By Elinor Burkett HarperCollins, 2001 Review by Liz Bass on Jul 8th 2002
What in the world is going on in our
nation’s high schools? That question was on all
of our minds after the Columbine shooters swept away our illusions about how
life in our secondary education system works. Murder? Mayhem? How this could
Author Burkett decided to find out. A
professional writer with four books to her credit, she arranged to be a guest
on the campus of a suburban high school in Minnesota for the school year
beginning in September, 1999 and ending in June, 2000. She attended classes,
hung out with students, sat in on teacher gripe sessions, and participated in
school activities. At the end of the year, she was a speaker at the graduation
Unfortunately, her research unearthed no
conditions of high school life that would cause a person to say, "Yes, I
see now why kids could bring weapons to school and create so much havoc."
Instead, Burkett found a conventional model of school life. The students are
still a captive audience who by and large would rather be anywhere but in a
classroom. There are still notable exceptions -- the kids who thrive in those
confined environments -- but they remain a minority. The teachers are often
more adolescent in outlook than the students, and the administrators like to
play good-cop-bad-cop. Some teachers handle discipline problems well while
others are devastated by them. As to villains in the piece, the school people
think they are the parents of the students. Sometimes, however, they blame the
government for their troubles. They think it attempts to arbitrate the
standards by which schools operate -- including curricular standards -- while
maintaining a safe distance from the real action.
Burkett has great powers of observation,
and I found her right on the mark in her description of high school life,
particularly the whining that goes on in all phases of it. But her writing
loses momentum when she switches in and out of the thought processes of what
she calls her "cast of characters." This switching around makes the
book read like fiction and so you wonder what ground you are standing on. It is
a stylistic problem that costs the author first the attention and then the good
will of the reader.
Planet sheds no light on
the Columbine episode, and that’s a pity. It makes its case by staying
close to the specifics of Burkett’s
Minnesota school experience. The best writing comes at the end of the book when
the author assumes the first person voice. With it, she gives an excellent
summary of how her return-to-school adventure impacted her thinking about
education in general and American schools in particular.
This book deserves an "A"
effort, an "A" for concept, but a "C" for delivery.