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James Madison: Thoughts on Public Education (my title)
The Founders' Constitution website ^ | 4 Aug. 1822 | James Madison

Posted on 05/10/2002 8:58:07 AM PDT by Huck

James Madison to W. T. Barry

4 Aug. 1822Writings 9:103--9

The liberal appropriations made by the Legislature of Kentucky for a general system of Education cannot be too much applauded. A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

I have always felt a more than ordinary interest in the destinies of Kentucky. Among her earliest settlers were some of my particular friends and Neighbors. And I was myself among the foremost advocates for submitting to the Will of the "District" the question and the time of its becoming a separate member of the American family. Its rapid growth & signal prosperity in this character have afforded me much pleasure; which is not a little enhanced by the enlightened patriotism which is now providing for the State a Plan of Education embracing every class of Citizens, and every grade & department of Knowledge. No error is more certain than the one proceeding from a hasty & superficial view of the subject: that the people at large have no interest in the establishment of Academies, Colleges, and Universities, where a few only, and those not of the poorer classes can obtain for their sons the advantages of superior education. It is thought to be unjust that all should be taxed for the benefit of a part, and that too the part least needing it.

If provision were not made at the same time for every part, the objection would be a natural one. But, besides the consideration when the higher Seminaries belong to a plan of general education, that it is better for the poorer classes to have the aid of the richer by a general tax on property, than that every parent should provide at his own expence for the education of his children, it is certain that every Class is interested in establishments which give to the human mind its highest improvements, and to every Country its truest and most durable celebrity.

Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty & dangerous encroachments on the public liberty. They are the nurseries of skilful Teachers for the schools distributed throughout the Community. They are themselves schools for the particular talents required for some of the Public Trusts, on the able execution of which the welfare of the people depends. They multiply the educated individuals from among whom the people may elect a due portion of their public Agents of every description; more especially of those who are to frame the laws; by the perspicuity, the consistency, and the stability, as well as by the just & equal spirit of which the great social purposes are to be answered.

Without such Institutions, the more costly of which can scarcely be provided by individual means, none but the few whose wealth enables them to support their sons abroad can give them the fullest education; and in proportion as this is done, the influence is monopolized which superior information every where possesses. At cheaper & nearer seats of Learning parents with slender incomes may place their sons in a course of education putting them on a level with the sons of the Richest. Whilst those who are without property, or with but little, must be peculiarly interested in a System which unites with the more Learned Institutions, a provision for diffusing through the entire Society the education needed for the common purposes of life. A system comprizing the Learned Institutions may be still further recommended to the more indigent class of Citizens by such an arrangement as was reported to the General Assembly of Virginia, in the year 1779, by a Committee1 appointed to revise laws in order to adapt them to the genius of Republican Government. It made part of a "Bill for the more general diffusion of knowledge" that wherever a youth was ascertained to possess talents meriting an education which his parents could not afford, he should be carried forward at the public expence, from seminary to seminary, to the completion of his studies at the highest.

But why should it be necessary in this case, to distinguish the Society into classes according to their property? When it is considered that the establishment and endowment of Academies, Colleges, and Universities are a provision, not merely for the existing generation, but for succeeding ones also; that in Governments like ours a constant rotation of property results from the free scope to industry, and from the laws of inheritance, and when it is considered moreover, how much of the exertions and privations of all are meant not for themselves, but for their posterity, there can be little ground for objections from any class, to plans of which every class must have its turn of benefits. The rich man, when contributing to a permanent plan for the education of the poor, ought to reflect that he is providing for that of his own descendants; and the poor man who concurs in a provision for those who are not poor that at no distant day it may be enjoyed by descendants from himself. It does not require a long life to witness these vicissitudes of fortune.

It is among the happy peculiarities of our Union, that the States composing it derive from their relation to each other and to the whole, a salutary emulation, without the enmity involved in competitions among States alien to each other. This emulation, we may perceive, is not without its influence in several important respects; and in none ought it to be more felt than in the merit of diffusing the light and the advantages of Public Instruction. In the example therefore which Kentucky is presenting, she not only consults her own welfare, but is giving an impulse to any of her sisters who may be behind her in the noble career.

