26 October 2010

Walter Kirn's Lost in the Meritocracy

Lost in the Meritocracy follows Kirn's journey through the American education system and examines how, in so many ways, the system is set up to advance people who are either (a) good at multiple-choice tests, (b)rich, or (c) well-connected.  He writes about learning to pepper test answers with vocabulary words which did not truly add anything to the answer but impressed the teacher into thinking he did, about how to mirror teacher's questions in the answers he gave.

Walter Kirn attended public school in rural Minnesota but did well enough on his SAT to get into Princeton, where he studied writing.  He was a poor kid at Princeton surrounded by affluent kids, and much of the book is devoted to dissecting the socio-economics of Princeton life, and the status that is conferred for someone that has gone to Princeton.

What I was more interested in, however, was his reflection on his education: how he advanced through classes more by guile and adaptabilty, by learning to give the teacher what they wanted, than by actually learning anything.  It was only after a slight mental breakdown that he began, slowly to enjoy acquiring knowledge for its own sake; only in the book's last pages, after he has finished with Princeton and won a prestigious scholarship to Oxford, does he sit down and read the classics for the first time.

It was very interesting to me to examine the author's recollections of his education and compare them to mine.  In looking back on my own time in school, I see many of the traits he exhibited: a certain level of ambition to be at the top of the class, a talent for reading teachers and knowing how to give them what they want.  At the same time, though, I see the point where I began to rebel against that part of myself.  I think my true turnabout came, much like his, after a crisis, in my case the month I spent more or less in bed due to a depression so severe I couldn't face the thought of leaving the house.

When I took up school again I was more attentive, began to appreciate learning for learning's sake, and even started enjoying homework projects.  This continued in college, where I soaked up most of my classes (though some I definitely resorted to old survival tactics).  I remember with particular fondness a World History class sophomore year and an American History class senior year, both taught by the same teacher, which were absolutely stimulating to me, and I retain fairly crisp memories of lectures and studies from those classes.  Another one I remember a surprising amount of was my Theatre History class, which is perhaps unsurprising since I was one of the few people who could handle the teacher's style of lecturing the whole class, every class, and then giving essay tests every 6 weeks.  His passion for the subject ignited my own passion for learning, and though I don't remember everything, I still find myself remembering random factoids when I least expect it.

All in all, I'd agree with Kirn that our education system places too much emphasis on "aptitude," a vague rubric of what it thinks students need to succeed in the world.  However, it is possible to go beyond that: good teachers make a difference, and so does a personal thirst for knowledge, which is something we all have to find within ourselves.


Book: Reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and Babylon 5: Artifacts from Beyond the Rim from the B5Scripts collection.

Bottle: Have a cold and have not started a new bottle.

Writing: Wrote on short story, chapter 2, 1200 words.  Story total: 4100.  Wrote a lot of exposition today.  I will have to look at how I can condense it, but a lot of it is kind of essential...I have to set up the stakes for what is to come.  The chapter is about halfway done but I think the infodump is nearly complete.  Then I get to the fun part of the chapter.

Guitar: Though I have been practicing pentatonic scales, "Coming Back to Life", and "Romance" by F. Sors the last week, at today's lesson we revisited several songs from The Wall, in anticipation of the Roger Waters concert this Saturday: "Mother", "Run Like Hell", "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2", "Is There Anybody Out There?"  Next lesson we will take a look at "Hey You" since I found some new tabs for it.  This week I am to review "Mother", work on "Hey You", and keep working on my other projects.  "Coming Back to Life" solos are beginning to sound pretty good.