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Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever

3.11  ·  Rating Details  ·  745 Ratings  ·  138 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
ebook, 288 pages
Published May 19th 2009 by Anchor (first published 2008)
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Apr 04, 2011 Steven rated it liked it  ·  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
Apr 14, 2015 Mark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I have not read any of Walter Kirn's novels, including the one made into a Clooney movie (Up In The Air), but this rather bleak memoir might persuade me to do so because of how well-written it is.

Growing up in a small town in the Midwest with an eccentric father and self-educated mother, Walter Kirn was always one of the bright boys in his small school district. More importantly, he learned early on that education was about one thing: being applauded, winning prizes, and doing what you needed to
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
Mar 29, 2010 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 14, 2009 Christiane rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 15, 2009 Chuck rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
John Haskell
Sep 26, 2014 John Haskell rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Kirn on his efforts to get a Presidential Certificate of Fitness in PhyEd class:
"I'd already disappointed the President in two less-strenuous events - chin-ups and the standing broad jump- and another defeat, I feared, would crush me utterly and show me up as a poor citizen. It would prove that I wasn't just weak, but flawed, defective, and likely to prove a burden on my country should it ever be put to some great test such as resisting a foreign invasion."

An exchange student at his high school:
Oct 11, 2009 Kjes rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 22, 2010 Lia rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Dec 01, 2012 Mike rated it liked it  ·  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
Apr 21, 2012 Matt rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Aug 01, 2009 Hollie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 16, 2009 Annie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 15, 2010 Nicole rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Nicole by: The Week
I couldn't figure out what this book was supposed to be about, or how the structure of the book was (ostensibly) to work for the reader. Vignettes? Short stories? There was no cohesion, so that was irritating. Then the "memoir" itself was trash: Drug use at Princeton. Sex at Princeton. Vandalism at Princeton. Look how smart I am at Princeton. Cracking up at Princeton. All done in such an arrogant way that Kirn is impossible (at least for me) to like. I just didn't care about him or his story. No ...more
Joanie Sompayrac
First, this book made me glad I don't work at Princeton; if I did, I would probably want to strangle him. On second thought, based on his tone, I might want to strangle him anyway as he does not sound like a nice person, and he seems to blame the entire collegiate ranking system (flawed as it may be) for the fact that he managed to graduate from college without developing as a person. This book was a depressing acknowledgement that our education system is flawed. It has not only failed many of t ...more
Dec 18, 2014 Jennyb rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Lost in the Meritocracy bills itself a book about Walter Kirn's reservations regarding the quality of education he received at an Ivy League institution (Princeton, to be exact). As a graduate of a much less illustrious Ivy League school (Penn, to be precise), I picked this up because I felt like I would probably share those reservations. Similar experience, like minds, and so on...

The quality of higher education -- Ivy League or otherwise -- is not at all what this book is about. It is nothing
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
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.
David Chabot
An interesting premise that forecast a very interesting read, until you get to about 30% of the book itself. I expected a lost of reflections and honest assessment of the modern school system but instead, the author gloats in his drug induced, decadent lifestyle at the time. A good 50% of the book is pointless and basically give an outlook of what's in the mind of a drug junkie being anecdotally at one of the most prestigious school there is. The conclusion I support wholeheartedly, the level of ...more
Aug 13, 2014 Don rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 18, 2010 Gretchen rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 03, 2012 Daniel rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011, culture
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.

Oct 20, 2014 Bob rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Jun 29, 2009 matt rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Jul 11, 2009 nicole rated it really liked it  ·  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.
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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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