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New York Writer is Shocked by High School Teaching and Culture
The Atlantic ^ | 11/28/2001 | Interview of Elinor Burkett by Sage Stossel

Posted on 11/29/2001 6:07:56 PM PST by ex-Texan

Another Planet: A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School

by Elinor Burkett

Review of Book/ Publisher: HarperCollins

Elinor Burkett, who at age fifty-five became a member of the class of 2000, reports on high school today through a journalist's eyes

"Though Prior Lake was by all accounts considered to be a good school, she was dismayed by how little the students there read, how poorly they wrote, and how little they actually knew..."

In 1999, following the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, the journalist Elinor Burkett became curious about what today's suburban American high schools are really like. She set out for the Midwest in search of a high school as typical and all-American as she could find, and settled on Prior Lake, a school on the outskirts of Minneapolis whose students—mostly from middle-class backgrounds—tend to score well on national and state education tests. After persuading Prior Lake's principal to allow her to spend a year there as a close observer, she and her husband left their New York City home and moved to Minnesota where she threw herself into life at Prior Lake.

Throughout the year, Burkett went to as many classes, sports practices, play and music rehearsals, faculty meetings, teacher discussions, student bull sessions, and informal gatherings and parties as she could. She became a confidante of students, teachers, and administrators alike, and was permitted to sit in on parent-teacher conferences. She became so well integrated into the scene that at the end of the year the seniors asked her to speak at their graduation and invited her to attend future reunions as an honorary member of their class.

Her year at high school convinced her that what passes for national dialogue these days about education and the state of our high schools bears little relation to how high schools actually work. Theories she had previously bought into about the unfairness of distinguishing among students based on academic ability, for example, were countered by her observation that in classes where students of all abilities are thrown together, the less able students simply rely on the smarter students to do all the work, and the more precocious students become bored and alienated. It also struck Burkett that today's rhetoric about using new curriculum requirements and testing programs to raise standards are beside the point when adults, both inside and outside of schools, prioritize the protection of teenagers' self-esteem over challenging them to achieve. Though Prior Lake was by all accounts considered to be a good school, she was dismayed by how little the students there read, how poorly they wrote, and how little they actually knew.

In Another Planet: A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School, published last month, Burkett recorded these and other observations from her time as a member of the Prior Lake community. Unlike many other books on the state of our schools, Another Planet reads more as a narrative, with a varied cast of characters (teachers, administrators, jocks, cheerleaders, goths, loners, and so on), than as a treatise. Her story opens with teachers—some veteran, others about to teach for the first time—sharing their thoughts about the year to come and setting up their classrooms for the first day of school. By the time the book concludes, with the class of 2000's graduation ceremony, the reader feels intimately familiar with many people's struggles and accomplishments over the course of the intervening year.

Burkett's hope is that her account of a year at Prior Lake will offer readers insight and impetus for reform that reach beyond the usual platitudes. Craig Olson [Prior Lake's principal] took an enormous risk when he allowed me into his school, and the biggest part of that risk was that my readers would thumb through these pages and say, "Oh, that's just Prior Lake." Don't even be tempted. Well, go ahead and be tempted. But don't make it that easy on yourself or your schools. By every conceivable measure, from its test scores to its college admission rate, from the quality and dedication of its staff to its graduation rate, Prior Lake High School is a superior American high school.

And if that thought horrifies, you've gotten to the easy part. Elinor Burkett is a New York journalist who has written six previous books, including The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless and The Gravest Show on Earth: America in the Age of AIDS. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere. Before becoming a journalist she spent thirteen years as a professor of Latin American and women's history. This year she is teaching journalism as a Fulbright Professor at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek, Kyrgystan. She leaves today for Afghanistan to research a story on Afghan women.

She spoke with me recently by telephone from Kyrgystan.

How, if at all, did your feelings about your own high school experience color your impressions of life at Prior Lake High School?

There's no way that they couldn't color my impressions. I was immediately drawn to the kids whom I would most likely have been drawn to when I was a kid. And yet what happened very quickly was that I got kicked in the teeth by my own presuppositions. For example, I had gone back assuming that the jocks would be stupid, which is what I believed when I was sixteen. And then I met this boy I wrote about, Tony Lorenz, who was everything I would have despised when I was in high school. And he turned out to be one of my favorite students because he was a wonderful writer—he was the best poet in the school. So these kids kept forcing me to go back and look at my own high school experience, and say, Boy, I missed some really nice kids. I mean, some of the kids that I would have been really good friends with in high school and would have admired I now saw as surly, whiny, and full of themselves. Maybe that's who I was, too. I don't know. But the Prior Lake kids did a good job keeping me honest, because they were so good at knocking down my prejudices.

