I just read the latest U.S. News university ranking, which places Princeton after Harvard and before Yale. My niece Gabriela turned down Harvard and Princeton for Yale, and her older sister turned down a $38,000 offer from Columbia, also to attend Yale, and just graduated from that institution. Personally, I would have considered disowning my daughter for turning down such a sum of money, and making me pay through the teeth for her education. Hopefully, the Wall Street firm where she is currently ensconced acquiring the tools that greedy people in power use to derail economies, will also provide her with the means to feed back some of the thousands of dollars her parents spent on her education. But, who am I to judge? I'm not the mother. Just the aunt. And I can't brag about my kid going to Yale or any ivy league institution, because I don't have kids, thank god. I'm still trying to recover from my own education.
Perhaps many people are.
Certainly Walter Kirn is. Kirn made the unwise choice (for himself), but wise (for us) decision to attend Princeton in the 1970s, and lived to tell about it. Lost in the Meritocracy paints Princeton as anything but the romantic intellectual brothel for the elite that I imagined it to be, the home of great talents such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wandered its halls briefly, and certainly took away attitude if nothing else from the experience.
I am happy to report that Lost in the Meritocracy is seeped in the author's experiences of drugs, alcohol and lost youth, and is therefore just my kind of read -- even after all these years of no longer being a booze belle or drug freak. I wonder if it's because I never got over the trauma of college too, the first time around at one of the Catholic seven sisters' schools. I might have written a book about how much I hated my descent into alcohol and dope (I didn't), and on my book cover would be the image of a lovely maroon and gray disembodied skirt, or perhaps a cluster of disembodied nuns' headdresses -- Kirn's book features an orange and black Princeton sweatshirt. Only a sophisticated, spoiled guy can publish a rant about how bad school was for him and get paid well for it, heck, have it published in the Atlantic magazine, then a book that made best seller lists. Where did Kirn learn all the sophisticated tricks of the literary trade? -- Minnesota from which he seems embarrassed to have sprung? I doubt it. Perhaps Princeton. Lost in the Meritocracy seems like one smart letter of application to me, "Please accept me even though I'm deriding you. Look how cleverly I'm doing it!" I may be crossing my legs in the opposite direction, but I'm flirting with you!
"Percentile is destiny in America," declares Kirn early on in this dramatic personal testament of scholarly waywardness. He confirms what I have long suspected, that most universities are filled with automatons who don't have the slightest clue about what they are doing or what knowledge is. But is this news?
He goes on to say: "Four years after that bus ride I'm slumped on an old sofa in the library of my Princeton eating club, waiting to feel the effects of a black capsule that someone said would help me finish writing my overdue application for a Rhodes scholarship. At the other end of the sofa sits my good friend Adam (all names in this piece have been changed)—a Jewish science whiz from the New York suburbs who ate magic mushrooms one evening, had a vision, and switched from pre-med to English literature. Adam should be reading Dubliners, which he'll be tested on early tomorrow morning, but he's preoccupied with an experiment. He's smashing Percocet tablets with a hammer and trying to smoke the powder through a water pipe. I have other companions in estrangement, way out here on the bell curve's leading edge, where our talent for multiple-choice tests has landed us without even the sketchiest survival instructions. Our club isn't one of the rich, exclusive outfits, where the pedigreed children of the establishment eat chocolate-dipped strawberries off silver trays carried by black waiters in starched white uniforms, but one that anyone can join, where geeks and misfits line up with plastic plates for veggie burgers and canned fruit salad."
I remember a few years back when I was teaching at Cornell and came upon a computer lab filled with students typing madly. I had a brief hallucinogenic moment of clarity in which I understood as clearly and completely as I know I'm here typing this right now that these kids were at that moment all of one mind in trying to find the fastest way possible to produce something, anything their profs would like, and nothing more and nothing less than that. There was no curiosity in the air, no hint of a search for genuine knowledge, no trace of passionate engagement. And believe it or not, at the time, I was shocked by that. My sense was that most if not all these kids viewed being at Cornell as a small penance to pay before getting to the real business of life -- being loosed upon the world to make fabulous dollars -- the ability to make fabulous dollars of course being the proof of one's serviceability in the world. If one is a true genius, one makes money, lots of it. That's the premier American belief. No doubt about it.
The Great Gatsby, the greatest American novel ever written, said it all. Here's how to take a fast ride to the top even if it means killing somebody along the way: Whom did you kill on your way to make a buck today, dear?
But let's get back to the issue at hand, which is our colleges and universities and their lack of spirit and humanity. It's no mystery or exaggeration that academic pressure can break students -- at all levels of education. Stress at Princeton made Kirn aphasic for a time. He brought himself back by reciting dictionary words and their definitions. A double PhD from Harvard informed me recently that while attending Harvard in the 1960s, there were "many suicides, most of them women who were in the minority anyway and couldn't bear to get a less than perfect grade." There were so many in fact that my friend decided to finish up her degrees outside Harvard. My niece, the one who was accepted at Harvard, said she rejected it because she heard so many admonishing stories from other students who had gotten in, only to find themselves overwhelmed by the "oppressive burden" of being there that seems to hang in the very air.
Unfortunately, the public doesn't hear much about student failures unless they make the news. It's also true that if stress doesn't break you in college, it could later. But not every graduate student turns into a Craig's list killer.
It's interesting how for all of his dramatic posturing and often humorous replay of his angst-ridden years at Princeton, such a bright man as Kirn doesn't care enough to offer solutions or even pose questions about America's poisonous meritocracy. It's like he's smoking his cigar, sipping on his Cointreau, sitting in some club, tossing his story out to whoever will listen. He doesn't really care how it falls. He's got his condo and his paycheck, after all. You out there, you're on your own.
Of course the questions are cliche, but they need to be asked over and over again until somebody, somewhere comes up with solutions: Why do so many students and teachers not care about education? Why do students and teachers alike self-destruct in the system? Where does care begin? What is it we must teach first in school, even before first grade?
What if, from the beginning, we taught kindness and consideration instead of competition, and the value of human life, of life in general over and above the primacy of the dollar. Maybe there would be two or three students sharing a computer in a lab come college time, getting nurturance from accidental body heat instead of suffering isolation, and thus drinking themselves to death, or diving from the Empire State building, or into Ithaca's falls -- as is the style at Cornell -- just because they failed to make a grade.
We have to rethink what it is we value, and stop putting such a high premium on information -- as if it's knowledge, it's not. And on high rankings. Minds aren't computers, and the education system has to genuinely consider the hearts and entire beings of those it purports to nurture.