A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School

Elinor Burkett


Matt is not hot for teacher


Ignore those who “protest too much,” this book is an eye-opening and all-too-accurate indictment of American education and most depressingly, American youth. Those who find fault with the details of Burkett’s book are, predictably, missing the big picture: American schools are not suffering from a financial crisis, but rather ache under the weight of apathy, grade inflation, celebrated conformity, and the commodification of knowledge. Burkett’s book is sobering and depressing, yes, but she illuminates a crisis that goes beyond dollars and class size. The kids, representative as they indeed are, would fail to embrace learning for its own sake even if schools were golden palaces and teacher-student ratios were 1:1.

There are voices of reason in Burkett’s book (a few “old school” teachers who believe in failing those who underperform, as well as students like Reilly, who is a constant breath of fresh air and on-target cynicism), but too often New Age “feel-goodism” wins out over truth and logic. As the author points out, many (if not all) of the problems in our schools (especially violence) are the result of inflated egos, not “wounded wallflowers.” Those who approach education as a commercial endeavor (with smug entitlement guiding their actions) will inevitably see low grades and poor test scores not as indications of ignorance or sloth, but rather as “plots” by “unfair” teachers and “hostile” school environments.

Burkett, in bringing us this story of a Minnesota high school, also presents an entire culture limping into the madness of mediocrity. It’s all here: the medicalization of failure (ADD, ADHD, ODD, and other illegitimate excuses to avoid personal responsibility), uncooperative and irate parents (proving that the rotten apple truly does not fall too far from the tree), degraded and abused faculty (who often give in rather than fight), and the never-ending debate over how best to educate our demon spawn. Higher standards? More tests? Stronger teacher accountability? Burkett, unlike many sanctimonious politicians, does not offer a single solution. Instead, she demonstrates that the destruction of learning — the very idea that knowledge can be valued for more than what it does for us materially — is a culture-wide phenomenon; that before we crucify the educators, we need to examine the culture that these kids internalize and learn to value BEFORE they enter the halls of learning. Perhaps our collective anti-intellectualism and sanctioning of ignorance (via a crass consumer culture that refuses to endorse learning that is not immediately transferred into profit and productivity) are culprits.

Still, I thank Ms. Burkett for her wit, her perspective, and her understanding that the kids, far from being overachieving wonders of the world, may in fact be the manipulative monsters they are often “unfairly” stereotyped as being. High GPAs and sparkling transcripts, after all, do not indicate learning, only an understanding of and willingness to play the game — rigged as it certainly is.