Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever
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Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever

3.07 of 5 stars 3.07  ·  rating details  ·  625 ratings  ·  131 reviews
A New York Times Notable Book
A Daily Beast Best Book of the Year
A Huffington Post Best Book of the Year

From elementary school on, Walter Kirn knew how to stay at the top of his class: He clapped erasers, memorized answer keys, and parroted his teachers’ pet theories. But when he launched himself eastward to an Ivy League university, Kirn discovered that the temple of hig...more
ebook, 288 pages
Published May 19th 2009 by Anchor (first published 2008)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,588)
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Steven
Apr 04, 2011 Steven rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: someone who is interested in the field of education AND wants something quick, easy, and fun to read
I first heard of this book when I saw it referenced tangentially in a recent Jonathan Alter column. I expected it to be a relatively serious (i.e. “scholarly”) work of non-fiction, but it turned out to be a breezy light-hearted memoir from a 40-something novelist about his trip through the American education system and how he worked his way up the ladder of standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and class rankings.

From rural Minnesota where his father moved the family when he was a sma...more
Terry
Eh. On a personal level, I did enjoy this intellectual autobiography, but for purely situational reasons, since I'm currently constantly musing about education and class and what it means to be well educated and all that stuff.

And again, personally, I was by turns bemused and annoyed by Kirn... or maybe Kirn's TONE, his STYLE, not Kirn himself, I should say. I am a rabid fan of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, and I think anyone who enjoyed that book as a story of aspiration might enjoy Kirn's...more
David
Interesting theme of his "aptitude" for standardized test-taking propelling him up a ladder of competition at the expense of any questioning/reflection about where the ladder was leading and whether it was somewhere he wanted to go.

Much of the focus is on his time as an English major and theater/arts-scene hanger-on at Princeton.

Some of the enjoyment I got from the book was a matter of shared experience ("hey, my grade school had those 'SRA' color-coded cards too, and the competitive kids woul...more
Chuck
Was it back the 1960s when you could get into a prestigious university with a so-so high school record and high SAT scores, and then bluff, drug, and sex your way successfully through the next four years and into a British postgraduate fellowship by relying on raw intelligence coupled with the ability to parrot back to professors just what they want to hear? Well, not exactly, since universities in the '60s still gave out a lot of Cs for average work. Fast-forward to the 1980s, however, and the...more
Kjes
This is one arrogant, conceited person. After a couple hundred pages portraying how intellectually superior he is (albeit misguided), he makes his point, concretely, on the last page. A good point, and I know he was making the point all along, but what a drag getting there.

One paragraph does stand out on page 23: "My psychiatrist, who'd encouraged these reminiscences and patiently listened ot them for several sessions, fanning my hopes for a conclusive insight into my conflicted character, ended...more
Caitlin
I borrowed this for some light reading on a plane from a fellow Goodreader. This is probably more of a 3.5 star review. I would say I liked this piece and recommend it.

This is one of those cover designs/titles that, I thought, suggested a much different kind of book within than what I encountered. This is a memoir, and although it is concerned intimately with the highest echelons of education in this country, it is much less about meritocracy than the title would have you believe. Even so, the f...more
Mike
Dec 01, 2012 Mike rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone
Although I’ve never read an article or book by the author previously, I know why "Lost in the Meritocracy" is in my TBR list. Someone whose taste in and judgment of literature I respect added it and after glancing at the synopsis I did, also.

It is clear that Walter Kirn is an excellent writer. He is articulate, literate, and can form a decent narrative. Although I understand that many people read and analyze this book to seek deeper insight into the American Education System, American Class Boun...more
Christiane
Perhaps if I were to read the second half of this book, I might glean some insights from the story, but it just made me too mad to finish. I can't quite figure out why it makes me angry, but it does. The passage about having a three-way with two beautiful girls in high school made it seem like the experience was his just reward for graduating high school in his junior year and going to college a year early. Oh, and the SATs? A piece of fucking cake. It's easy to get into Princeton--just win a co...more
Matt
Three stars is probably a bit generous, but I enjoyed the very end of the memoir, where Kirn gives his final verdict on the Princeton experience, so the book gets a half-star bonus.

Outside of the last few chapters, this read like a veiled attempt for Kirn to brag about all the women he slept with and all the drugs he did when he was younger. There was nothing resembling a narrative thread, and there wasn't really any rhyme or reason for what anecdotes were included, except that he seemed to inc...more
Heidi Thorsen
I thought the book would be an indictment of the system, but instead it seems to me an indictment of the author. I found it to be an engaging memoir, and a quick read. But it's not so much a coming-of-age tale as a description of how the author did NOT come of age and find himself, although his self-discovery is alluded to at the end of the book (it presumably takes place at a future point in his life not covered by this book).



