I just finished Walter Kirn’s “Lost in the Meritocracy”, a memoir about his boozy, druggy, sexed-up days at Princeton, surrounded by boozy, druggy, sexed-up upper-class twits. Actually, the upper-class twits were also monstrous and insensitive; he was merely shallow, grasping, and pathetic.
His point was that he had spent his whole life playing the game, addicted to the affirmation of prizes, 800 SAT scores, and Ivy League admissions. By his account, he managed to get through Princeton without ever reading a book, but merely by flinging around whatever academic jargon was in vogue. Finally, in the last three pages, thanks to a post-graduation bout of pneumonia, he starts reading – actually reading – the classics, and his life is transformed and saved.
First, I’m not sure if I entirely believe him. After all, he ends up getting a highly prestigious Rhodes-like fellowship to study at Oxford, and I know they don’t give these out for nothing. But taking his account at face value, I have known a few students like this over the years. I find them infuriating, actually, for the terrible waste involved. First, for the waste of their talent. Second, for the waste of their parents’ hopes and dreams, not to mention money. Third, for the waste of the space they take up, which could have gone to someone else who might have truly appreciated and treasured the opportunities that came with it.
Thankfully, some of these kids simply grow up. For the lucky ones, it occurs over the four years of college. Others come back, 10 years later, with some sheepish regret about all they pissed away, and sometimes, with a desire to help the younger versions of themselves. And then there are the ones that you never hear about, and never know.