Kirn on aptocrats
Conor flagged a piece in the Times by Walter Kirn, author of Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever that needs some attending to. I haven’t read Kirn’s book yet, so I won’t comment on anything but the times commentary, but I’ve read a lot of reviews and excerpts that help with context for what Kirn is saying. Full disclosure for this post: I work part time as a tutor and instructor, and sometimes teach SAT, ACT or related material.
Kirn’s piece (which you should read) suggests that over reliance on standardized tests has led to the rise of “aptocrats,” people who are good at passing standardized tests but whose skills at those tests don’t necessarily carry over to practical application. He further points out, correctly, that such things become self-fulfilling, as those who gain entrance into the elite clubs of meritocracy have the kinds of advantages that later entrench them in success, and the prophecy is fulfilled. As is habit, Kirn turns to autobiography to point out how he himself took advantage of the aptitude system to (illegitimately, in his view) grab hold of the higher rungs of academic success.
Kirn’s piece leaves out some pretty crucial details, one glaring: the SAT’s relevance to the college application process has been gradually eroding for decades. This is a fact well documented in most college entrance guides, various literature and news stories about the process, and often available from college admissions departments themselves. That seems like a pretty relevant piece of information for a story about over reliance on standardized tests! It was really surprising, reading the piece, that a bright writer like Kirn could fail to mention (or, if he didn’t know, investigate) such important contextual information. Because the college admissions game is so absurdly competitive, SAT scores remain functionally important. But their importance has diminished relative to other criteria, and are generally considered not nearly as important as the primary criterion: grades and the difficulty of the classes in which they are earned. Different schools have different levels of criteria, of course, but the predominance of grades is one of the closer things to a rule in the process. What Kirn calls “the conventional, test-based notions of merit” simply aren’t the conventional way high school merit is largely determined.
That is, I think, a blow against Kirn’s larger narrative. Kirn suggests that college admissions (and presumably other types of supposedly meritocratic achievement) could do well by rewarding effort over aptitude. I think this is troubled by the prevalence of grades in the system. The relationship between grades, effort and work are complicated, and in certain contexts, controversial; but I think most people identify grades as being the aspect of college admissions more reflective of effort than pure ability. What I worry about, personally, is that “effort,” in school, can mean something a lot more noxious than we’d typically imagine. I worked for several years at middle and high schools, and it was striking how many kids had so internalized the ultra-competitive nature of “getting ahead” that the smallest tasks became opportunities to throw competitive elbows, to grade-grub and pull rank and clamber ahead. (If you want to feel depressed about the next generation of high-achievers– hell, if you just want to feel depressed, period– watch as a 16-year-old bitches and moans to try and get his 96 raised to a 98.) I’m not, actually, a fan of the “aptocrat” system that Kirn describes. I’m just not sure that the alternative is a system that rewards real effort, but instead one which rewards ruthlessness, a mercenary attitude towards school and achievement, and an absolute shamelessness when it comes to pursuing tangible goals. I worry, that is, that rather than being ruled by aptocrats, we risk being ruled by whine-ocrats, people ever ready to sacrifice dignity, fair play, charity and self-respect at the altar of the Prize.
If there is one failure that Kirn’s writing suffers from above all, it’s that he’s far too quick to assume that his own experience is an accurate barometer for understanding, well, anybody who has had similar experiences to his. It’s true, I’m sure, that there are others like Kirn who learned early to appropriate the language of intelligence, to use their natural facility for a certain kind of analytic understanding as mask to represent true depth of understanding. But in what number, what percentage? And how many people are actually just one or the other, full of depth and understanding or a clever fraud? It’s my experience that most all of us are some combination of both. Kirn says “Like countless college students before and since, I relied for my scholastic survival on a combination of verbal bluster, teacher-pleasing good manners and handy study aids.” Who is to say, though, that the number of people who rely on these things are really countless? It’s impossible to say, of course. I just worry that Kirn is certain there are so many because he was one of their number. What about students whose success on standardized tests actually demonstrated their, well, aptitude? What about people who perform well because the tests accurately assess their ability to reason, and who go on to use that reason for deeper scholarly purpose? I’m not saying this happens all or even most of the time. But Kirn seems too dismissive of it entirely.
Finally– I don’t mean to say this uncharitably. But there’s a consistent tic in Kirn’s analysis that I find off-putting. Kirn gets a good deal of mileage, in the various pieces of commentary and book excerpts that I’ve read, out of the fact that the central piece of evidence for his critiques of merit culture is at bottom an indictment of himself. He was unqualified and incurious, in his narrative, and yet was rewarded with an acceptance to Princeton and the laurels that came with such an acceptance. (Side note: despite his contempt for Princeton’s selection process, Kirn is very quick to invoke his alma mater.) I think Kirn deserves credit for being so upfront and frank about what he perceives to be his own weakness’s. (Or his younger self’s, anyway.) The problem is that I think he relies on simple human psychology to strengthen his arguments beyond their logical strength: he’s damning himself in his criticism, the feeling goes, so it must be accurate. But just because Kirn is openly being critical of the system that rewarded doesn’t necessarily mean that his assessment of that system is correct. I’ve seen similar rhetorical devices fairly often. Call it the fallacy of self-deprecation.
This, incidentally, is a part of the problem with how we empower people to criticize our systems of academic and social achievement. The people who we really listen to, when it comes to criticizing academia and our meritocratic process, are the people who have been best rewarded by them. Only somebody who went to Harvard, in other words, is considered to have the ability to critique Harvard with an assumption of reasonable good faith, because such a person can sidestep the charge that is thought to disqualify most anyone else– the charge that jealousy motivates the criticism. I find this to be the case in a really broad swath of our discourse about merit and success. But it has a central failing, in that even those critical of an institution that rewarded them have vested interests in that institution.
In the end, I largely agree with Kirn’s piece, despite my reservations. This, I agree with whole-heartedly:
an old philosophical split over the nature of social justice. Does it consist of devising enlightened rules and applying them equally to everyone or does it entail sometimes modifying those rules when it appears that they treat some of us a bit more equally than others? This argument could go on forever (and has), but there’s a way out of it, I think, which even my most exacting Princeton professors might not find entirely idiotic. The premise of this solution is that all systems that seek to rank human beings according to “merit” — an inherently complex idea — will inevitably fall short of fully accounting for what merit consists of in the real world. As such, these systems, like our Constitution, should be subject to amendment from time to time, since no definition of merit lasts forever.
Still, in my cynical way, I wonder if we are capable of ever having a worthwhile view of merit. I have my doubts. I am a part of the problem, of course. The tutoring I have done is part of the way that privilege asserts itself. I have tutored, incidentally, for both academic subjects (grades) and standardized tests, The amount of money that continues to flow to tutors and companies that provide such things goes to show, better than any testimonial, that they work. I’ve worked in programs that provide this training to kids who can’t otherwise afford it, but mostly, of course, it’s been for those who can pay, and sadly, college admissions is a zero-sum game. As many different ways as we come up with to look deeper, affluence asserts its steady power, and every time we think we’ve leveled a playing field, we are eventually proven wrong. The more I think about the process, and what it says about us, our country and our culture, and the aspirational America of both dream and reality, the more I am left with an overpowering feeling of ambivalence, towards merit, towards success, towards fairness, towards the American dream.