Read Entire Interview with Burkett


TOPICS: Culture/Society; Front Page News; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS:
Well, it is now "official." Why? Because a New York writer with all the correct credentials now says that our schools are all screwed up.

Just take a walk on a high school campus some day. You will see teenage girls dressing like street hookers .... teenage boys wear gang banger garb and no one appears to be serious about learning anything at all.

1 posted on 11/29/2001 6:07:56 PM PST by ex-Texan
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To: ex-Texan
But at least their socialized. (/sarcasm)
2 posted on 11/29/2001 6:23:52 PM PST by Brett66
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To: ex-Texan
HA!

This explains the new media ad blitz by the NEA, "Public Education: An American Idea" , which pins the success of America squarely on the shoulders of the public schools.

I wonder how Ms. Burkett will enjoy being publically lambasted as a right-wing John Birch KKK kook, now?

She's not telling a lot of us what we didn't already know; she's just had her eyes opened (red pill) and wants to spread the alarm. Too late, too little.

Maybe Lynn Cheney will call her and give her a pep talk.

3 posted on 11/29/2001 6:27:36 PM PST by dasboot
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To: Brett66
But isn't that the reason schools exist?
For what it's worth, this high schooler (who is not connected to any government run "educational" establishment, is currently partaking of the Canterbury Tales, Beowolf, MacBeth, a volume on the life of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a regimental history of the 1st Georgia, a large collection of Scottish, Englsih, and American folk ballads, and for pure interest, a book on edible plants, all of which I am reading out of my own interest. I should note that the arangement of my schooling is such that it encourages such pursuits, although I must admit much of it is borne out of my own novel ecentricies...
4 posted on 11/29/2001 6:30:32 PM PST by Cleburne
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To: ex-Texan
Now wait just a durn minute here...I saw this movie on HBO. It was with Drew Barrymore...yeah, that's it, it was called "Never Been Kissed." Not worth watching.
5 posted on 11/29/2001 6:32:14 PM PST by Pharmboy
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To: ex-Texan
That's why my children aren't allowed to enter a public school.
They're too valuable to me to have them totally screwed up with Marxist studies instead of reading, writing, and lots of math.
My kids will be the leaders of tomarrow because they'll be the smarter ones, and the rest will be "evenly distributed" worker bees.
6 posted on 11/29/2001 6:46:21 PM PST by concerned about politics
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Comment #7 Removed by Moderator

To: Ron Fletcher
We spend more per pupil now than ever...and our scores are lower than ever (remember: we "re-centered" the SAT up 50 points...each!). I know you were being sarcastic Ron...this isn't addressed to you.
8 posted on 11/29/2001 6:53:25 PM PST by Pharmboy
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To: ex-Texan
Tell me about it. My wife is a HS teacher North of Atlanta, and the school system can be really ridiculous. They throw real problem kids, some on probation and even one with an ankle bracelet homing device, some severely disabled, in with the bright kids and with the country kids. Then they expect the teachers to conduct a meaningful class with all ability levels at the same time. Worst of all, if some kid scratches the desks or glues something to the floor, they blame my wife. I know, I just got back from helping her to refinish the drawers in question and scrape the carpets. The young man in question got 10 days suspension, and they missed a golden educational opportunity by not making the kid refinish the drawers himself. Then he could understand the pride in doing something and not stupidly damaging things. But instead they only vent on the teacher for not somehow preventing it. I am thinking more about homeschooling every day.
9 posted on 11/29/2001 6:53:43 PM PST by Sender
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To: ex-Texan
I have a daughter in High School and I am very impressed with the level of education she is receiving. Of course, she is taking Honors classes. From what I have seen, her school is very much like many others - there are all levels of learning - from the kids who really shouldn't waste the effort to even get to the building, all the way to the Advanced Placement courses that actually award college credits.....

As with every aspect of life, education is what you make of it.

10 posted on 11/29/2001 6:54:01 PM PST by WhyisaTexasgirlinPA
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To: Cleburne
Cleburne, There was an article referenced the other night that had been written by a 16 year old liberal. It was an opinion piece written for Democratic Underground. It was poorly written and not well thought out, but was receiving accolades by the DU bunch.

I would put you up against the liberal kid anytime! You are obviously very well educated and write better than most adults I know. Are you planning a career in writing?

11 posted on 11/29/2001 6:59:41 PM PST by WhyisaTexasgirlinPA
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To: ex-Texan
that in classes where students of all abilities are thrown together, the less able students simply rely on the smarter students to do all the work, and the more precocious students become bored and alienated. It also struck Burkett that today's rhetoric about using new curriculum requirements and testing programs to raise standards are beside the point when adults, both inside and outside of schools, prioritize the protection of teenagers' self-esteem over challenging them to achieve.