Throughout the Civilized World, nations are courting the praise of fostering Science and the useful Arts, and are opening their eyes to the principles and the blessings of Representative Government. The American people owe it to themselves, and to the cause of free Government, to prove by their establishments for the advancement and diffusion of Knowledge, that their political Institutions, which are attracting observation from every quarter, and are respected as Models, by the new-born States in our own Hemisphere, are as favorable to the intellectual and moral improvement of Man as they are conformable to his individual & social Rights. What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty & Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual & surest support?

The Committee, of which your name is the first, have taken a very judicious course in endeavouring to avail Kentucky of the experience of elder States, in modifying her Schools. I enclose extracts from the laws of Virginia on that subject; though I presume they will give little aid; the less as they have as yet been imperfectly carried into execution. The States where such systems have been long in operation will furnish much better answers to many of the enquiries stated in your Circular. But after all, such is the diversity of local circumstances, more particularly as the population varies in density & sparseness, that the details suited to some may be little so to others. As the population however, is becoming less & less sparse, and it will be well in laying the foundation of a Good System, to have a view to this progressive change, much attention seems due to examples in the Eastern States, where the people are most compact, & where there has been the longest experience in plans of popular education.

I know not that I can offer on the occasion any suggestions not likely to occur to the Committee. Were I to hazard one, it would be in favour of adding to Reading, Writing, & Arithmetic, to which the instruction of the poor, is commonly limited, some knowledge of Geography; such as can easily be conveyed by a Globe & Maps, and a concise Geographical Grammar. And how easily & quickly might a general idea even, be conveyed of the Solar System, by the aid of a Planatarium of the Cheapest construction. No information seems better calculated to expand the mind and gratify curiosity than what would thus be imparted. This is especially the case, with what relates to the Globe we inhabit, the Nations among which it is divided, and the characters and customs which distinguish them. An acquaintance with foreign Countries in this mode, has a kindred effect with that of seeing them as travellers, which never fails, in uncorrupted minds, to weaken local prejudices, and enlarge the sphere of benevolent feelings. A knowledge of the Globe & its various inhabitants, however slight, might moreover, create a taste for Books of Travels and Voyages; out of which might grow a general taste for History, an inexhaustible fund of entertainment & instruction. Any reading not of a vicious species must be a good substitute for the amusements too apt to fill up the leisure of the labouring classes.


TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Government; Philosophy
KEYWORDS: founders; madison; publiceducation; taxes
Madison's language is tough going to the modern reader, which is why I added the bold emphasis on certain parts. I thought some folks might be interested to learn that James Madison supported public education, and in this letter supports the use of property taxes to pay for such a system, and specifically states that folks who can't afford education ought to have one provided for them. I'll wager more than a few freepers didn't know that. I believe Adams and Jefferson were also big on public education.

Now, that doesn't make public education a good thing. It doesn't make the system great. But it does mean that the idea was not anathema to some big time Founders. And it suggests that to some here at FR, James Madison was a socialist. Interesting stuff, eh?

FWIW, I agree with Mr. Madison that there is a public interest in having an educated populace. I also agree with him that if poor people cannot afford one, the "haves" should provide it, for the good of all. I strongly support a voucher system, because I believe it combines the best elements of a free market system with the best elements of the public interest, and minimizes the pitfalls of each. Freegards,

1 posted on 05/10/2002 8:58:07 AM PDT by Huck
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To: Huck
Good post, Huck! The thing we all need to keep in mind here is that he thought it was a good idea for the (individual) state to do this, not the federal government. In fact, the system of the states running their own education systems worked like a charm up until the feds got involved in the 1960 with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Until that time, we had the best educated population on the planet and now look what we have. Also, compulsory attendance and number of years mandated have done nothing but expanded since federal involvement with the result being a dumbed-down, PC populace that looks to government for their substanance and safety.
2 posted on 05/10/2002 9:07:57 AM PDT by KentuckyWoman
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To: Huck
Bump for later.
3 posted on 05/10/2002 9:09:22 AM PDT by StriperSniper
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To: KentuckyWoman
I had the privelege of hearing Bill Bennett speak of our current fed ed dept as a place where you send them a dollar and they send 66 cents back to you.
4 posted on 05/10/2002 9:12:23 AM PDT by aardvark1
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To: aardvark1
you send them a dollar and they send 66 cents back to you

I would have imagined that 66 cents figure to be much lower. I find it hard to believe that the government is only taking approx. 1/3 for themselves. Of course, this figure probably doesn't include what the state depts. of ed take out to run their own little bureaucracies. Education ran much better when the LOCAL taxpayers funded it and CONTROLLED it.

