Monday, September 10, 2007

Fifty Rules in search of an audience

50 Rules Kids Won't Learn in School: Real-World Antidotes to Feel-Good Education
By Charles Sykes
St.Martin’s Press

I set out to like this book. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I despise the genres of list and advice books. Most of them are such gooey messes of treacle that instead of paper from the trees I suspect they’re really printed on the sap.

Sykes’ book promised to appeal to the misanthropic parent. “…{C}hildren can spend years in the company of credentialed goo-goos who not only miseducate them about the real world but also fail to give them the tools to make their way in it. This book is intended to counter their influence: think of it as a user’s manual for the real world.” At last, Hobbes (“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”) gives advice to the graduating high school senior.

But right away in the introduction one wonders just who is the intended audience. “Reality will bite hard for a generation that has been raised with delusions of specialness and unrealistic expectations.

“If all this seems unduly harsh, I apologize. My intention is constructive: I want to help prepare young people to be responsible, competent, confident, self-reliant, independent, realistic individuals who are armed with the inner resources and the habits of mind to resist the blather and blandishments of the world they are about to enter.”

Who is he apologizing to? Up to that point, he certainly wasn’t talking to the children. Afterwards either. Someone who missed the blurb on the cover, “Real-world antidotes to feel-good education”? And what does he mean by “unduly?” Did he mean he’s harsher than he needed to be?

As for his intention, I’d have a hard time finding a difference in what Sykes wrote and what MPS teacher Jay Bullock of the liberal blog folkbum would write as his educational mission, or for that matter 99% of the mission statements of the schools he accuses of coddling the children.

And which children are the ones being so poorly prepared for the real world? For each one of Sykes’ rules there is an accompanying anecdote, some additional words of wisdom (his own or someone else’s), and maybe a mention of a study.

Mostly though the book is a collection of assuming the aggregate from the anecdotal. That’s fine. The book is not intended to be a scholarly look at the failures of raising and educating children in contemporary society. The book is really intended as a stick in the eye to contemporary education departments, liberals and nouveau riche parents. Especially the latter.

I think most of Sykes’ audience would have a hard time identifying with the economic circumstances of the parents described in rule 5 “No matter what your daddy says, you are not a princess…” Sykes describes parents who book special “five and six figure” birthday parties for their daughters’ sixteenth birthday. While we might tut-tut at the ostentatious spending (the “conspicuous consumption”) let’s not pretend that this is something new in parenting. In Sykes’ example instead of a pony and a rented carousel we have a luxury hotel and chocolate manicures. I’m not sure if this an offense to Sykes’ sense of aesthetics but there is nothing in this type of expenditure that’s going to doom the little princess to life in HUD housing. That her parents can afford such luxury is probably an indicator she’ll be better off in the long term than your typical hard-working graduate of Milwaukee Public Schools with a blog and a weekly newspaper column.

I mean, I keep waiting for Paris Hilton’s self-destructive behavior to drag her down to my socio-economic status, but so far it ain’t happenin’. She and I even have similar taste in hamburgers. Somehow I think she'll keep her mansion.

With rule 20 Sykes compromised and created a rule 20B. However, the example he used, a girl who successfully fights a school dress code to keep her nose ring, contradicts the rule. Clearly the world did revolve around her, and even Sykes concedes, “Apparently, if she is ever to learn those lessons, someone will have to buy her this book.”

But where Sykes most often misses is when he picks a solid target, but then can’t decide if he should lecture the child or the parent. Rule 19 begins with a lesson in not blaming others for your problems, a good lesson for adolescents, but ends with an essay on the “helicopter parent” phenomenon. Rule 14 advises young men and women not to dress overly provocative but lapses into a discussion of the parents of such kids.

Who is the intended audience? Is it the graduating college student? Or the sophomore? The junior in high school? How about their parents? Or was the book really intended for Charlie’s WTMJ 620 AM radio audience? Because it’s really hard to tell when reading most of the rules just who is Sykes’ intended audience.

It’s too bad because the book could’ve been more undermining of the popular culture had Sykes focused the book better. Advice book or counter-culture commentary? Had he picked one aspect over the other by keeping his audience in mind as he wrote, he might have accomplished both.

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