisest words in the book: "Knowledge is a reckoning, he taught me, a way to assess your location, your true position, not a strategy for improving your position" (p. 23).

The text of the "free verse" poem that Kirn wrote at Macalester in order to win a contest and pad his résumé is included in the book--and is laugh-out-loud funny.
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Audio Addict on May 23, 2009
Format: Hardcover
...then read this book. I raced through it in an evening as it was entertaining to say the least. It was also a very personal and somewhat dark account of a very bright person going through public school followed by the Ivy League. I almost blew a gasket laughing at the 10th grade computer class. I think the college years will ring true with many people from sub ruling class backgrounds that find themselves among people who life in a way alien to the middle and working classes - you don't even have to go to an Ivy League school to experience this.

My initial plan was to pass this along to my high school aged daughter but I don't know that I'll do that now. The book is probably better enjoyed with the perspective of distance between the reader and the offending four years. I don't want to scare her.
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30 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Always Reading on August 9, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The title of the book suggests that Kirn is diagnosing a cultural phenomenon and to a certain extent, that is true, particularly since Kirn is well aware that F. Scott Fitzgerald and others have familiarized us with the cultural divide between the old money east coast and the rugged individuals who become crazed (but why?) with yearning for their approval.

At this point in history, however, Kirn also comes across more as a postmodern Holden Caulfield, a callow young man spotting phonies and nursing narcissistic injuries at Princeton and in Europe, accosted wherever he goes by sexual predators (I'm not making this up). The women he meets seduce and abandon him after they've had their fill of his smoldering macho aggression (again, I'm not making this up although I do wonder if Kirn is). In Germany, sinister figures straight out of Cabaret threaten him with sodomy. His almost unbelievably bratty suitemates, like Noel Coward caricatures, exploit and humiliate him, as does a reputedly gay, fabulously wealthy big man on campus (Kirn is pretty sure that this guy didn't sexually assault him). He wins an obscure fellowship that sends him to the prestigious British University of his choice, and even pays for an annual case of wine, by fulfilling the fantasies (so he says) of the dead heiress who endowed it.

The book ends with Kirn about to depart for his fellowship--at home in rural Minnesota, drugged this time not with the plentiful coke or psychedelics he discovered at Princeton but rather with homely cold medicines, discovering "the thoughts of others" from the Twain and Dickens novels on his mother's bookshelf.

I give this 2 stars because Kirn is an excellent writer and kept me arguing with him and hoping for something better through the whole volume.
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