Friday, June 06, 2008


I had limited my involvement in the "edupunk" discussion to a few pot-shot comments from the outside, both on Stephen's post, and over at Brian's. It was fun, especially when an anonymous commenter tried to make the point that there was nothing in the world more punk than education. Seriously. Stephen and Brian might be the closest to actually being punks in the field (relatively, and in the best way), but I suspect they're both smart enough to see the hilarity of government and corporate employees (teachers, tech coordinators, etc) trying to co-opt the identity and ethos of a musical/political movement that was dedicated to tearing down the establishment.

There were a few posts on the theme that made sense to me, even one from (gasp!) a very smart student. I'm not sure I understood the criticisms I saw or the associated rebuttals, but much of it seemed to miss the point. Today I enjoyed Leigh's reflections and ranted a little in response...most of what appears below is from that comment.

If you’re going to consider punk as a sort of watered-down label for “alternative”, minor boundary-pushing, or low-grade anti-authority views (kept to yourself, mostly), then it can almost be married to the edu- prefix without being automatically oxymoronic, but that really misses the point. In practice, it seems to mean that these are people within the education system who sort of wish they weren’t, but don’t really want it to change much either. No whiff of revolutionary fervor. It also evokes a sort of mid-life crisis about our chosen field, perhaps wistfully remembering our younger days of idealism and techno-dreams...then looking around at what’s been accomplished with our network-friends and asking hopefully (and collectively), “We’re still cool, right?”

Real punk, with a strong affinity for anarchy and disdain for authority of any kind...well, that is the opposite of education (not learning, which is something different altogether). If you bring punk into a conversation about the education system, you basically have to pull an Illich and suggest that the whole thing be dismantled. Or better yet, dismantle it yourself. If being an edupunk is about tearing down a dysfunctional system and replacing it with something that lets everyone learn what interests them most without institutional coercion, sign me up. But finding new ways to get your students to perform better on standardized tests (the aim of most education, sadly)? That's not even a valid evolution for learning, never mind revolution.

That's not to say that there isn't fantastic work being done in the field -- it's just not transformative or revolutionary, and you might even argue that the impact has been negligible in schools so far. Punk never really changed anything either, so maybe this actually supports the edu-punk connection. Anyway, what words could we use to better describe what the best people in are trying to do? They’re DIY, change agents, hackers, mercenaries, members of skunkworks, tinkerers, inventors, synthesizers, mentors and facilitators, moonlighters working underground or on the side from their day jobs. A few might even be pretty rockin'! Some of them (thankfully) are borderline shit disturbers. But they’re not really punks.

I did some thinking about this a few years ago when I started my Lifestylism project. I just liked how the word fit what I was trying to do, and thought I might have even made it up...but then found out that it had a fairly long history in anarchist literature. In this context, lifestylists are people who are aware of the problems (inequality, exploitation, etc) in society and choose to deal with those problems only within their own lives -- making choices informed by that awareness, but not making any effort to change or confront the system itself. Of course true anarchists dismiss these people as cowards, because growing organic vegetables and recycling is nice and all, but the lack of social action will never bring about revolution (the anarchist's goal).

I'm not an anarchist, and I identified strongly with their derided concept for lifestylism, even after I understood it better. I don't want to tear down the system, and I think I can make a difference by aligning my lifestyle choices with my values as a quiet form of activism. I think most of the people who like the idea of being "edupunk" feel the same way about their work. The goal isn't to destroy the system, or even to create a better system to replace it -- the goal is to find ways to make our work (and the impact of our work) reflect our values better.


Anonymous said...

I think I rate in that spectrum, but I'm not sure that's a good thing. My talk Teaching is Dead, Long Live Learning (Was the first Web2/edutech reference to Illich that I know of) clearly a talk like this positions me as edupunk in your books - but I also sense that you are right in calling BS with the term. I do sometimes stop and look around and ask.. are we still cool.. I bet even the Sex Pistols have asked themselves that from time to time. And they were of course all wrapped up inside the music establishment - subservient to cultural industry and perhaps even a dark politik, and obviously lacked the sophistication to actually bring on anarchy beyond teenage parties of the time.

Harold Jarche said...

I haven't taken part in this whole edupunk thing, especially since I don't work in public education. However, I still feel the same way I did earlier in my blogging life, "I am seeing that Illich had it right over 30 years ago - we have seen the enemy, and it is us."

Look within, edupunks.

Anonymous said...

It is funny howe th term has immediately comes down to some deep dark notion of historicism and what punk really meant. I mean come off it, punk was far more complex than the way you frame it, and your pot shots are just that, cheap and misguided. I really don't care for the term, I was having some fun and it was an idea that might have led to some generative ideas beyond it. Even a fun aesthetic to play with.

