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Education Reporter

50 Rules Kids Won't Learn in School, Charles J. Sykes, St. Martin's Press, 2007, $19.95.

If you have an e-mail address, you've probably received some of these rules as forwarded messages. The original ten and then 14 rules, including such favorites as "The real world won't care as much as your school does about your self-esteem," and "It's not your parents' fault. If you screw up, you are responsible," tore a path across the internet in the late 1990s. While the e-mail forward usually credited the rules to Bill Gates, in fact they came from conservative author and commentator Charles Sykes.

Sykes takes a hard line against feel-good education, low expectations, and the attitude of entitlement he observes among young Americans. The rules' surprising popularity seems to indicate that readers, too, are tiring of the self-esteem movement and other trends that erode personal responsibility.

Sykes does a splendid job of pulling together quotes, news stories and statistics to persuade readers that, yes, something is wrong with these trends. He criticizes schools and parents for ignoring issues of character and focusing on unimportant matters. "A culture has to be awfully smug about the big things to devote as much time as we do to issues like the weight of backpacks, the onerous burden of homework, and self-esteem destroying class rankings. The very triviality of our concerns is evidence that we think we have the big stuff pretty much in hand." Sykes's 50 rules tackle the "big stuff," attempting to supply what is missing from the message our culture has sent the next generation.

One caveat: for anyone who is already somewhat open to the author's "deal-with-it" mentality, 50 Rules makes a bracing and entertaining read. But the book's strident tone probably won't win over those few who need to hear the message the most (see lesson 21: "You're offended? So what? No, really. So what?"). This book won't make a good gift for the teenager in your life who strikes you as self-centered, coddled or entitled — he'll know why you gave it to him, resent it, and reject the "hint." Instead, give it to a teenager who has learned a few of the 50 lessons already. Parents and teachers will also profit from reading 50 Rules, since it will encourage them to hold the line against the trends in childrearing and education that Sykes so vehemently protests.

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