Is Education Reform Punk Rock?

Do real punk rockers prefer school choice? Not when it’s the major label or the big rock manager offering *choice.*

By Hugo Burnham
gang of fourEducation is the new punk rock. So says the t-shirt sold by my friend, an old punk rock drummer named Martin Atkins who has found, forced and finagled his way into higher education in the USA. As have I. *Higher* for us these days means education beyond K–12.

Martin played with PIL (that’s his Mickey Mouse watch sound on Metal Box’s immense *Four Enclosed Walls*), Ministry, Killing Joke, Pigface, and others. He wasn’t in NIN, but he was in a NIN video. (Just as I wasn’t in PIL…but I was on the Top of the Pops TV show with them.) And he runs a record label that has released a shitload of records. And he owns a studio. And he’s written two books. He is now teaching at the SAE Institute in Chicago. I’m exhausted just writing this—he’s a bloody machine. Oh, and just got his Bachelor’s Degree. At 55, yet! I got my Bachelor’s Degree at the *right* time, you know, when I was young. Martin is onto his Master’s next (ha ha…got mine already!). And we are both fathers. Alright then, so who’s the real punk here?!

bollocksMind the bollocks
Which leads us to the obvious question: what is punk rock? And what does it have to do with public education? Almost everything you’ve read defining punk is bollocks. Mind them. And ignore anyone over the age of 25 pontificating about what is or is not punk rock. (That should reduce your online reading by about 78%…) The only real punk who’s still punk is Joe Strummer. And maybe Charlie Harper.

So what right do we, as post-punk college professors (hilarious, really, isn’t it?! I still cannot believe that I am 14 years deep into what my Mum calls *A proper job—finally*), and bloody foreigners to boot, have to weigh in on the maelstrom that is the public school debate in these United States? Whether clutching Green Cards or US passports, we’ve both lived here for so many years and guided and watched our progeny engage in public schools that, despite lacking representation for our taxation, we have an opinion. And a clue.

Is education reform punk rock?
So now there are people arguing that school choice and charters are *punk*; that it’s a fact that real punk rockers prefer choice. Really? Fuck ‘em. They sound like Pink Floyd. Not when it’s the major label or the big rock manager offering that *choice.* What started happening in ’75 or ’76 (or whenever anyone over 55 might possibly remember as being when it really started…usually in an online argument about who was really *there*) was going to the club that was already in the neighbourhood and saying: *Hey, we want to come and play here. Give us a night.* And that made it happen, made the club better, open to everybody.

Punk was DIY, baby
CBGBs didn’t begin with punk rock, but who has ever heard of the place in any other context? The same in London, with old jazz rooms giving up a night or two a week to art school kids and other wastrels who jumped up and down to new groups who grew up on the Who, Bowie, Small Faces, The Kinks, and all those amazing glitter bands (our young uncles with amazingly high heeled shoes and dreadful-but-exciting eye make-up). And reggae. Real punks loved reggae. I mean real reggae—just about anything on Trojan Records; not that cod reggae shit by The Police, or today’s execrable Magic, whose song *Rude* is just so, so…Arne bloody Duncan. Education needs more reggae. So, the same instruments (except keyboards. Fuck keyboards. Unless it’s reggae), the same clubs, the same sound systems…just worked on. Worked at. Believed in. Made to work. Take the good bits and improve them our way. DIY, baby.

Punks did not trust the people who controlled things; they had a deep suspicion of them, as any offer to *help* really meant *how can I exploit you, how can I make money out of you just in case this shit takes off?*

appledollarMoney at the core
Punks did not trust the people who controlled things; they had a deep suspicion of them, as any offer to *help* really meant *how can I exploit you, how can I make money out of you just in case this shit takes off?* Look back up the food chain to the people behind school choice or charters, and you find that it’s money at the core. Venture capitalists at the top, down to parents who can’t afford private schools but really don’t want their issue mixing with, well, you know… Trust me, there’s a potential pay-off somewhere. And the people in charge? Arne Duncan, et al? Damn…we wanted them to still be us, we wanted to believe the change was “…Gonna Come.” Ugh. The disappointment over these past six years has been palpable. We can taste it, yet still we hold onto the faint hope that they will come true, will do the right thing. In the meantime, we real punks should be rolling up our sleeves and jutting out our chins, bringing our three chords and bad haircuts into our public schools to stand up and out for them. Well, we real former/wannabe/whatever punks, anyway. Our kids should be the punks we are working for— because all the real punks that I knew, listened to, followed, and hung out with didn’t care about another kid’s background, colour, accent, home life, haircut. Their education (or possible lack of it) didn’t define them. That’s what I want my kid to be. Actually, she is.