So it's kind of funny to see folks like you getting all holier than thou (did you write for "Maximum Rock and Roll" or something?) ready to make any and everyone feel self conscious for having a little fun.

Good for you, you preserved punk history, defended the faith of the faithless, and can now return to your own lifestylism, and wait for the next moment to pounce. I'm proud of you. Good work.

Anonymous said...

As the anonymous commenter you so revile, I stand corrected. I described learning/knowledge as necessary for punk, but mistakenly called it education. And teachers might be in a situation that somewhat parallels how members of punk culture felt, but that doesn't make them punk.

I think seeing "Oh, please" is what set me off; it made me interpret your comment as pretty hostile, so I guess I replied in kind.

Jeremy said...

Hi anonymous commenter -- I think I said "hilarious", not "revile". But yes, this whole discussion is a total semantic disaster area, so it's no wonder we can get tripped up on something as messy as the differences between education and learning. And my tone in that comment does look unnecessarily snarky now. When I made it, I didn't know that it was an idea that had been floating around for a while, and that some people had already become quite attached to it. It was just my first guttural reaction to a new oxymoron. Thanks for clarifying and resisting the urge to pile on.

Jeremy said...

Hi Harold -- thanks for the comment. I think you've nailed it. And perhaps that is the best possible outcome of this misguided discussion -- that it will get educators (and instructional designers, consultants, etc) looking within, questioning some of the fundamentals of the system and trying to change it.

Jeremy said...

Leigh, that talk is inspiring. An artifact of an iconoclast.

My spectrum idea might be dumb, but as a thought experiment I think it might have some value in showing what budding edupunks might aspire to. The message shouldn't be "edupunk is stupid" -- it should be "we need more edupunks, but don't pretend you're one if you're not willing to really question the establishment." And not because it should be an exclusive club...but because pretending won't actually change (improve, ideally) the system.

I think it's ok to look around and wonder if we're cool, but the deeper (and more important) question is whether we're having an impact. You're right that punk may not have had much impact in the end either.

Jeremy said...

Hi Jim. Sorry if I deeply offended you by sharing these thoughts, but honestly I had never heard of you before a few days ago and I can assure you that it wasn't personal. I didn't think one guy out in the middle of nowhere (me) could ruin the party for everyone by posting his opinion on an abstract concept.

Reading your comment makes me wonder if you even read my post, or whether you simply registered it as a threat without making any attempt to understand it or see if it had any value. I'm not sure what you hoped to accomplish by wading in here with the sarcasm blazing. It certainly doesn't add anything of value to the discussion.

I make no claims about the history of punk except that it has "a strong affinity for anarchy and disdain for authority of any kind...". Of course it's more complex than that, but I doubt anyone would disagree with that generalization...and my goal wasn't to unpack all the baggage of punk's history. I was more interested in exploring the idea that if anyone is a punk in education, it would be someone like Illich and those who share(d) his philosophy. I can only assume that you'd disagree with this metaphor/parallel, which is fine.

The crux of my argument is that I think there is a mismatch between the values of many educators and the institutions that employ them. Perhaps the popularity of the edupunk label signifies the tension and dissatisfaction that arises from that mismatch. Not sure how many of those educators are going to want to stick it to the man, but it is an interesting discussion. What if thousands of educators started questioning some of the basic assumptions of school and voiced those questions publicly, demanding change? That would be so edupunk.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough, Jeremy.

I have to apologize for the sarcasm. Guess this whole thing got a bit bigger than I would have liked. I really think the word may have refracted to specifically a thing rather than a process that had been happening more organically. And somehow I was getting wrapped up in that thing. Didn't mean to come blazing, and I think your point hits quite close to the nerve of this whole argument. So apologies for commenting with stuff here with ideas and notions that weren't totally worked out.

Jeremy said...

No problem, Jim. Your meme has touched nerves all over the place, and sparked all kinds of interesting thinking...and I think that's great.

Although I had seen links back to your edupunk posts, I hadn't actually gone to read them until you commented here. I was apparently reacting to the reaction, with a couple of degrees of separation. I guess that's what happens when an idea gets out into the wild. Anyway, I'm glad you did comment here (sarcasm aside), because it made me go read your other stuff, and I found a lot to like there. Your passion and insights are as infectious as this viral phenomenon you unleashed.

And my writing tone could be more diplomatic at times -- I can usually only see it later when someone reacts badly to it.

xclmedia said...

It is funny howe th term has immediately comes down to some deep dark notion of historicism and what punk really meant.

Bernard Von Poobely said...

It's ok to stop being cool; cool is for young people so trying to be cool when you're no longer 'young' is in itself not cool and somewhat creepy.

My dilemma is I work in education but everywhere I look not much thinking is taking place. I don't care so much though what people learn - they can do that on their own like me right? - but if they can think for themselves. I don't see much of that in the University system or anywhere else for that matter.

Anonymous said...