The Alcove

Burning Down the House

What our bloated colleges can learn from punk and post punk.

By Kevin Mattson

Tagged Education

Higher education—the world I occupy daily—has met the election cycle. On the left we hear about Bernie Sanders’s call for free, universal higher education, an understandable response to the student debt crisis most of us know about. There are problems, though, with universal free higher education, and no less a democratic socialist publication than Dissent (on whose editorial board I sit) published a thoughtful piece a while ago about how such a policy might reward students who “come from disproportionately well-off backgrounds and already enjoy disproportionately well-off futures, which makes them relatively uncompelling targets for public transfers.” On the right, we learn more how Trump University looks an awful lot like numerous institutions of for-profit, on-line education, a corrupt shell game of privatization that rips students off.

With all of this knocking around the world of politics and small magazines, imagine my delight to hit upon an essay about two things I cherish—higher education and punk rock. The piece is published at The Smart Set, housed at Drexel University. (The journal is named after a Jazz Age magazine once edited by one of America’s hardest biting wits—H.L. Mencken, who ran it before taking up the more famous American Mercury.)

Higher education and punk rock? you might ask. Well, some of this analogy makes sense. The author, Kevin Egan, argues that higher education institutions are seen as bloated and in crisis. He analogizes them to “arena rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and KISS” who “had become bombastic, over-produced, megalithic versions of their former cutting-edge selves.” (Let’s skip over the implication that KISS ever had a non-bombastic stage.)[ha!] What punk rock did during the 1970s, Egan argues rightfully, was to strip music down to its minimal core—the sort of three-chord, blistering blasts that bands like the Ramones championed. And then, in the guise of what some music historians call “post-punk,” this minimalist rebellion unleashed the power of some of the most creative bands, including for Egan Talking Heads and Joy Division (I’ll come back to this point). Stripping down became the precedent for an explosion of creativity in the late 1970s, for Egan.

So what is the strip-down now in higher education that Egan seems to see as a parallel to 1970s punk and post-punk? Well, here, Egan starts to lose me. He talks about the importation of new technologies into the world of higher ed—meaning that he starts mimicking some of the Silicon Valley utopianism about technology. That is, the dream of turning every aspect of our lives into a problem that only the newest app can cure. So for Egan, “Technology has stripped education back to its basics.” He cites online education ventures and the rise of “massive open online courses” (unfortunately abbreviated as MOOCs). “These online platforms effectively render higher education,” Egan writes looking backwards with nostalgia and to the future with optimism, “in its most basic form, much like the Ramones divested rock of its pomp and circumstance and brought it back to its frenetic and raw core.” (For more on MOOCs, read Stephen Rose’s review-essay of Kevin Carey’s The End of College.)

So when I hear someone talking about the need to strip down higher education institutions to their core, I nod my head, but I don’t think about the Ramones immediately or blathering professors who would be better substituted with an iPad or online course. Instead, I think of college presidents whose salaries seem to climb like those of CEOs at private businesses and a growing bloat in the number of administrators presidents like to surround themselves with. I think of huge outlays to athletic programs that sell branded items to gobs of fans and build centers on campuses solely for training athletes. I think of publicity brochures that display the marvels of a college campus that looks more like a country club, resplendent with workout centers and abundant technologies for students to use.

Egan misses something in all of his talk about higher ed and punk. Notice the parenthetical disclaimer in the following, declarative sentence: “Online courses are able to deliver educational content (with varying degrees of quality) in its starkest form; they expose the lecture as the fundamental element of undergraduate education.” He argues, here with the punk analogy again, that streamlining (using more online sources) is unleashing “the ‘DIYification’ of higher learning.” But really, it’s leading to the de-skilling of the professoriate. Like it or not—and our populist culture obviously doesn’t like it—for a college class to succeed, you need to have a trained professional in the room who can press students to not just access information but question the assumptions they might bring with them. In the areas where I teach—contemporary American history of ideas and politics—you need someone who’s not afraid to challenge students’ political sentiments, their inherited beliefs that might go unquestioned if not tested (and prodded) in a classroom setting. Higher education can’t be stripped down to facts and information gathered from a MOOC.

So let me return to the punk rock analogy. I’m all for stripping down—so long as we strip down what’s truly secondary to the educational mission of higher education institutions. That’s the bloated administrations and athletic programs and the country club campus. And now let me follow up with my own taste in postpunk. I enjoy early Talking Heads and Joy Division as much as Egan seems to. But I’m not a big fan of Devo or Blondie, two of his other favorites (and bands that usually got the moniker of “New Wave”). My favorite post-punk wasn’t modeled after the Ramones (who, as much as they were minimalist innovators, were also monotonous after awhile), it was modeled after Television, early Gang of Four, the Pop Group, the Fall (and really obscure musical groups in America like the B-Team from San Francisco:). Meaning that as it rooted itself in the thumping of a bass and steady drumming, it would put on top a scratchy guitar that jarred a listener’s sensibilities. It was discordant music, rejecting the easy sounds of pop music. Like what a good teacher can do, pushing a student further than he or she might originally go, sometimes annoying a student, jarring a student, forcing a student to think (somewhere Jean Jacques Rousseau talked about forcing people to be free—an ironic statement that I think applies to the art of teaching). Not the sort of stuff that comes easy or can be gleaned from a quick look at an iPad.

We need to make higher education more affordable, for sure. That requires cutting the fat and getting state institutions especially to receive more public funding, rather than relying upon jacking up tuition. But it also requires funding teachers in the classroom to do their job, to make students think better and look at their world with a critical eye and the reserves of knowledge that can help make sense of it (and by the way, those professors being de-skilled and turned into free-agent adjuncts were once a backbone component of America’ middle class). Go basic, for sure, in the spirit of stripped down punk of the 1970s. But make sure that the music of education stays open enough that it allows for creativity, not just digital memorization.

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Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952.

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