Lost in Meritocracy

Monday, May 18, 2009

Walter Kirn thinks the American education system focuses far too much on standardized tests, extracurricular activities and class rankings at the expense of intellectual fulfillment. In his book, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, Kirn looks at the intellectual costs of our current education system.

Event: Walter Kirn will be reading and signing books
Tuesday, June 16, at 7:00 pm
McNally Jackson Bookstore
50 Prince Street


Walter Kirn

Comments [11]

Catherine from Babylon

As a professor of US History I receive freshmen class after class who reflect the preferred values and methodology of education as the pendulem swings back and forth. My first students attended schools in an era of student-centered education, a la "free schools. They tended to be curious and creative, and socially conscious.
On the other hand, many were short on discipline. Attendance was optional. Due dates were mere suggestions. Without consultation some would create an alternative essay question. Deep general knowledge bases were punctured by deep gaps of ignorance. Many were expert about key events in US History, with no sense of chronology.
The current and recent classes reflect the present-day emphasis on testing. They tend to denigrate the humanities and social sciences: What can you do with a degree in English? Apparently, college has been with vocational training They flood the buisness department for the BS or MS., while they take Liberal Arts and Humanities classes to fill the state mandated General Education Requirements.
In general they are deficient in writing competence, and interpretive reading and critical thinking. They associate names with events, but fewhave read the primary source - the book! Any book!
Nothing is more rewarding than a lively class discussion. Eventually and inevitably the vital question is posed: "Will this be on the test?" Apathy wins over intellectual engagement again.

May. 18 2009 07:51 PM
Catherine from Babylon

. As a post-sputnik student, school was serious business,and somehow treated as a student's patriotic duty. We took intelligence, aptitude and achievement tests. It wasn't the defining assessment tool for students, teachers, and schools that it is today. More insidiously, they were tracking tools. I hated the whole thing right from the start. I tuned out until 5th grade, which infuriated many a teacher because I was unable to follow directions, or repeat what the teacher just said. Retention was common. Ironically, I know that I was never "left back" because my test scores were sky high. I owe this to the ongoing conversation (argument?) in my home about politics, philosophical points, interpretations of literature, exquisite poetic verse, the style of prose, with which I was fascinated Thought, creativity, the existence of multiperspectives,
and social values was the water I swam in. I derived an early facility with reading and writing, and social conscience by the process of osmosis.

May. 18 2009 07:32 PM

One of my childhood friends was rememberign how she countd the holes in the acoustic tiles through grammar school - i had a fantasy about floating away in a bubble having created a perfect likeness of myself to leave in that desk. How can we take children in growing bodies and sit them in rows from 8:30 - 3 every day and call that learning? Rudolf Steiner kids learn on farms - their education is relevant to their lives.

May. 18 2009 01:27 PM

Schools can really kill curiosity! I remember my (Ivy league educated) mother being so disgusted with the cardboard nature of our young educations that she volunteered and taught art to teach kids how to look at things for themselves.

May. 18 2009 01:24 PM

Toni Morrison was talking on a tape about an experience at Princeton when one of her students said he was blown away to learn that he could read for pleasure adn that it would have meaning outside a test requirement - I am paraphrasing

May. 18 2009 01:21 PM

The colors of each module in the SRA box indicated your reading level. We would all watch where the other would draw the next reading task to determine their reading level.
The SRA speed reading exercises really annoyed me. The way the machine blocked the line or phrase. I started rebelling and decided this was not how I wanted to read.
Yet another theory that really didn't work for every kid.
Children aren't robots to be 'fed' info. As adults we understand that we all learn in different ways. Why can't adults understand that children are the same?

May. 18 2009 01:20 PM
Jonathan from Williamsburg

I'm 32 years old (33 on Wed.), and i was tied for 23rd in my High School Class. I know this because there was 236 people in my class, and i was the last one in the top 10%. I can still name over half of the people in front of me and at least half of those with their rank.

I wish I could say that i have such a sharp memory to remember many such lists like state capitols or presidents' birth states. However, this list is because of the obsessive focus of the top 10% in our class.

While on Student Council, I put forth a plan to change class rank to reflect percentiles vs. numbered rank. The school committee wouldn't pass it.

Mr. Kirn is on to something. I'm still striving to find out what I will be when I grow up, so I'll have to pick up his book and maybe discover some new nugget on what that might be.

May. 18 2009 01:18 PM

OMG! I remember the SRA reading program in 5th grade. Each module was color coordinated and we all wanted to get through to the 'better' colors. We each would watch which color the other kids would take their reading task to figure their level.

May. 18 2009 01:14 PM
Ivey from Brooklyn

My private high ranked school used the SRA's in the early 90's too.

I think the most important education teaches us to ask questions not answer them.

May. 18 2009 01:11 PM
David from Queens

Testing companies are a powerful special interest in Washington and by grant extension, the school system nationwide. They make tests which are designed to make the "reform" of the moment appear more effective to the advantage of the politicians who gave them the money to produce the test - under the guise of improving education

May. 18 2009 01:09 PM
Richard Posner from Quod Cities, IA

I think the biggest part of the problem is that, loosely speaking, 'we' HAVE got schools that accurately reflect our priorities and values.

The least we could do would be to stop admonishing our children with a sharp, 'Now don't you get smart with me,'; the best would be to make ourselves into a people who would not even consider saying such a thing.

Until learning and the ability to reason are prized for their own sakes, nothing else we do for our educational system will be sufficient. For one thing, until this is the case, teachers will never be held in the regard that makes effective teaching more likely---the poor quality of many rich person's education is an index to their feeling superior to their teachers, who at prep schools are often considered to be another sort of servant.

Our educational lunch is (figuratively) being eaten by cultures that value learning as a fundamental value, and where 'sir' is synonymous with 'teacher'. (And where teachers feel a great obligation to live up to that respect...but even when the teacher fails, is the student is driven....)

(These cultures have their own problems: they tend to value received bodies of knowledge and ways of thinking, leading to many of their most creative's coming here...where they insist that their children respect learning and teachers.)

May. 18 2009 12:26 PM

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