Climbing the Meritocracy

There’s something ironic about receiving Walter Kirn’s new book, Lost in the Meritocracy, as a graduation present. Obviously the well-wisher who bought it for me figured I would be interested in reading what people are saying about Princeton, but it certainly doesn’t make graduating seem like much of a cause for celebration. The book—written by a disgruntled (though, extremely successful) Princeton graduate—makes the case that any Ivy League “education” is anything but. Just as the Class of ’09 devoured The Rule of Four before arriving on campus, to learn how to get into Princeton’s Steam Tunnels and gain admission to one of its eating clubs, many of us are now reading Kirn’s book to figure out if the diplomas we just received are, in fact, worthless.

Lost in the Meritocracy is easy to dismiss. As the Daily Princetonian points out, Kirn’s experiences at Princeton are a tad bit unconventional. (They include, among other things, doing coke with Truman Capote, torching his roommates’ furniture, and an Honor Code violation). Despite being an outsider to much of Princeton myself, I found little in the book that actually resonated with me.

The one part of the book that really caught me was a line on the back cover: “In America, percentile is destiny.” Percentile has more-or-less been my obsession at least since I started thinking about college. High school saw me graduating at the top of a class of nineteen. Percentile: 95th. Getting into Princeton probably put me in the top 1%, at least as far as SATs and GPAs are concerned. Princeton, of course, is not the summit of the percentile mountain; instead, freshman year is more like a momentary plateau before the ascent becomes steeper. It’s not enough to just go to Princeton; you need to be in the top quintile, get honors, or otherwise distinguish yourself.

It occurred to me how truly hopeless the percentile climb is this year when I was applying for fellowships. When I interviewed for the Rhodes, I was blown away by how frankly unsuccessful the former scholars on the committee were. Sure, they weren’t living off of food stamps, but it was a bit surprising to see how many Rhodes Scholars there were working as assistant professors at state colleges or doing tax law. A few weeks later, when I actually won the Sachs, I was admonished that it wasn’t enough to be a Sachs Scholar—I had to be one of the “good” ones. (Apparently, as I was told, some of the previous winners have been “disappointments.”)

I suppose it all comes down to numbers. There are thirty-two Rhodes Scholars a year, which means that there are over a thousand living Rhodes alums. Kirn claims that winning a Rhodes is “reaching the top of the pyramid” in society, and yet, it’s implausible that each of those thousand scholars went on to great things. The sheer size of the top few percentiles feels overwhelming. It hits me every time I go to the library, and stare at the thousands of books that have been written on every single topic imaginable.

I guess what I’m getting at is that I’ve realized that originality and distinction cannot be achieved by relentlessly climbing the percentile ladder. No matter what awards I won at Princeton or work to get at Oxford, there will always be someone else at every level of the hierarchy. When I won the Pyne, a good friend warned me against the feeling that “this is my pinnacle” and that I will never achieve at that level again. Personally, though, I’m content for that to be true, and to go into the future having conceded that, at least in the percentile game, I’m not going to reach the top.

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