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How Can Punk Rock Enlighten the Education Reform Debate?

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For those of us who affiliate with a particular musical scene, I must first dispatch with the bonafides before getting to the topic at hand. I'm partial to bands from the late 70s and early 80s, with a special affinity for "Oi" music. Some bands that I listen to pretty frequently, as in they are on my iPhone and with me at all times, in order of scrolling down: The Buzzcocks, Cockney Rejects, Cocksparrer, Crass, Dead Kennedys, Fear, Flux of Pink Indians, The Gun Club, Magazine, Minor Threat, Mission of Burma, Negative Trend, The Queers, Richard Hell, Sham 69, The Subhumans, Wire, and Zounds, to name a few.

Now that that's out of the way, punk music is not something you read about too often in educational circles. I don't claim to be special, but I rarely meet people -- colleagues in higher education or other K-12 educators -- who share similar musical tastes. I guess it really doesn't matter.

Yet, I've wondered on many occasions punk's effect on my thinking or the ways I've approached my teaching. In evoking punk rock music or culture in the same essay as education, I've probably ruined the genre for a lot of people. I guess we all have to grow up a little, as is evident with Steve Ignorant and his Last Supper Tour, which was in Baltimore recently.

While in graduate school for curriculum studies, I proposed a K-12 punk rock curriculum, wherein students could explore their own musical tastes and how particular forms of dress invoke protest. What I didn't realize before, as I am too young and too American to have actually lived through punk's heyday: styles and dress were very specific and active forms of protest against the dominant culture.

Particularly instructive in this regard was Dick Hebdige's 1979 text Subculture: The Meaning of Style. He discussed an interesting concept: bricolage, which is basically a convoluted term for the English's "do it yourself," or DIY attitude. From what I gather, everyday punk rock bricolers, so to speak, co-opted icons of business or corporate cultures and transformed them to make specific statements.

So take the everyday sport coat or blazer. The act of bricolage in this case would be tearing off the sleeves and reattaching them with safety pins or adding certain enhancements like metal spikes and band patches. And in coordination with Malcom McLaren and other so-called "Situationists," symbols of dominant culture were reimagined to shock regular folks into thinking differently about society. This was especially true in "Thatcherist" Britain where many believed, as the Sex Pistols averred, that there was indeed "no future."

So what does this have to do with education reform? I'm working on it. But what I can say is that, as a teacher educator, I sometimes feel like a bricoler, and perhaps this is why the concept stuck with me over several years. I've realized that there are very few new ideas in education, just refurbished, recycled, and renamed concepts from the past. Additionally, any new or even recycled idea that comes across a teacher's desk is always and inevitably picked apart and reattached to other concepts to that teacher's liking. Both students and teachers alike mediate every new curricular model, text, or other resource. Original ideas rarely stay in their intended forms and continually evolve in different ways across thousands of classrooms.

Not to impose the punk rock label on public school teachers, because I know many would refuse the moniker, but teachers do enact forms of bricolage. This is what makes a common national curriculum or any one-sized, standardized mandate a poor fit for an educational system as large and diverse as ours. On the one hand, we could go with the prevailing reform motif: impose national curricula, Federal mandates, and deprofessionalize teachers so much that the only ones left will follow these impositions lockstep and without question.

Or, on the other hand, consider this radical idea: roll out the curriculum that you've worked so hard on and spent so much money, but free teachers from the punitive constraints by trusting their professional judgment. Let them play, deconstruct, and reconstruct to meet their students' needs. Open source the curriculum and allow teachers, and perhaps students, to make changes. Above all, free us from conditions of threat and punishment. This could encourage a happier, healthier profession, breathe new life into stale curricula, and perhaps discourage the resistance that is soon to commence, whether reforms like it or not.