5 posted on 05/10/2002 9:19:53 AM PDT by KentuckyWoman
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To: Huck
So where do we take the leap from what Madison was advocating in this statement, to federal support and control of education?
6 posted on 05/10/2002 9:20:38 AM PDT by savedbygrace
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To: KentuckyWoman; savedbygrace
I agree that Madison is talking about state administration, not Federal. It is my impression that even with the Federal regulations that we now have, public schools are funded mainly through property taxes, collected locally. Isn't that normally the case? If so, the point is that here is Mr. Madison advocating the very same scheme for funding, and also endorsing the concept of collectively funded education. Now, I understand that today the Feds through in money with strings attached, and tru to regulate and mandate etc etc. Isn't that now part of the Bush Edu. Plan? Anyway, as I said in my initial comments, this isn't to say our current system is good. And I indicated how I would like to see it done.
7 posted on 05/10/2002 9:57:41 AM PDT by Huck
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To: Huck
There was one full-blown Socialist among the signers of the Declaration--don't recall the name--Morris?

Anyway, I don't agree with Madison on this. There is no difference in principle between a government-funded school and any other form of welfare. The fact that "education" is Good Thing and welfare-funded booze is a Bad Thing doesn't change the fact that providing schooling or booze at public expense is NOT providing something for the Common Good, but is the use of state power to bestow a private good on some citizens. That is wrong in principle.

And of course, if Madison could have foreseen the infantilization of parents, the destruction of the father-son bond, the militant atheism, the rampant illiteracy, and condoms in the classroom, he wouldn't have uttered a word in support of "public education."

8 posted on 05/10/2002 10:09:27 AM PDT by Arthur McGowan
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To: Huck
Note that the curriculum was reading, writing, arithmetic, and Madison's recommendation for geography--with which I heartily concur. (It is a great embarrassment, how poor most Americans are today in Geography. As a people, we are absolutely pathetic in the subject.)

What Madison did not advocate, and what no self-respecting American would have accepted from a publicly financed education, would have been indoctrination with the alien values of the NEA, or any of the intrusive "life adjustment" type of courses, now forced upon the innocents. If public education were to shape up, it would be acceptable--nay, it would put a valuable floor under public competence. In its present direction, it does more harm than good.

William Flax Return Of The Gods Web Site

9 posted on 05/10/2002 10:21:54 AM PDT by Ohioan
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To: Huck
I would assume that even Madison good be wrong or short sighted. Hindsight is 20/20.

Voter approved, locally controlled, no federal strings, voluntary, Basic (Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, History, Geography) Education may be a good idea. It is not however what we currently have. And it is not a Right!

A system of public Education must start and end with parental control with Voter approval. If parents are impeded in any way in the upbringing of their children by the state or Feds, I believe it is a violation of Life, Liberty and Property.

If land owners are to foot the bill, then land owners should vote on the issue, not the general public as they pay nothing (which is not the case now as the federal dollars paid into the state are from other sources).

Alliance for the Separation of School and State

"And what is a good citizen? Simply one who never says, does or thinks anything that is unusual. Schools are maintained in order to bring this uniformity up to the highest possible point. A school is a hopper into which children are heaved while they are still young and tender; therein they are pressed into certain standard shapes and covered from head to heels with official rubber-stamps."

- H.L. Mencken

10 posted on 05/10/2002 10:40:28 AM PDT by CyberCowboy777
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To: Huck
Yes, Jeffereson was also a big supporter of public funded education.
A Republic requires an educated cirizenry.

Of course, it would break his heart that a student recieves a much better education in a religious school today than in a public one.

11 posted on 05/10/2002 10:45:22 AM PDT by mrsmith
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To: Huck
You won't find me defending the Bush education plan. "Strings attached" is putting it mildly. "Federal micro-management" would be closer to the truth.

Stopping the flow of money that goes through D. C. on its way to the schools would go a long way toward solving a lot of the problems in this country today.

Funding by the States, with true local control, and NO NEA control, would be OK with me. I'd probably still be a homeschool advocate, but I doubt I could make as strong an argument as I can today.

The bottom line is: The public schools today are irreparably broken.