Which is precisely the reason we've decided to homeshcool all the way through high school, unless our kids decide to go their Jr. and Sr. years to the local Math and Science Magnet school at which the kids are serious about learning. I always laugh when people opine about the fact that being homeschooled, our kids miss out on the 'socialization' of high school. Frankly that's one reason WHY WE DO homeschool, so they won't have to spend so much mental energy fooling with that crap! They could probably BOTH finish high school in 3 years if they wanted, that's how much time is wasted in regular school. I gave my daughter the option of going back to school next year for the 9th grade and she said precisely that; that it was a lot of wasted time sitting in a classroom!

12 posted on 11/29/2001 6:59:54 PM PST by SuziQ
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To: ex-Texan
All education that is worth anything has truth as its foundation. When you remove teaching about the Word of God you remove the foundation to all wisdom. Thence you get sheeple who can't discern the truth from a lie. They are then easily lead to a socialist slaughter. Its a great plan. Thank God it ain't going to work because God always has a remnant who won't "bow their knee to Baal".
13 posted on 11/29/2001 7:04:19 PM PST by Russell Scott
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To: Cleburne
When trying to impress people with your accomplishments on message boards, I think that you'll find that it's a good idea to spell check your post more carefully than normal.
14 posted on 11/29/2001 7:07:11 PM PST by Andrew Wiggin
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To: dasboot
"I wonder how Ms. Burkett will enjoy being publically lambasted as a right-wing John Birch KKK kook, now? "

Notice that she high-tailed it out of the US, all the way to Kyrgystan and now Afganistan.

PS If her husband also followed her out of the country, he is certainly devoted.

15 posted on 11/29/2001 7:10:42 PM PST by Andrew Wiggin
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To: Sender
The young man in question got 10 days suspension, and they missed a golden educational opportunity by not making the kid refinish the drawers himself. Then he could understand the pride in doing something and not stupidly damaging things.

Unfortunately, the kid's parents would have screamed to the ACLU (or other far out organization), and the teacher or principal who had him refinish the desk would be on trial for imposing involuntary servitude.

Conditions were hardly ideal when my mother taught in the 60's and 70's. Yet the schools were still basically under control of the teachers.

Today the ONLY thing that seems to count is "self-esteem". And the teachers have no control of their classes.

16 posted on 11/29/2001 7:22:25 PM PST by Ole Okie
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To: Ron Fletcher
We just aren't spending enough money on our schools. Especially the inner-city schools.

You're joking, right?

17 posted on 11/29/2001 7:24:38 PM PST by THX 1138
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To: Andrew Wiggin
English easy, math be hard.
18 posted on 11/29/2001 7:28:19 PM PST by Leisler
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To: ex-Texan
I looked at the High School curriculum for the Georgia Millitary Academy in Marietta, GA for the early 1900's and was astounded. What they had to learn blew away what a college student is supposed to learn today. I wish I had that to post here.
19 posted on 11/29/2001 7:28:27 PM PST by GuillermoX
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To: Cleburne
Good for you!

OTOH my 24 year old assistant, though bright, articulate and reasonably competent has never read a book in her life! She is a HS Graduate (Government school of course) and even completed a year at the local community college.

Never read a book in her life. I was stunned when she told me. She explained that she had never been required to read a "Whole book" in school and , anyway, "Reading's so boring" she said.

as someone who doesn't own a TV and who goes through two or three books a month I simply couldn't comprehend.

20 posted on 11/29/2001 7:29:36 PM PST by Chuckster
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To: Ron Fletcher
We just aren't spending enough money on our schools. Especially the inner-city schools.

You really think money is the problem?

21 posted on 11/29/2001 7:30:59 PM PST by cruiserman
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To: WhyisaTexasgirlinPA
That was my experience in HS too...

HS was what you made of it. I still pursue difficult classes (organic chemistry-- SHUDDER!!)

22 posted on 11/29/2001 7:32:52 PM PST by jude24
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To: Cleburne
It is nice to see a person of your age that is reading a wide assortment of literature. Especially the un-P.C. stuff like Gen'l Forrest, which would be a hoot to so many liberal teachers today. Good for you!

I learned from your homepage about your screen namesake, and now I want to read about the battle of Franklin, because as much as I enjoy Civil War history and visiting its battlefields, I was not familiar with Gen. Cleburne until I read your homepage.

The future seems brighter to me when I see young people of your caliber embracing conservative values.