Because the character (the author) doesn't really evolve much during...more
Hollie
Walter Kirn's memoir -- a must read for anyone who ever harbored aspirations of Ivy League grandeur that didn't materialize. Recently he gave a reading from this book at Tin House ending with the appeal, "Don't go to Princeton!" He was a Minnesota misfit who, via outstanding SAT scores found himself desperately seeking to find himself among crowds he defines in his book as "Those Who'd Been on Sailboats" (rich snobs), "Those Who Strove to Serve Mankind" (government-bound), "Those Who Never Raise...more
Perelandra
I wasn't interested much by this memoir. I felt as if it would be more about the specifics of the author's Ivy League education and why or why not it was a sham. Instead, I got a drawn out life history full of cynicism that wasn't suited well to my taste and that isn't the author's fault. It is rather depressing, but I was left feeling that this book asks the question "What does it all matter, anyway?" This is the question also asked by the wisest man in the world in the book of Ecclesiastes. It...more
Annie
i identified with this A LOT. kirn's social isolation and class misplacement at princeton was bizarrely parallel to my own at the horrid prep school where i spent my sophomore year of high school, a mile away from princeton. so therapeutic. then, being entirely unprepared academically... jumping from fudging his way through AP in high school without really reading anything to loads of theory without text in college=me. funny and sad. the book also spoke to teacher-me. kirn recalls his middle and...more
Stephanie
Kirn is an arrogant guy....and I just love him for it. I am giving this 3.5 stars, but not 4. Again, this Goodreads rating system is a tad annoying. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir. Some reviewers on here are busy speculating if Kirn is a fabulist or else doing a take down of his character and personality. Is this the truth? Is he a jerk? Yadda yadda. I believe you only need to ask yourself one question.

Do I want to read some really good writing?

Kirn is an excellent writer and this is a...more
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
He worked the system. Better, he knew how to work the system.

He was not particularly well educated. He faked it. He scammed his teachers. He took the right classes. He aced the SAT.

I’m not sure I really wanted to know this. Is he typical? I know I don’t want to know the answer to that.
Don
The author offers a succession of steps in climbing up the ladder of meritocracy in late 20th-century America. Great vignettes, interesting conclusion. He gets where he wants to go, but finds out that the meritocracy is particularly open to recruitment from the moneyed classes. Education isn't as important as power, and power comes from money and class standing. You can rise to a certain level, but no higher, like foreign service officers who will never become ambassadors to the most prestigious...more
Daniel Wimberley
One of the best written books I've read in a long while. I don't normally read non-fiction, but this one is so well written that I was compelled to make an exception. Fortunately, it was easy to forget I was reading non-fiction because it reads like memoir fiction. I had a hard time putting this book down for any length time, and when I wasn't reading it, I was thinking about it. Great stuff. This is my first experience with Walter Kirn. If his other books are this good, I'll be a happy camper f...more
Gretchen
The framing chapters don't match the middle of this book. Kirn presents this as an examination of the flaws in an American meritocratic system that unduly rewards strivers over real thinkers, student who excel at multiple-choice tests and figuring out what teachers want, yet who never really learn to pursue in-depth learning for the love of it. With some such critiques of the system myself, I was ready to read the book and learn more. Kirn paints himself as such a striver, always figuring out th...more
Lia
Kirn taught at UChicago for a quarter, so I was interested to read his latest book about his underwhelming education (or non-education) both before and at Princeton. Unfortunately, Kirn's writing is also underwhelming. While some of his reflections about education are interesting, and dead-on (Kirn observes that all he had to do to get an A in an English class at college was to insert words he and most people didn't understand), in the end, his writing suffers from the same problems he suffered...more
Daniel
Walter Kirn grew up in a small town in northern Minnesota and hated it. The book begins with him and his Junior classmates in a van on a Saturday morning, all of them travelling to a larger city where the SAT is administered. Kirn scored high, because demonstrating aptitude is a thing for which he has always had aptitude. Aptitude for aptitude’s sake. A man about nothing? This is essentially his conclusion, namely that merit does not guarantee substance and achievement is not the soul’s smithy.

T...more
Bob
13 - Back then I knew where I was going, and that to get there I'd have to keep my head clear. But now I'm here, I've arrived, I've topped the hill, and my head doesn't function the way it used to. All thanks to an education and a test that measured and rewarded...what, exactly? Nothing important, I've discovered. Nothing sustaining. Just "aptitude."

