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Walter Kirn Headshot

Testing, Testing

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The educational model of our time — the fill-in-the-ovals, short personal-essay, standardized-test based ranking system that molded our current ruling class, as typified by Barack Obama, while helping to sweep away the remnants of our traditional ruling class, as typified by George Bush Jr. — is not devoted to instilling wisdom or even to fostering knowledge, in the old sense, but to promoting a brave new virtue known as 'mental aptitude,' a combination of cerebral agility and superior problem-solving prowess. It's a deeply pragmatic trait, this aptitude, because it breeds no particular convictions and stems from no particular moral premises. It's all about pattern-recognition skills. It's all about quickness on one's feet. And that's why the people who exhibit aptitude (call them, or call us, I suppose, the 'apticrats') tend to be thought of, after they grow up, as 'post-ideological.' We're doers, not believers, for the most part, achievers rather than crusaders. We're also, for the moment, the US government.

In my new memoir of my education, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, I describe my personal journey as an eager, ambitious apticrat who went from public school in Minnesota to Princeton University, learning many lessons along the way, the most lasting of which was that I learned quite little other than how to succeed within the system. That was no insignificant feat, of course, because the essential talent of good apticrats is adaptability, a keen situational intelligence. We're sharp in the way Obama is sharp, able to sense the rules behind the rules as well as the expectations of our audiences and to shape our performances accordingly. In itself, this isn't a harmful attribute (not in a politician, certainly) but sometimes it emits a whiff of fraudulence, even to the person possessing it.

There were times at Princeton — many times — when I felt like I didn't deserve to be there and might soon be unmasked by those who did, whoever they were. (I was never sure.) This fear of discovery was a powerful stimulant, pushing me to work hard at self-expression so as to prove to my teachers and myself that my admission to Princeton was no mistake. I wonder at times, while watching our president exercise his rare rhetorical gifts for reconciling opposing points of view, softening hardened attitudes, and generally projecting an aura of competence, if, when the teleprompter is turned off and the applause dies down, he isn't nagged by a similar anxiety. In the moment they're delivered, his major speeches — on race, say, or middle-eastern politics — are apticratic masterpieces, bringing to bear on the knotty topic at hand a superb sensitivity and facility. As the speeches recede in memory, however, what lingers is a sense of their impressiveness and of Obama's magnificent proficiency, while what becomes hard to recapture is their meaning. Their message often seems to be, regardless of the issue they cover, "It's complicated — but not so complicated that it's impossible, assuming that we can all agree it's complicated."

Without really knowing why at first, I fervently supported Obama, seeing in him a reflection of what I viewed, thanks to my schooling, as parts of my best self. He struck me not only as highly educated but, more importantly, highly educable, meaning that he seemed capable of mastering problems on their own terms rather than with reference to pre-existing dogmas. He also had a big vocabulary, which had always been my saving grace as an A student. No matter what he said, he said it well, and no matter what his subject was, he saw it from many sides at once. He also seemed poised and focused in the way that I'd been taught to be for the SAT test. A mind that's obsessive and easily frustrated, that gets hung up on questions it can't answer instead of moving swiftly on to questions that it can, doesn't do well on such exams. And while I conceded that it might be true that, as his detractors often asserted, Obama was young and inexperienced, I felt that these might be strengths, not weaknesses, considering the job that he was seeking. A president, like a college freshman, can't know in advance which questions he'll have to answer or what topics he'll have to master. He has to be flexible, supple, and responsive. He has to be comfortable with multiple-choice.

My sense that Obama is the consummate product of the same education that I received led me to back him, as I said, reflexively, but now that he's in power, in command, I think it's important to ask whether the qualities that caused him, and caused so many of us, to rise are also the best ones to help him govern. Let me tell my own story. In my junior year at Princeton, I underwent an intellectual crisis that grew into a spiritual crisis. Aptitude had taken me quite a distance, but suddenly I seemed to reach its limits and I became deeply, woefully confused. I'd finally gotten where I'd set out to go but at the cost of developing any real passion for anything other than advancement itself. I was an English major, bright and fluent, the sort of student known as a "quick study," but one day during a lecture it occurred to me that I had no ideas of my own, let alone any sturdy internal mechanism for evaluating others' ideas. Once, I'd had nowhere to go but up, I realized, but now that I was there, on top, my brain began to run in circles.

Obama and the apticrats advising him — as fine an assortment of diplomas as has been gathered in Washington since Kennedy's time — may have passed through this crisis already, for all I know, and be ready to face their duties guided by sturdy, informed convictions, not merely exquisitely well-honed skill sets. I certainly hope that this is true, because the colossal struggles that they're confronting, domestically and internationally, will call for determination, not just agility, and discernment not just acuity. The grades for these leaders' performances will not be granted immediately and some will be failing grades, which they're not used to. They will be sorely tempted, I suspect, to rely at times on the traits and talents that served them so well during their schooling. But what I most wish for them as they go forward are qualities that our system doesn't prize, perhaps because they can't be easily measured: sound judgment, intellectual humility, and, when frustration and doubt descend, true courage. They've passed their exams, they've aced their interviews, and they find themselves in a new world now — not at the head of the class, in charge of it.