Hand-raising tales

  • Article by: KATY READ , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 22, 2009 - 4:47 PM

A former teacher's pet shares academic adventures to show that being high-achieving is not synonymous with being well-educated.

Did I really need to find out that Walter Kirn -- whose snappy book reviews and essays I have long admired -- was the kind of kid I would have hated in school?

"Lost in the Meritocracy" is Kirn's memoir about attending Minnesota public schools, Macalester College and Princeton University. He depicts young Walter as a teacher's pet, the star pupil who always has his hand up and always gets the answer right because he'll say whatever he thinks the teacher wants to hear.

Kirn, who also has written a few well-regarded novels, recounts his experiences in a tone that mixes boasting with sheepish confession. Maybe, to be fair, it's hard not to sound boastful about scoring so high on the SAT that Macalester admits him before he's even finished high school. Or of scoring, in a different sense, with not one but two beautiful foreign-exchange students simultaneously, on the way to senior prom (to which he's invited back "as a sort of returning celebrity"). Or of acing college papers by salting them with big words that impress professors and mask his incomprehension.

But looking back, he feels bad about playing the system, despite having had the system's tacit cooperation. "Percentile is destiny in America," Kirn writes. He doesn't call for a return to the time when class and wealth were destiny (he implies, however, that those days aren't exactly over). But he demonstrates the dangers of rewarding superficial trophies of academic achievement at the expense of genuine education.

"I lived for prizes, plaques, citations, stars, and I gave no thought to any goal beyond my next appearance on the honor roll," he writes. "Learning was secondary, promotion was primary. No one ever told me what the point was, except to keep on accumulating points, and this struck me as sufficient. What else was there?"

Tales of clueless teachers and empty classroom victories are interwoven with anecdotes involving snobby aristocratic classmates, nattering chemical-abusing intellectuals and yet more lovely women who fall into bed with him practically within moments of their meeting.

This isn't the place to examine in depth the complex questions surrounding factual accuracy in memoirs, but it's worth noting that Kirn presents scenes, dating back to his early childhood, that are full of closely observed physical details and extended verbatim conversations. That has the effect, for me, of giving his recollections a slightly fictionalized -- and, in parts, overdramatized -- feel. Especially when in passing he mentions not remembering the native country of one of his prom beauties.

Still, the stories are entertaining, and they succeed in illustrating Kirn's point: that stellar grades, prestigious prizes and diplomas from top-shelf schools aren't all they're cracked up to be.

Katy Read writes for Salon, Brain Child and other publications. She lives in Minneapolis.

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  • Lost in the Meritocracy by Walter Kirn

  • LOST IN THE MERITOCRACY

    By: Walter Kirn.

    Publisher: Doubleday, 224 pages, $24.95.

    Review: Kirn, who has written many admirable essays and engrossing books, takes on the memoir with this recollection about excelling in school without necessarily learning anything. It's readable and interesting, but his minute recollections of conversations of 40 years ago are not necessarily credible.

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