That's why we're all here: we all showed aptitude. Aptitude for showing aptitude, mainly. That's what they wanted, so that's what we delivered. A ta...more
Robert Ludlow
A somewhat diverting, but otherwise disappointing autobiography of the author's education up through undergraduate study at Princeton. We don't spend much time with anyone but the narrator. This would be fine, except that there is really only one source of conflict and we are immediately, and explicitly told of it. His "product of the system," buzzword-tossing approach to education is afterward shown to us repeatedly throughout the rest of the story in glib anecdotes that seem to have no lasting...more
matt
Proving once again the power of the Colbert bump (though I’m not sure it counts if an item is taken out from a library), I was intrigued by Kirn’s appearance/dismissal of the university system. Riding the same wave of (faux) populist outrage that has swept the country, nothing seems more topical and appropriate than a backlash against the hallowed halls of academia, particularly those stuffed shirts over at the Ivys You’ll get what’s coming to you, nerds!
This tacked with all of the attention th...more
Brian Ayres
I'm not a big fan of memoirs because of there suspect accuracy. Most people can't remember two weeks ago, let alone when they were four years old. This is the problem with Walter Kirn's memoir on his educational experiences from elementary school through his years at Princeton. Add in the constant drug and alcohol use and Kirn's accounts are probably based on hazes of recollection. I do not disagree with his basic premise that an education system based on timed tests in elementary school and SAT...more
nicole
Jul 11, 2009 nicole rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: uhhhh
Shelves: memoir
The writing in this book is exquisite thus the 4 star review.

However, I truly dislike the narrator.

I think this should be 3.5 stars because I feel like I've been duped. I thought this book would provide a scathing critique of the breed of asshole Kirn himself "was." So, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and tried to believe that he wasn't proud of himself for becoming an expert test-taker with paper-thin knowledge of anything at all.

His tone betrays him as the asshole we all assume that he is....more
Mythili
From his earliest school days, Walter Kirn is driven to succeed – to impress his instructors, out-accomplish his peers, earn top grades, and win contests. “Percentile is destiny in America,” he learns at an early age. But to what end? “No one ever told me what the point was, except to keep accumulating points, and this struck me as sufficient. What else was there?” he muses. By the time Kirn is midway through his undergraduate career at Princeton University, however, questions of “what else?” –...more
Gabrielle
This memoir was a decent read, but I was somewhat disappointed. The author did extremely well on his SATs and had the opportunity to attend Princeton. Instead of putting forth effort and taking advantage of his opportunities, he tried to "outsmart" the system. He did just enough work in order to appear intellectual. Throughout his life, he was able to memorize and repeat what his teachers wanted him to. I expected him to discuss the problems this presents in life, but he spent most of the book w...more
Mika Cantrell
My feelings about this book are mixed. On the one hand, I get Kirn's struggle in the educational system. I was another one to whom the next academic prize was always the next goal. I didn't stop to ask what the point of getting an education was beyond the elusive "get an education so you can get a 'good job.'" When I got dumped out at the end of the ride, there was that moment of panic -- what do you do next?

The other hand, I find Kirn's repeated passages on his debauchery and drug use tiresome
...more
M
This book in some ways reminded me of Ian McEwen's 'On Chesil Beach' - a book that had one or two strong chapters which hardly justified publishing a work that consisted of maybe five more to begin with. So here is this little book taking on a pretty big and interesting topic - how America's education does anything but educate - and then the author realizes that his life alone is not going to sustain this topic. So he yaps on about his girlfriends and other uninteresting tangents, and hits upon...more
heather
i hate to say this, but i could really relate to the events in this book. beyond that, i love kirn's terse writing style, which not only mocks his surroundings but skewers himself at this point in his life. while the book does focus on the Princeton/Ivy League/East Coast elite, i think his out-of-place(ness) (there is a German word for this, i'm sure) is something many of us can identify with, at the age he writes about and in different locations. in kirn's surroundings, the effect is magnified,...more
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Walter Kirn is a regular reviewer for The New York Times Book Review, and his work appears in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Time, New York, GQ and Esquire. He is the author of six previous works of fiction: My Hard Bargain: Stories, She Needed Me, Thumbsucker, Up in the Air, Mission to America and The Unbinding. Kirn is a graduate of Princeton University and attended Oxford on...more
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Up in the Air Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade Thumbsucker Mission to America The Unbinding

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