Skip to main content

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


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

In Elinor Burkett's study of an American high school she bemoans many things, but her central complaint is that the kids of Prior Lake High lack motivation. "There's nothing wrong with the kids today; we're just raising them wrong," goes her argument, and hardly a new one. But Burkett's thesis goes further. To put it simply, the parents are to blame. They're to blame for the fact that their kids expect much for doing little. They're to blame for the fact that their kids don't respect school as an institution. They're to blame for the fact that teachers can't provide discipline. They're to blame for grade inflation, plagiarism, and their kid's poor work habits. They're to blame for the whole culture-of-self-esteem, medicalization-of-behaviour-problems, attendance-isn't-mandatory, extra credit and make-up tests, A's-for-everybody mess of modern high school education. And when the parents aren't to blame, the government is. 

But we live in a democracy, so back to the parents...

It all started in the '60s. Paradoxically, the same impulse that caused baby boomers to be such involved citizens also caused them to raise apathetic offspring. Burkett's explanation is as follows: The radical reformulation of educational methods that occurred in the '70s, as baby boomers placed their children into the school system, went too far. Rejecting the formalism of '60s educational norms was understandable but misguided. The rigid curricula and strict social mores of old-fashioned high schools may have appeared out of step with the free-wheelin', free-lovin' '70s, but they, in fact, were not. They were a training ground for children with the ability to think for themselves and the self-confidence to effect changes in society. That this very self-confidence and cognitive ability is what led grown-up baby boomers to ruin their children's schools is an irony worthy of high drama.

Of course, ruining the school system wasn't easy, even for ex-hippies. It took the full weight of progressive politics and social science to pull it off. According to Burkett, parents in the '70s looked at the school system and saw a crushing assault on their children's self-esteem. The old-fashioned educational structure that steered students to different levels depending on their grades and test scores was a mistake and probably racist and classist to boot. What was needed was a system that could embrace every child, whether smart, dumb, disruptive or asleep as a unique individual. A shortage of compassion, not a shortage of learning, was the fatal flaw holding our children back. In the new model, slow kids and smart kids would learn together, balancing each other's strengths and weaknesses in what was sure to be the greatest learning utopia ever. 

It didn't work. As evidence that the system failed horribly, Burkett sites the abominable test scores that plagued schools in the '80s when the full impact of the reforms began to be felt. By the '90s school systems had scrapped many of the new methods and were playing catch up to get back to where they had been only a decade earlier. Finding a balance between the mean old authoritarian past and the touchy-feely present proved difficult, but by the late '90s, a middle ground had been established. Principals like Prior Lake's Craig Olson felt they had the right balance between old-fashioned rigor and modern freedom. And for the most part, standardized test scores bore them out.

So if educational order has been restored why aren't the kids alright? Burkett's answer is simple. The schools may be on the right track, but they aren't there yet. Excluding obvious improvements like racial integration and Title IX (which requires equal funding for girl's sports), the schools were never broken in the first place. Correcting them would mean going back to those boring, old-fashioned schools of the '60s, and no one has the stomach to do that just yet. Instead we spin our wheels, trying one new initiative after another. And yet even if the schools were fixed, the parents would still be broken. The entitlement mentality that ruined the schools in the first place hasn't dispelled one iota. Today's schools aren't better; they're just better at faking it. Dig below the surface and the books are cooked; the emperor has no clothes.

So how do we get out of this quagmire? Burkett doesn't offer any solutions. Or rather she does, but then just as quickly takes them away. As she points out, the solutions are all politically impossible: no parent is willing to sacrifice his own child's test scores or self esteem for the sake of everyone else. It's always, "Get tough, but wait till my kid graduates --- he's got to get into college, you know." 

Not that college will help anyway. No doubt, some of the kids of Prior Lake will become motivated, interested people in college. But most probably won't. Burkett's account of the college selection process is among the most depressing chapters in the book. Although nearly all the students are college bound, few have much interest in learning anything while they're there. A job and a chance to get drunk is what they're after.

In many ways, the tragic hero of ANOTHER PLANET is Roger Murphy. Roger is a bright remedial student who walks around in a trench coat and challenges authority almost any chance he gets. Listening to Roger's mind work in extended quotes, it's clear that his potential is limitless. He's bright, articulate and funny. He's also surly and rude to teachers. Roger's a hard case, no doubt. But in his senior year a teacher named Mike Carr starts to get through to him. Real life not being the same as the movies, Roger ends up working in a factory. All that potential wasted. It breaks your heart twice when you realize that better teachers could have made the difference for him.

If there's a silver lining in all this bad news, it's that Burkett's pronouncements are exactly as dire as those levelled at every other generation for as long as anyone can remember. It's an American tradition to run down each generation as less able than the one before, and it's also an American tradition for each generation to laugh at that characterization. Gen X began the '90s pegged as slackers and ended it as internet auteurs, richer than their parents and with casual Fridays to boot. And they did it all with punk style, revolutionizing the culture and turning what had been a largely nihilist impulse into a capitalist force the likes of which nary an eye had seen. A thousand internet start-ups later, no one's a company man and Kip Winger can't get free wings at Hooters anymore.

As history, this pat little narrative is complete horse manure. Yet it has a colloquial truth that I think Burkett agrees with, though she'd be loathe to admit it. Her tough talk signals the death knells of American achievement, but her enthusiasm for punk spirit wins every time. Burkett never states it as such, but punk is what she's looking for at Prior Lake, and the fact that she doesn't find much disturbs her. When she does find it, she gets excited. You can almost hear her cheer when the kids start an underground website or poke holes in the pretzel logic of the school's administration. 

As Burkett would be the first to agree, the kids at Prior Lake are just too comfortable. They need to be shaken up a bit. They need to stop listening to bad funk metal, but they're far from hopeless. They're no stupider than their predecessors were a decade ago. And without Gen X we'd still be buying our pet supplies the brick and mortar way. And what fun would that be?

Reviewed by Fred Kovey on January 20, 2011

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

  • Publication Date: October 1, 2001
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 0066211484
  • ISBN-13: 9780066211480