23 posted on 11/29/2001 7:36:31 PM PST by exit82
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To: exit82
Reason #1,890,203,221 to home school.
24 posted on 11/29/2001 7:40:11 PM PST by ImaGraftedBranch
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To: Andrew Wiggin
I finished reading the interview after my initial post; and it seems that, while she observes the problem, she proposes a bad solution, to wit: changing the locus of funding and control from local to regional, state, or national boards.

My view is that the mess stems from violations of right- principle, like truth, honor, honesty, etc. I think the only solution is to allow the immoral to suffer the consequences of their actions: failure, ostracism, angst. As long as the schools seek to ameliorate these consequences, there will be no incentive for the erring student to amend himself. Few administrators have the spine to obdurately stand for principle against the whithering fire of pissed-off parents who support the error of their offspring ; but there is no alternative that will bring the desired result-- excellence.

There is an alternative to the individual, however: choice; homeschooling.

25 posted on 11/29/2001 7:45:08 PM PST by dasboot
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To: GuillermoX
Not from the military academy, but a standard Eight Grade test circa 1895, was the topic of a thread here.

By all reckoning, the kids coming out of Laura Ingalls Wilder's one-room schoolhouse were probably better educated than the crop processed through current Ivy League universities.

26 posted on 11/29/2001 7:54:20 PM PST by Goetz_von_Berlichingen
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To: Cincinatus' Wife
Ping. Of interest.

Ms. Burkett's experience parallels my own, which I'm sure I've mentioned to you. As an adjunct professor teaching upper division classes at a major Texas university, I encountered rooms full of bright, eager and intelligent students. Who knew almost nothing.

Reading was difficult. Writing coherent paragraphs was very nearly impossible, never mind the grammar and spelling. Long division was an utter mystery.

Most of these kids came from an educational background not unlike Prior Lake. And, between the failure of the system and their parents to demand they actually learn something, they had been cheated of a good education.

If they had only been asked...

27 posted on 11/29/2001 7:55:11 PM PST by okie01
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To: Cleburne
arrangement, born (in this case - unless you meant: borne out by; even then it is awkward)), eccentricities.
28 posted on 11/29/2001 8:01:12 PM PST by Old Professer
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To: exit82
5 years ago when I was finishing Economics in HS, we had a Conservative speaker in class a couple days in a row. He had expressed his Conservative side. The last day after class I went to him and told him I were Conservative too. He was impressed. The rest of the class were lackeys or die-hard Libs (young, naive and stupid). He had told me that as folks age they generally get more Conservative. I told him "How in Hell can I get any MORE Conservative?" It got a good belly laugh out of him. :) Made me proud to have found someone like me in that latrine of a school. I was ultraconservative back when I was 17. :)
29 posted on 11/29/2001 8:03:03 PM PST by roachie
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To: ex-Texan
Great Article

Of Course, School Choice would solve a lot of these problems.

30 posted on 11/29/2001 8:19:27 PM PST by Sci Fi Guy
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To: ex-Texan
Hey, the government educational system is just rosy... I just heard on the radio that the Kansas City, MO, School District just passed 4 criterea in order to achieve provisional MO state acreditation. Of course, that only leaves another 7 to go!

That's right... The KCMO school district currently does not have state acreditation!

Mark

31 posted on 11/29/2001 8:20:05 PM PST by MarkL
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To: ex-Texan
Just in time to blame GW in 2002!
32 posted on 11/29/2001 8:24:13 PM PST by AD from SpringBay
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To: dasboot
I wonder how Ms. Burkett will enjoy being publically lambasted as a right-wing John Birch KKK kook, now?

Yes, you've put it better than I could. I was going to urge everyone to go read the full interview, where the author says some wonderfully sensible things, and thinking to myself, maybe this will open the dialoge now that this "mainstream" author is saying such.

(In fact, I thought the most subtle point she made was the code of "enforced" happiness. Keep trying that with adolescents, see what you get. And yet if you leave them alone, even the most miserable are suddenly giggling their heads off. It's the hormones, baby)

But dasboot, you are right, she's about to be made a Dis-honorable member of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy!

Another good deed gets punished!

Jessica

33 posted on 11/29/2001 8:24:18 PM PST by jocon307
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To: SuziQ
The whole "socialization" argument against homeschooling is utterly specious. The only socialization skills that my children are missing, at ages 9 and 11, are daily experiences like:

- saying "no" to dope dealers

- tolerating the vulgar behavior of children "raised" by Jerry Springer parents

- tolerating the vulgar behavior of children "raised" by upper-middle-class parents who see nothing wrong with their children watching graphic television and R-rated movies, and spending all their remaining spare time playing "Mortal Kombat"

- learning to avoid bullies, both students and teachers

- fitting in the clique-culture that develops among children when they rigidly segregated by age (Note that this socialization skill has little value among adults, since we must eventually learn to deal with adults of all ages.)

