Punk Educator: Adobe 435866437
Punk Educator: Adobe 435866437

Punk in the Classroom: Question Everything

Punk’s “question everything” attitude has always been suited to education, despite the forces that seek to contain its rabble-rousing trouble-making from the classroom.

School has long been a punching bag in punk folklore, characterized, as the Clash sang in “White Riot” (1977), as a place where “they teach you how to be thick”. Most kids turn to punk during their prime school years and turn on school as a reason for doing so. Regarded as oppressive, censorious, and a state apparatus more concerned with molding obedient citizens than with nurturing creative and critical thinkers, schools rank alongside parents, government, and major record companies as punks’ preferred antagonists.

Punk academics of pedagogy have been equally unimpressed with the educational institutions they write about and work within, constantly biting the hands that feed them. Among their recurring complaints are that schools and colleges are disconnected from broader community interests, while too connected to business and technology ones. “Cost-effectiveness” is the new buzz term in this era of state funding cuts, the victims of which are classes and departments across the arts, many of which suffer from low enrollment or from being insufficiently “vocational” in nature.  For those punks that have become teachers, graduate students, or professors as their last refuge to find and fulfill their idealism, ethical principles, and/or creativity, the education system often receives a low or failing grade.

Still, a last refuge is better than no refuge, and punks of a certain age continue to flock to education — high and low — hoping to bring about change in the classroom, institution, and society at large. Punk’s “question everything” attitude has always been suited to education, despite the forces that seek to contain its rabble-rousing trouble-making. As a result, punk pedagogies have a voluminous presence in contemporary debates over educational practices, and punk academics have amassed a growing army within a wide range of college departments. They are asking questions about how DIY approaches can be integrated into classrooms, how institutional hierarchies can be disassembled, and what type of teaching is needed to improve inclusivity, particularly for those children ordinarily and systematically marginalized. They contemplate, too, how they might draw from their punk toolboxes in the service of academic developments and outputs.

No longer (just) perceived as a vulgar undesirable, punk now has its boot in the door of academia, such that to state one’s specialized area as “punk studies” is no longer received as an ironic joke. One group, Punk Scholars Network, has been disseminating such studies since 2012 through its own website, social media presence, annual conferences, book publications, and academic journal (Punk & Post-Punk), each tentacle reaching around the globe.

It is not just the methodologies punk has inspired that are provoking curiosity, either. Punk is now a subject under scrutiny, particularly within cultural studies and history, where re-evaluations are taking place in relation to established definitions, parameters, and representations of punk over the last 40-plus years. Those exercises in re-seeing have introduced more self-reflexivity into punk studies, such that historiography has become a core component of historical analyses just as pedagogy has regarding punk’s educational value. Although no longer the vibrant street subculture it once was, punk is currently in vogue in education circles, resulting in a widening of perceptions about what punk was, is, and can be in relation to past, present, and future mutations and manifestations.

Like teaching, punk is both an epistemology and ontology, both youth-oriented and youth-centered, some would say existing in a perpetual state of arrested adolescence. As in most youthful arenas, their environments can be ones of tension and contention, but also of dynamism and responsiveness. One might even argue that punk subcultures and communes function in ways not dissimilar to how some pedagogy punks imagine education: prioritizing DIY pragmatism and subversive idealism. It should perhaps not be surprising then to see punks once active in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s becoming activist teachers in this century.

So, what is punk pedagogy?  According to recent scholarship it encompasses various beliefs, traits, and practices akin to other punk manifestations. According to John Mink, editor of Teaching Resistance: Radicals, Revolutionaries, and Cultural Subversives in the Classroom (2019), punk teachers should not pretend to be politically neutral; instead, they should pursue an agenda that is anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchical, and freedom-seeking. Teachers need to stop accepting the current status quo, he argues, by creating — or fighting for — classroom and systemic conditions more conducive to student participation, representation, and self-directed learning.

