What is the true value of learning?

Examining the misconceptions and dangers that occur when we focus on pure meritocracy instead of education.

Walter Kirn tells of the dangers of a misunderstanding of meritocracy and what can result from it. In his article (and book) "Lost in Meritocracy", he explains his own rise through the ranks of education and what price he paid for it. You can read the article here and you can read our summary of the lessons to be learned below.

There are three main lessons to absorb from this article. We start with the problem of focusing on self-promotion vs learning, we continue to the results this can have on your development and finally we see the author come upon the solution to his problem and his re-commitment to self-betterment and education.

  1. Self-Promotion vs Learning: Kirn tells the story of how, from the beginning of his education, he learned how to "play the game" to succeed by the rules encouraged by society. Instead of valuing the act of learning, the focus was on having an appetite to advance - rewarding them with distinction. Kirn illustrates the point, showing how he buttered up professors and applied to contests for the sole purpose of resume boosting. He learned how professors would reward the use of certain intelligent sounding words in essays and he rarely read an entire book for a class, not when he could manipulate his way to an A.

  2. The Effects on the Mind and Body: Kirn coasted on his skills of "trickery" all the way to Princeton. Toward the end of his degree, as he looked on to his next steps, he describes a realization that "nobody told us this wouldn't be enough". What he has discovered is that his system of ensuring success was no longer fulfilling him. This identity crisis caused him great stress and led him to drug use, malnourishment and exhaustion. Emotionally, he experienced aphasia and a sense of depression and disengagement. That drive to advance was no longer enough. He also describes the itch to fit in with the wealthy and socially elite students at Princeton was crushing him. He was desperate for their approval and lost his sense of self. At the end of the day, the Ivy Leagues did not equal success, instead they left him with no direction and surrounded by students with no values.

  3. Process to Self-Betterment: After his realization, he begins a process to reconnect with the world, rid himself of the toxicity and try learning for a change. As he puts it, he "no longer cared about self-advancement," he wanted to "find out what others thought".

Go thorough our Pursuing Real Education Checklist to learn about expanding your intelligence and how to take an active role in drawing your own personal path in life.

We featured this article as a reminder of the dangers of focusing on meritocracy without paying attention to the underlying purpose - education and the advancement of society - not yourself. What do you think?