12 posted on 05/10/2002 11:02:49 AM PDT by savedbygrace
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Comment #13 Removed by Moderator

Comment #14 Removed by Moderator

To: Huck
My understanding is that the Federal contribution is averaging 9%. As that 9% is with strings and voters use of local power keeps school districts on a short rope, none of them have the fiscal independence to turn it down, even if the Boards would be dispositioned to do so.

Likewise, federal regulation, promoted by national union activism, places all sorts of non monetary operating restraints on schools, much like OSHA does on industry.

Looking into Michael Novak's "On Two Wings", we also find that most of the founders saw a generalistic, nominal, "christian" moral education to be one of the driving uses of public education. Dewey disciples have worked to supplant that with his religion: Secular Humanism.

15 posted on 05/10/2002 11:11:42 AM PDT by KC Burke
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To: Huck
I agree that in the early 1800's, public education supported by taxes seemed a very liberal (in the classical sense) idea to Madison and the other founders. Madison was on the governing board of the University of Virginia with Jefferson. Jefferson considered his founding of a public university as important as writing the declaration of independence and perhaps more important than his presidency.

Popular government was considered risky (Hamilton believed it was bound to fail) and educating the masses was seen by Madison and Jefferson as the best remedy to losing liberty to the tyranny of the majority. They wanted a method of assuring that poor people would have the ability to become educated as well as a wealthy elite. Jefferson even came up with a plan to identify promising scholars from the masses and provide them funding for university education.

But Madison also understood and wrote in the federalist papers that time will be the ultimate test of policies and the great advantage of constututional and popular government is that it allows for correcting mistakes that will inevitably be made and which will be revealed as time passes. A policy that worked in the early 1900's may be rendered harmful in changed circumstances and there is no reason we have to follow the same state monopoly model of education just because that is what teachers unions want for their own selfish reasons.

The public school system today in no way educates citizens to be responsible participants in self-government. The harm it has done has been immense but it is not irreversible. Vouchers to stimulate the private education market, home schooling and removing government as much as possible from the lives of families and children is what is needed today to begin to reverse this harm. Madison would be the first to admit the need to back away from the one size fits all system of indoctrination that masquerades as public education today.

16 posted on 05/10/2002 11:15:54 AM PDT by politeia
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To: sixtycyclehum
Probably one of the reasons that Jefferson hated the twit.

Read and learn.

"And had another which I prepared been adopted by the legislature, our work would have been compleat. It was a Bill for the more general diffusion of learning. This proposed to divide every county into wards of 5. or 6. miles square, like your townships; to establish in each ward a free school for reading, writing and common arithmetic; to provide for the annual selection of the best subjects from these schools who might receive at the public expense a higher degree of education at a district school; and from these district schools to select a certain number of the most promising subjects to be compleated at an University, where all the useful sciences should be taught." -- Thomas Jefferson

17 posted on 05/10/2002 11:23:09 AM PDT by Roscoe
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To: sixtycyclehum
Probably one of the reasons that Jefferson hated the twit.

Amazing you managed to fit so much ignorance into so few words.

18 posted on 05/10/2002 12:10:48 PM PDT by Huck
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To: Arthur McGowan
And of course, if Madison could have foreseen the infantilization of parents, the destruction of the father-son bond, the militant atheism, the rampant illiteracy, and condoms in the classroom, he wouldn't have uttered a word in support of "public education."

Well, we'll never know, but based on how he lived, I would think he'd have taken a very active (and productive) role in improving the situation. His record speaks for itself. And anyway, none of the social ills you list suggest that people shouldn't be educated. I don't see a connection at all.

19 posted on 05/10/2002 12:14:00 PM PDT by Huck
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To: mrsmith
Of course, it would break his heart that a student recieves a much better education in a religious school today than in a public one.

I am sure he would be greatly disappointed.

20 posted on 05/10/2002 12:15:13 PM PDT by Huck
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To: sixtycyclehum
Read Federalist #10 and you'll learn what a Statist Madison really was.

You've done it again. You're talented.

21 posted on 05/10/2002 12:16:11 PM PDT by Huck
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To: politeia
I concur with everything you said.
22 posted on 05/10/2002 12:17:27 PM PDT by Huck
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To: Roscoe; sixtycyclehum
Jefferson was a socialist and a statist. LOL!
23 posted on 05/10/2002 12:19:05 PM PDT by Huck
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To: Huck
This is where they normally shriek, "Well, he owned slaves!!!!"
24 posted on 05/10/2002 12:23:57 PM PDT by Roscoe
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To: Huck
The founders didn't mind religion being taught in government schools either. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, went even further than Madison in supporting public education:

(The student) must be taught to amass wealth, but it must be only to increase his power of contribution to the wants and needs of the state. . .Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it."