Professor Laura Way illustrates how these might look in practice in her essay, “Here’s Some Scissors, Here’s Some Glue, Now Go Make a Zine! A Teacher’s Reflections on Zine-Making in the Classroom”. Just as so many punks and their subcultures have demonstrated for decades, zine-making can turn students from consumers of knowledge into creator-producers. Its DIY act of active learning implicitly challenges authority by shifting control and agency to the students. 

Professor Seth Kahn-Egan also sees the potential of applying punk’s DIY principles in the classroom. In his essay, “Pedagogy of the Pissed: Punk Pedagogy in the First-Year Writing Classroom”, he argues that punk ethics and methods could transform this standardized introductory college course (Kahn-Egan p.99-104). He also encourages instructors to help unleash their students’ pent-up feelings, allowing them to express anger and passion and pleasure and pain in their writing. His pedagogy considers institutional constraints, too, which he sees as physical and mental. Rules should be subject to students’ critical thinking, he asserts, and opportunities should be given for participatory learning beyond campus in the surrounding communities. 

Purveyors of punk pedagogy are united in their desire to harness punk’s contents and methods in addressing failings in both the classroom and broader educational infrastructure. Sometimes punk forms or aesthetics are emphasized, at other times its ethics or perceived politics. This loose consensus around an educational mission that, as Gareth Dylan Smith, Mike Dines, and Tom Parkinson say, should be “more democratized, dangerous, diverse and disruptive” (Smith p.x) in order to “emancipate individuals and groups from the shackled and un-punk mind”, speaks to a particular interpretation of punk ideology. “Individualism” and “freedom” are keywords within the literature of punk pedagogy, but they are never presented as existing at the expense of inclusivity or community interests. Instead, they speak to those punk traditions that regard anarchy as more than just an inflammatory buzzword.

The roots of most punk pedagogies lie in anarchist and critical theories that date back to at least the late 19th century, particularly to the ideas of Francisco Ferrer and Paulo Freire. Their focus on the need for schooling over education underscores the importance of learning beyond the reaches of a profit-driven society intent on producing passive and submissive consumers. Their critiques have been picked up by contemporary education strategists like Rebekah Cordova, who borrows punk as a hip vehicle by which to convey their long-familiar concepts. 

In DIY Punk as Education: From Mis-education to Educative History, Cordova starts from the premise that the current system is failing children, and that they — and we — could benefit from learning a thing or two from punk. Her call to action calls for “unschooling” and “self-directed learning”, terms often used in anarchist pedagogies. Like John Mink, she simultaneously looks within and beyond the classroom, arguing that autodidactic “inquiry-based learning” can and should take place in both. Such “public” discovery learning is presented as a more educational and fulfilling alternative to traditional teacher lecturing, eliciting results beneficial to society as well as the students.   

Another contemporary educator using punk to present a different systemic critique is Jim Groom, Instructional Technologist at Virginia’s University of Mary Washington. When he coined the term “Edupunk” in 2008 it immediately went viral, picked up and picked apart beyond the blogosphere by both The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times. Like other cyberpunks before him, Groom cast himself as an internal enemy, a rogue techie intent on infecting and outflanking the high technology systems and operations he worked with. Students already have enough gadgets, he claims, but many are too expensive and get in the way of real learning. Like Cordova, he favors a more DIY approach to self-directed learning, though recognizes that education will continue to be tech-directed until its institutions cease to allow corporations to hold them hostage with power-grabbing contracts.

Among those in the classroom practicing these punk pedagogies are a number of teachers that were once frontline punk rockers. Their vocational transition is a common one, and one not as unlikely as it may seem. Where else does an idealistic musician go to pass on his/her ethical beliefs once his/her rock career is over? Where else can he/she re-apply those DIY skills learned from years on the road working collaboratively and solving problems as they arise? How else can those skills of communication and performance be salvaged and adapted for new attentive audiences? 

Hugo Burnham still lives by the progressive politics that defined his post-punk days with the Gang of Four. Now, though, he shares them in the role of Professor at Endicott College, Beverly, Massachusetts.  His assessment of “school choice” as comparable to working for a major record label run by venture capitalists recalls the kinds of demystification practiced by his old band.

