Clamor: Your DIY Guide to Everyday Revolution.

Clamor ceased publication in December 2006. This website contains information for your reference and archival purposes only.

Issue 34

School of Punk Rock

By Antonio Lopez

Whenever beginning a media education project with teenagers, I always start by saying that everything I learned about media I learned in the school of punk rock. Usually I have to explain a bit about how in the early days of punk, corporate media had little interest in youth culture or the movement (i.e. they hadn’t figured out how to make money off it), and it was up to us kids to produce our own media. I often repeat the mantra: do-it-yourself, do-it-yourself. It’s not long before they get the DIY ethic and quickly harness communication tools that did not exist in my teen punk days: personal computers, the Internet, web sites, blogs, etc. My harping on the past gets a little tired, but they humor me because to them I’m a bit exotic: I teach them to be rebels, which is contrary to what the education system encourages.

My path to punk rock teaching methods starts with the personal. I always was a bad test taker. I bombed the SAT, and my GRE score left more than a black hole on my official academic profile. It didn’t stop me from getting into top schools, or being a straight-A student. I like to believe that one can actually achieve academically while sucking at tests. What’s key is that it’s all in the individual’s learning style.

Which brings me to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), or as some have come to call it, All Children Left Behind or No Child Left Behind for the Military.

I’m not a policy wonk, and I don’t know the ins and outs of the actual law that was signed into existence by Congress (a key point, since we tend to blame only Bush for the whole sad affair). I’ve never read the damn thing, and I hope that I never do. And please don’t test me on it. What I have seen, and have suffered through since the law’s inception, is a rapid decline in the education being offered to our children, and I am not exaggerating when I say this law is a conspiracy to destroy public education so that schools will be sold off to political cronies who pick off privatized government institutions like vultures munching on road kill.   

For the past four years I was a media arts teacher at a federally funded Native American boarding school in the Southwest, which will remain nameless to protect the innocent. My particular task was to work with the “gifted” students, immediately pointing to a fault within the overall education paradigm. Our superintendent often stated that Natives see gifted differently, that it’s not a matter of academic aptitude. What we had was an interesting mix of extremely bright, creative kids and also so-called “special ed” students, who were academically challenged but also fit the school’s alternative concept of gifted. Because these kids had special needs, i.e. to not bore them to death, we gave them creative projects, such as video production, and used as our measure (or “rubric” in academese) a portfolio for  assessment. As you can imagine, evaluating a student’s work through this method is very subjective and impossible to standardize; hence the beauty of it.   

Being a product of alternative education in my youth, which was the opposite extreme of NCLB, I was not required to do anything in school. My school’s philosophy (and this was a public one, mind you) was that if I wanted to learn, I would make the effort on my own. Up to eighth grade I never went to class or did any work if I didn’t want to, failing everything while I spent my time playing baseball or learning the “hustle” (I grew up in LA during the seventies). But... and this is a big but ... I learned to be a very creative, independent thinker. I learned to critically engage democracy. Yes, I can’t spell worth crap (that’s what word processors and copy editors are for) and, did I say I suck at tests? It didn’t stop me from becoming (a) professional journalist or educator. And this is the lesson I share with my students, often. For as creative projects were whittled away from their regular classes, and innovative programs were slashed to teach standardized testing, I would have to console these fine, bright children and convince them their futures weren’t fucked because they bombed tests that only measured linear thought processes. I understood them well since, as an insecure teen, I actually believed I was retarded because I didn’t get algebra. Really. And I’m sure many of you reading this had a similar experience.

