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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever

I read a not-so-friendly review of Walter Kirn's latest release in the New York Review of Books, and in it they mentioned one of his older pieces, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. So instead of his new one, I picked up this one. 

Achieving was never a problem for Walter growing up; in fact, it was a bit of an art for him. His goal was to get Princeton, and to Princeton he got. It took winning a poetry contest (done!), doing well on the SAT's (check!), and heading to college a bit early (no sweat!). Arriving at Princeton's golden doors, however, Kirn discovered that the meritocracy shifts after high school. It's no longer about the highest achiever; it's about the person with the most money laughing last and best. The points come from having rather than having-not. And those books you should have read growing up? They would be great to know. Yesterday.

This book was an interesting take on the classic overachiever, and at times I felt it became a bit self-pitying. That is really my biggest critique, so I will leave that here on the table and move on to why I really did find this book to be an important and interesting read. A recent conversation in my "office" (that being a cubicle that's not really mine in a school lounge) focused on what college is, what it means, and how the system is set up. It was right before I picked up this book, serendipitously, so it came into my life at the right moment. Kirn's story of overachievement until it doesn't work any more is not as incredible as it sounds; in fact, it's a lesson learned the hard way by many in colleges and universities, public and private.

It is a major culture shock to go from a high school where you are a star--you know you will do well and your identity is based upon knowing you are a success--to showing up in a larger environment and suddenly what was once superb is now mediocre. What was once outstanding has suddenly become just fine, and what once made you the smartest kid around is only the tip of the iceberg in the way of being good at things. It rocks your identity and self-concept, especially if you have defined yourself (even unknowingly) as a pawn in the meritocracy--achieve and you will succeed. I think Kirn has written a memoir that touches on the bruise of this identity crisis in a way many can relate to. In fact, I am currently teaching a summer grad class and this was a topic of discussion today. I told the story of how, my first year in college, I scored poorly on an exam in a class I had no business taking (a sophomore-level lit class!) and it dawned on me that I would have to drop the class. It was earth-shattering to me that I would have to drop a class. It felt as though I was conceding defeat. That I wasn't good enough. That I couldn't hack it. A failure--when in reality none of those things were the case. It didn't matter, though. I, too, was lost in the meritocracy. That being said, I could relate to a decent portion of Kirn's narrative.

So what next? Kirn's story is one that many face, and his took place almost two decades ago. It is worth, as educators, ruminating on a story such as this to really face larger, systemic issues in higher education. In the meantime, I'm going to go grab another book.

Hard copy for purchase below.

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