Another punk drummer, Martin Atkins (PIL, NIN, Ministry, Killing Joke), nowadays teaches classes on punk (and other topics) at Millikin University, Illinois. His enthusiasm for integrating punk values and practices into the classroom has led to him becoming a public pedagogue, travelling around the world extolling the virtues of DIY learning and critical questioning, as well as the educational benefits to be garnered from redesigning and redecorating classrooms. His public lectures come complete with a merchandise table from which he sells a T-shirt that reads “Education Is The Next Punk Rock.”

Many punk rockers-turned-teachers are profiled in the John Mink-edited Teaching Resistance book.  Mink made his own transition from singer-bass player to social studies teacher, and he celebrates the powerful intersections that exist between the two lives. Others follow a similar trajectory, such as Jessica Mills, a sax and bass player now teaching English at Central New Mexico Community College. Punk is so influential in her life that she even published a memoir/guide about punk parenting. Like Mills, Michelle Cruz Gonzales teaches in a community college, which she calls “the punk rock of higher education” because of its affordability, diversity, and access. 

Former drummer and lyricist for the Bay Area bands Spitboy, Bitch Fight, and Instant Girl, Gonzalez cites parallels between punk subcultures and community colleges: both are customarily denigrated as inferior within their respective fields; both offer sanctuary for social misfits and those excluded or discriminated against. At the end of her essay, she shares a five-page list of punks and punk-related artists that have attended community colleges, making a good case for considering this particular educational site to be as important and influential to US punk as art schools have been in the UK.

Mink interviews two teachers that were once at the forefront of their respective punk scenes. Alice Bag (a.k.a. Alicia Velasquez) fronted the Bags in the early days of L.A.’s late ’70s insurgency, so she knows a thing or two about dealing with unruly kids. She tells Mink how her love of argumentation, challenging the status quo, and finding communities led her on a direct path from punk rocker to teacher, and how her adept performance skills come in handy when some energy needs injecting into the classroom. 

Martin Sorrondeguy feels similarly.  His career as a trailblazer of queercore, as the lead singer of Limp Wrist and Los Crudos, taught him the importance of being a critical thinker, as well as what it means to grow up as an adolescent outsider. His hope is to “leave fingerprints” and “create a ripple effect” in his teaching, as he did in his musical career.

Flying the red (or black) flag for progressive punk pedagogy in the UK is Tait Coles, author of Never Mind the Inspectors, Here’s Punk Learning. Tate’s clarion calls to defy the government’s Office for Standards in Education, for teachers to ignore official evaluations and the standardizing criteria they are based on, and for students and teachers to be “punk learners” (i.e., DIY, dissenting, and disruptive) do not differ much from the goals of Mink’s posse of “radicals, revolutionaries, and cultural subversives”. What distinguishes Tate is that he expresses himself using a rhetorical approach that can appeal to teachers, scholars, and (would-be) punk students. Tait, an assistant principal and teacher at a school in Bradford, presents his manifesto for punk learning using the kind of short, sharp, shocking statements and no-nonsense attitude one would expect from Henri Rollins rather than a school principal. Punk pedagogy, he reveals, can draw upon the powers of punk expression as well as substance in communicating its philosophies.


Works Cited

Coles, Tait. Never Mind the Inspectors, Here’s Punk Learning. Independent Thinking. 2014.

Cordova, Rebekah. DIY Punk as Education: From Mis-education to Educative History, Information Age Publishing. 2016.

EDUshyster. “Is Education Reform Punk Rock?Have You Heard? 22 September 2014.

Groom, Jim. “The Glass Bees”. BavaTuesdays. 25 May 2008.

Kahn-Egan, Seth. “Pedagogy of the Pissed: Punk Pedagogy in the First-Year Writing Classroom”. College Composition and Communication. Vol. 49. No. 1. February 1998.

Mink, John, ed. Teaching Resistance: Radicals, Revolutionaries, and Cultural Subversives in the Classroom. PM Press. 2019.

Smith, Gareth Dylan, Mike Dines, and Tom Parkinson, eds. Punk Pedagogies: Music, Culture and Learning. Routledge. 2018.