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.