resistResistance is punk rock
On the other side of the online *what punk is/what education is* debate is one guy down in Tennessee (…God help him…) whose blog I read (thanks to Edushyster. Have you seen Edushyster? That’s some punk rock, right there. Better than anything I’ve written, that’s for sure. Wanna look good debating the pricks online? Steal Edushyster’s stuff…make it look like your own. People will flock to your wit and incisive writing. Actually, don’t. Cite it. Citations are punk rock, OK?) Anyway, this guy in Tennessee likens the resistance to education *reform* to punk rock. Yeah. Him. Dad Gone Wild. That’s far more punk rock than those fools trying to market the for-profit creep that is education *reform.* Resistance is punk. Resistance to the Machiavellii up at the top who spend more time polishing turds than attending to real housekeeping. The bastards want to privatize everything that belongs to the people, which that Uber-Bastard, Thatcher started in the UK. And it continues…

Charters and school choice are not
Punks were not lazy. School choice is lazy. Punks were not elitist; they didn’t want to travel in the Stones’ Lear jet while pretending they were still in the back of the Ford Transit van (at least not until after 1983). Too many charter schools are just that…being sold as getting into private schools without having to pay for them. Of course there are charters that are doing well, but most of those are in school districts where things just could not have got any worse than they were. A lot of people are drawn to charters because they *…just don’t like unions* and public school teachers are unionized. OK, there are some shitty teachers in our schools, and too many are too safe because their union protects them. But you don’t destroy a whole building because some of the windows are rotten. At the same time, there is too much intransigence by the teacher’s unions to change or compromise. Yes, I said it. Tenure after three years? Bloody insane.

Punks were not lazy. School choice is lazy. Punks were not elitist; they didn’t want to travel in the Stones’ Lear jet while pretending they were still in the back of the Ford Transit van (at least not until after 1983).

Shout at the pricks
Get stuck in. Take your guitar, your bass, your drums—and resist. Shout at the pricks who only have your money in sight, rather than your kids’ whole education from kindergarten through 12th grade. Make them pay. Get other parents to pay attention, to go give a good kicking to the old man behind the curtain pulling their emotional levers.

Virginia Woolf is punk rock.

Virginia Woolf is punk rock.

You know who’s real punk rock? Virginia Woolf. Stream of consciousness writing, baby. And she’d be supporting her local public school today, let me tell you. Punctuation is so not punk rock. OK, I have punctuation (I love the Oxford comma), but this is my stream…punctuation mistakes and all. I should have spent time editing and proofreading, that I implore my students to do. I should go back and re-arrange some of my paragraphs, think about what I might have missed, or rid myself of repetition. But fuck it. I’m punk.

And I keep my ‘u’s in the words where they belong. And it’s *aluminium.* Alright?

(Now I need to go lie down for a punk rock nap. After I make my daughter finish her homework.)

Hugo Burnham is a college professor, teaching at two different campuses in Eastern Massachusetts. He used to be younger, thinner, and much louder than he is now – as the drummer for leftist trouble-makers and punk-funkateers, Gang of Four.

Send tips and comments to tips@haveyouheardblog.comFollow Jennifer @EduShyster.


  1. I think homeschooling (not the religious, organized kind, but the fly by the seat of the pants kind) or unschooling are the real punk rock. Completely DIY.

    This piece is the opposite of punk rock. Too long, rambling and unfocused. I couldn’t figure out the point the first 3 times I read it. Also, it doesn’t speak the heart. Joey Ramone is crying into a beer somewhere…

    1. I love this piece and thought it only got better with each re-reading. I can only conclude that you sir are not punk rock. btw: did you notice that I was described as being punk rock? This may have something to do with my love of Hugo’s post because I have never been called punk rock before. In my entire life…

    2. “Too long, rambling and unfocused”…is the “opposite of punk”, eh?

      Ever sit having a drink with Strummer?

      1. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Math Teacher has never had the experience of sitting and having a drink with Strummer. btw: I passed onto my beloved that I was referred to in your post as *punk rock,* to which he snorted *no one could be less punk rock than you.* Followed by *I’m guessing that’s the last time anyone makes that mistake.* The indignity!

      2. nope. never had the honor; wish I had. and you are correct – I am not punk rock (though I like some mildly punk rock).

    1. That drone has pissed enough people off that you may consider yourself punk. Just a little…but yes, you are.

    2. That could be true. I will consult w/ various judges of such things and return with a definitive answer…

    3. I checked with our mutual friend, the maker of turtles (who is not God), but who issues harshly fair judgments in such disputes. The verdict: she concurs that you are less punk rock than I am. But she delivered the news in such a way as to feel very unflattering to both of us. In other words, la lucha continua…

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