Dreamed You Didn't Study? Be Proud, You Meritocrat
The New York Times, Sept. 8, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman

Even now, more than 30 years since his life as a student ended, Joel I. Klein occasionally has the dream. He is walking into a classroom for the final exam, usually for a science course in high school, only to discover he has missed it. Sometimes, in the dream, the other pupils are leaving just as he arrives.

Sometimes he has slept through the test. Sometimes he has studied through it.

The one constant is the horror of failure.

Specifically, Mr. Klein is the chancellor of New York's public school system, which might make his recurring dream an act of empathy with the million of pupils who return to school next week. More generally, and more relevantly to his nocturnal imaginings, he embodies the postwar meritocracy. His own trajectory—from boyhood in a Queens housing project as the son of a postal worker with a 10th-grade education to degrees from Columbia University and Harvard Law School—relied not on inherited wealth, not on family connections, not on a WASP pedigree, but on academic prowess.

And the dream he had, the dream he has had intermittently for decades, might be best understood as the meritocrat's nightmare, one common among the knowledge class in America. Clinically speaking, the dream of forgetting to take a final exam, or of forgetting to attend a course until that fateful day, does not qualify as a nightmare because it does not wake the sleeper. Yet, like any recurrent fear, it tells a society something about itself.

At a time when standardized tests pervade education from grade school to grad school, it is easy to forget just how recent a concept meritocracy actually is. As Nicholas Lemann points out in his book ''The Big Test,'' the term did not even enter common parlance until a 1958 work by the British intellectual Michael Young, ''The Rise of the Meritocracy.'' Even then, the United States required a major expansion of public universities and the proliferation of the Scholastic Aptitude Test to create what Mr. Lemann describes as ''an inarguably sacred first principle: that our society rewards those who deserve and have earned advancement, rather than distributing reward by fiat in some way that involves the circumstances of birth.''

With so much riding on academic performance, then, a companion set of anxieties took up residence in the subconscious, as not only innumerable dreamers but the psychiatrists and psychologists who study sleep and dreams are keenly aware.

''You get a feel from a dream for the soul of the dreamer,'' said Dr. Melvin Lansky, a clinical professor of psychiatry at U.C.L.A.'s medical school, in a telephone interview from his office in Los Angeles. ''One thinks that this dreamer is ambitious, hard-driving, feeling like 'all the pressure's on me,' and maybe struggling with the part of himself that wants to relax, even goof off. And what makes the mind distraught are the feelings, 'I can't do it, I'm not prepared.' And, 'It's my fault.' So you get the guilt, the shame, the feeling of being exposed. I'll bet Prince Charles wouldn't have such dreams. His place doesn't depend on merit.''

Another prominent psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Amen of the University of California, Irvine, said that the troubling dream actually helps the meritocrat contend with the relentless demands for high academic performance. He spoke with the experience of someone who still has the periodic dream of showing up unprepared for an anatomy final. (''Very disconcerting,'' he noted.)

''Dreams prepare us for the bad things that are likely to happen in our life,'' Dr. Amen said in a telephone interview. ''They're a dry run, a rehearsal, that help us with survival. How does dreaming about not showing up for a test affect our survival? The answer, I would think, is that education is absolutely critical to how far you advance in life. Failing at it is a threat to your self-esteem, your relationships, your success at work, your life. The dream is helping you to have enough anxiety to stay on track.''

In biological terms, the meritocrat's nightmare arises from the portion of the brain, the limbic system, that resists logic, reason and all those other daylight staples. ''The limbic system is a very primitive part of the brain that controls our emotional behavior,'' explained Dr. Eric Nofziger, a professor of psychiatry in the Sleep Neuroimaging Research Program at the University of Pittsburgh. ''Our instincts, our drives, sexual behavior, fight-or-flight response are all components.''
''And when we dream, that's the part of the brain that's being selectively active,'' he continued. ''The parts that are involved in executive behavior--memory, attention, planning, conscious behavior--are not active when we're dreaming. So every night when we go to sleep, there's a situation that favors this primitive, emotional part of the brain.''

Naturally, the dream of missing a final exam is not the only common anxiety dream. Dreams of being naked in public or of being onstage in a play and forgetting one's lines reflect similar fears of the loss of control, Dr. Nofziger said. Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder replay their horrific wartime experiences.

Yet such is the widespread use of testing to rank and sort American society that, Dr. Nofziger said, ''the experience has been hard-wired into us; the neural code has been laid down early in life.'' Dr. Kelly Byars, a pediatric psychologist at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, has found patients in first or second grade already suffering dreams about disappointing their parents by doing poorly in school.

If the meritocrats' nightmare reveals something incisive about postwar America, then one might well ask what will replace it, as merit increasingly becomes just another image to be manipulated.

In some teenager's bedroom some night soon, one can only surmise, a high school senior will be tossing fitfully not with the fear of forgetting the test but rather the fear of forgetting to attend pricey test-prep class, or forgetting the appointment with the big-bucks private admissions consultant, or forgetting the session with the moonlighting graduate student who is ghost-writing that college-application essay.

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