- learning to regurgitate a secular, agnostic world-view on all aspects of life and culture even they know it is is inaccurate

- learning to suspend their capability for critical thinking among authority figures.

- etc.

Certainly, my kids have similar experiences in their lives, but they don't have to confront them daily.

They do however have ample opportunity for quality socialization -- playing organized sports, musical performances, weekly homeschool coop, church, daily play with other kids in the neighborhood, quality time (both work and play) with parents and extended family, etc.

In my opinion, anybody who thinks a kid need to go to a public school for socialization needs to get a life -- 'cause they certainly have had one up till now!

34 posted on 11/29/2001 8:26:17 PM PST by RBroadfoot
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To: ex-Texan
Her year at high school convinced her that what passes for national dialogue these days about education and the state of our high schools bears little relation to how high schools actually work. Theories she had previously bought into about the unfairness of distinguishing among students based on academic ability, for example, were countered by her observation that in classes where students of all abilities are thrown together, the less able students simply rely on the smarter students to do all the work, and the more precocious students become bored and alienated. It also struck Burkett that today's rhetoric about using new curriculum requirements and testing programs to raise standards are beside the point when adults, both inside and outside of schools, prioritize the protection of teenagers' self-esteem over challenging them to achieve. Though Prior Lake was by all accounts considered to be a good school, she was dismayed by how little the students there read, how poorly they wrote, and how little they actually knew.

I taught many years in high school and I concluded the same. I woould add that students uniformly saw school not as opportunity but as an imposition.

35 posted on 11/29/2001 8:28:14 PM PST by RobbyS
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To: Goetz_von_Berlichingen
I have seen that one as well. The one I am speaking about I actually saw in a display case at the academy (it is now a conference center/hotel).

My grandfather graduated from there in the 1920's.

36 posted on 11/29/2001 8:29:20 PM PST by GuillermoX
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To: ex-Texan
What the hell is a "goth"? Some kind of Viking kid?
37 posted on 11/29/2001 8:32:14 PM PST by Hank Rearden
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To: ex-Texan
"Just take a walk on a high school campus some day. You will see teenage girls dressing like street hookers "

They do more than dress the part.

38 posted on 11/29/2001 8:37:57 PM PST by Don Myers
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To: Pharmboy
"It was with Drew Barrymore...yeah, that's it, it was called "Never Been Kissed." Not worth watching."

The only thing she had not done?

39 posted on 11/29/2001 8:39:04 PM PST by Don Myers
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To: ex-Texan
I mean, some of the kids that I would have been really good friends with in high school and would have admired I now saw as surly, whiny, and full of themselves. Maybe that's who I was, too. I don't know.

I'm willing to bet on it. Do you all realize how huge an admission this is? Her and people like her went on to form the core of the elitist radical leftist movement of the 60's, and later moved up into the academia, govt, and journalism. Essentially she is saying that they were nothing but egotistical, whiny, self-serving punks. She has utterly discredited everything that that era symbolizes. I doubt she even realizes the magnitude of her statement.

40 posted on 11/29/2001 8:50:45 PM PST by Free Vulcan
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To: Cleburne
Your paragraph is missing the right parens.
41 posted on 11/29/2001 8:59:41 PM PST by Robear
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To: Hank Rearden
Goths are those depressing kids who wear all black all the time and identify with creatures of the night i.e. vampires.
42 posted on 11/29/2001 9:09:19 PM PST by stands2reason
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To: Robear
Your paragraph is missing the right parens.

The ellipsis symbol (...) indicates that it is left open with good reason.

43 posted on 11/30/2001 8:01:28 AM PST by Poincare
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To: stands2reason
Goths are those depressing kids who wear all black all the time and identify with creatures of the night i.e. vampires.

I see, thanks. So, "goth" is just a 21st century term for "moron".

We had those in my high school too, a long time ago.

44 posted on 11/30/2001 10:06:53 AM PST by Hank Rearden
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To: ex-Texan
This is a pretty good article and seems to be right on the mark.
45 posted on 11/30/2001 10:29:31 AM PST by 6ppc
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To: Cleburne
Good for you! My kids are in high school now and their friends come around here a lot, and while I would freely agree that the schools have room for improvement, kids today are top-notch. The only people who think they aren't are surly old farts-- don't listen to them. :)
46 posted on 11/30/2001 10:45:00 AM PST by walden
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