When Sonia Sotomayor sits down next week before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions about her qualifications to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, thoughtful observers may do well to reflect that, by certain measures, she shouldn’t be there. That’s because decades ago, in her late teens, Sotomayor faced another important test — the SAT, the traditional route to top-tier placement in our national meritocracy — on which, by her own admission, she didn’t do well. What exactly her test scores were she hasn’t said, but she has revealed that they “were not comparable to that of my colleagues” at Princeton University, where she was admitted as a self-styled “affirmative-action baby.” The fact that1 she later graduated from Princeton with highest academic honors and went on to reach the upper echelons of her chosen career, the law, speaks well of her intellect, her drive and the discernment of Princeton’s admissions office, but it doesn’t speak well, necessarily, of the conventional, test-based notions of merit that might well have stopped her, had they been strictly applied, before she even got started.
As a product of the same education system that molded Sotomayor (and as a fellow Princeton graduate who took his degree seven years after she did), I would like to think that I know a tiny something about what she and others experienced while trying to scale, percentile by percentile, the ladder of academic and social distinction. I call this group of contemporary strivers — a group that has largely supplanted the moneyed gentry as our country’s governing class — the “Aptocrats,” after the primary trait that we were tested for and which we sought to develop in ourselves as a means of passing those tests. As defined by the institutions responsible for spotting and training America’s brightest youth, this “aptitude” is a curious quality. It doesn’t reflect the knowledge in your head, let alone the wisdom in your soul, but some quotient of promise and raw mental agility thought to be crucial to academic success and, by extension, success in general. All of this makes for a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more aptitude that a young person displays, the more likely it is that she or he will have a chance to win the golden tickets — fine diplomas, elite appointments and so on — that permit you to lead the aptocratic establishment and set the terms by which it operates.
Only when I entered Princeton did I start to have doubts about the system that got me there. Some took the form of doubts about myself. My impressive performance on the SATs (whose supposed biases I was blind to, perhaps because I was a middle-class Caucasian and they operated in my favor) didn’t seem to count for much now that I found myself having to absorb volumes upon volumes of information rather than get the right answers on multiple-choice tests. Yes, I had a large vocabulary, and yes, I knew how to deploy it to good effect in classroom discussions and during professors’ office hours, but suddenly my prowess felt slightly fraudulent.
While I dished out the high-level baloney that my aptocratic mind excelled at, I looked around at the students who didn’t resemble me in terms of skin color and background and wondered how they were staying afloat at all. As a child of the rural Midwest, I felt decidedly out of place at Princeton among the debonair Eastern prep-school graduates who still, in the early 1980s (just a decade or so after the campus went co-ed) seemed to embody its privileged heritage, so I could scarcely imagine the alienation of these other yet more marginalized students.
What’s more, the poorer and browner of my classmates — particularly the women — seemed to study twice as hard as I did, clocking endless hours in the library and forgoing weekend parties for late-night cram sessions. Maybe their SAT scores were lower than mine, but they ranked higher than I did on the effort scale. And on the bravery scale too.
The orthodox combination of high-school transcripts and SAT scores that allowed me into Princeton wasn’t, I found out after I was admitted, a guarantee of my ability to make the most of its academic offerings. Put simply, I wasted a lot of time there, I engaged in a lot of shoddy, pretentious dodges, and maybe I shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Perhaps someone else deserved my spot — someone whose talents weren’t so easily indexed but might have been another Sotomayor.
That's a nice trick Kirn attempts there, whining about the alleged unfairness of an education system that he benefited from while continuing to cash in on it. Of course, no one put a gun to Kirn's head and forced him to do well on the SAT, or to attend Princeton. He could have easily gone to a state school in the Midwest and left a spot open for another candidate. That's water over the dam now, but if Kirn really wants to eat his own dog food today, I'd be happy to suggest some ways for him to assuage his guilt (assuming he really feels any) for his success.
For starters, he could donate all the proceeds from his new book about this subject, “Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever.”, to a scholarship fund at Princeton for prospective Latina students whose talents might not be "so easily indexed". Kirn could also give up his slot as a frequent contributor to the New York Times, and recommend it be given to a harder-working, braver, minority journalist. With Vibe Magazine shutting down, there are surely a number African American journalists now out of work. If these journalists are anything like the "poorer and browner" classmates Kirn remembers from Princeton, they are braver and twice as hard-working as Kirn. It's too late for Kirn to give up his Princeton spot to one of them, but it's not too late for him to give up his New York Times gig to one of them. What do you say, Walter?
1Does anyone read Strunk & White anymore? The egregious phrase "the fact that" could easily have been replaced with a simple "That" in that sentence.