25 posted on 05/10/2002 12:31:46 PM PDT by LarryLied
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To: Roscoe
The part of this that is interesting to me is the general principle. It is interesting that Madison and Jefferson and Adams all favored a publicly financed system of education all the way through to the university level. It is interesting that they all thought it valuable, indeed, patriotic, to set up a system that would take money from the rich to support education for all. Without even weighing in on whether it has worked or not, it is interesting that they all believed it.

As you know, there are some freepers who consider this "statism" and "socialism" and even "slavery." Well, there you have it. Madison, Jefferson, and Adams, tyrants all. Anyway, I think most of the complaints on this thread deal with the quality of education, not with the method of funding. And not with the premise behind it.

26 posted on 05/10/2002 12:33:29 PM PDT by Huck
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To: LarryLied
Benjamin Rush

He was an interesting fellow. A doctor, as I recall. Great friend to John Adams. What incredible times those must have been. I was recently in Philadelphia taking it all in. Amazing.

27 posted on 05/10/2002 12:35:15 PM PDT by Huck
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To: Huck
As you know, there are some freepers who consider this "statism" and "socialism" and even "slavery."

And most of them are disinterested in historical facts.

28 posted on 05/10/2002 12:44:31 PM PDT by Roscoe
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To: Huck
The real point is that it's not an either/or situation. Certainly education is a public good. But it is also a private good. It shouldn't even be that hard to put a reasonably accurate money value on the respective benefits and split the costs proportionally.

IOW, what would be fair is that the public should pay for an education in proportion to the benefit it receives and the individual should also. I don't see why this couldn't be turned into practical policy applicable at all levels of education - except for the politics of course.

29 posted on 05/10/2002 12:57:01 PM PDT by edsheppa
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To: edsheppa
But who can adjust with precise accuracy the amount which each individual in an organized civil community shall contribute to sustain it, or can insure in this respect absolute equality of burdens, and fairness in their distribution among those who must bear them?

We cannot say judicially that Kelly received no benefit from the city organization. These streets, if they do not penetrate his farm, lead to it. The water-works will probably reach him some day, and may be near enough to him now to serve him on some occasion. The schools may receive his children, and in this regard he can be in no worse condition than those living in the city who have no children, and yet who pay for the support of the schools. Every man in a county, a town, a city, or a State is deeply interested in the education of the children of the community, because his peace and quiet, his happiness and prosperity, are largely dependent upon the intelligence and moral training which it is the object of public schools to supply to the children of his neighbors and associates, if he has none himself.

KELLY v. CITY OF PITTSBURGH, 104 U.S. 78


32 posted on 05/10/2002 1:02:20 PM PDT by Roscoe
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To: sixtycyclehum
You've done it again. You're talented.
34 posted on 05/10/2002 1:09:29 PM PDT by Roscoe
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To: Roscoe
I hope you're not agreeing with that argument. Precise accuracy in public policy is a foolish standard. It's ridiculous to say that because we cannot be precisely fair in the allocation of costs we shouldn't attempt to be fairer.
35 posted on 05/10/2002 1:12:19 PM PDT by edsheppa
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To: edsheppa
Specific suggestions?
36 posted on 05/10/2002 1:14:07 PM PDT by Roscoe
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To: Roscoe
Do you mean what s/b the allocation? Or how could one figure an allocation? Or the means of allocation?
37 posted on 05/10/2002 1:20:05 PM PDT by edsheppa
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To: edsheppa
"Fairer" is pretty vague.
38 posted on 05/10/2002 1:42:36 PM PDT by Roscoe
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To: Roscoe
Oh come on, the concept of "fairer" is not vague at all. What can be hard sometimes is comparing the relative fairness of specific alternatives. OTOH a lot of times it's not hard at all. For example, it's common for education to be funded by uniform property taxation. An alternative is that only properties owned by people whose SS# ends in an even digit. Would you have any problem saying that the former is fairer than the latter?

The point is that the idea that costs should be rationally allocated in proportion to relative benefits isn't even considered wrt education and many other areas besides.

39 posted on 05/10/2002 2:30:50 PM PDT by edsheppa
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