What concerns me is the traumatic effect these policy changes are having on the youth, which are producing a number of chilling results. Administrators are running around like despondent chickens with their heads lasered off because they fear for their jobs, funding and failure, in that order. The government acts like a domestic abuser, and the schools behave like battered spouses. Because administrators feel clueless about how to proceed with NCLB, they take the most damaging, conservative route possible. For example, our school had this really great program for eighth-graders that had them build a PC from scratch over the course of a year, and if they kept their grades up, they got to keep the computer. This was a fantastic curriculum that taught the kids practical and academic skills, and also enabled their families, who are traditionally in the lower income bracket, access to the one thing that empowers people in our technologically dependent society: a computer. Guess what? Science scores were below average, so the program was eliminated in order to teach for the test, because without certain achievement levels, federal funding was perpetually threatened to be cut off.

Remember that conspiracy I was telling you about? What happens when you demoralize youth and give them every reason to fail? What options are left for a class of people who are already disenfranchised and marginalized from the general society? Marshal drums please...bring in the military. I used to have the sad job of staffing the journalism and media table on career day. Queries were few, and who could blame the kids. Outside the National Guard hauled in tanks, Humvees and even a goddamn helicopter to wow the kids and lure them into their little bogus videogame war rap. So now, not only did I have to fight the feds on their education policy, I had to spend valuable teaching time trying to deprogram the kids from enlisting. My efforts rarely paid off, for in addition to all the other noise, the school was required by NCLB to turn over the names and phone numbers of my students to military recruiters. Now I have former students, beautiful young people full of life, off fighting that nasty bullshit of a war in Iraq; it breaks my heart every time I think of it.

So here’s my punk rock response to the situation: fuck the school system. In the near future that is. Believe me, as schools become more militarized and begin to simulate virtual police states and prisons, school administrators are so bogged down dealing with the failed system, it’s impossible to innovate anymore. I found that there is an easier way to offer inventive educational tools without the hassles of standards, bureaucracy and scared school boards. Both art and media literacy have become powerful tools that are universally accepted as desirable and effective. Schools especially love anything that has to do with media or technology, and will support guest speakers and after school programs that engage students in media education. I’ve been able to support myself as a kind of media lit mercenary, going to schools and giving talks on the negative health impacts of media, but also demonstrating positive uses of media, i.e. DIY. Under the pretext of educating on tobacco, alcohol, violence, and/or body image, I’m able to communicate critical thinking skills very quickly using a medium that most kids are engaged in much more actively than regular school curriculum.

A case in point: I was invited to Phoenix to give a keynote at a youth conference centered on drinking and driving. With my laptop, I showed a series of commercials that reflect a pattern of subterfuge, using alcohol ads as my primary focus, but also showing fast food, car and cereal commercials to demonstrate the consistency of persuasion techniques. During the last breakout sessions, a young Latina raised her hand and asked a pointed question: “If you are saying that all ads are deceptive, is that true of military ads?” Bingo! Now, before I answered her honestly, I had to consider a few things: A) I was in the heart of Republican Phoenix and B) this was a law and order conference. What were my chances of escaping the room alive? I quickly saw that all the cops, firemen and other mettlesome adults had magically disappeared to prepare lunch, so I decided that as the “expert” from New York, I might get through to a few kids with the truth. Sure enough, after my swift debunking of military marketing and the war, the room exploded. We’re talking over 400 teens yelling and screaming, mostly wanting to kill me, but several actually taking an antiwar stance. It was wild and exciting – an energy I had never felt before, as if the war genie was finally allowed to escape. Clearly these kids had not had the opportunity to discuss the issue publicly before. Regardless of the personal attacks (“If our troops weren’t in Iraq, you wouldn’t have the freedom to stand there and say what you want,” blah, blah, blah), it felt productive to at least release the frustration of ideological suppression, i.e. denial.

I conclude with two anecdotes. First, after being invited to speak at a high school in East LA, I was astonished to learn that all the punk kids at that school were in the ROTC. From my old school roots, this seemed utterly implausible, but as a like-minded teacher explained, punk now is just a sign, a fashion statement that means aggression. Perhaps. On the other hand, I still see a lot of politically active youth who call themselves punk. Ultimately, labels are totally not punk rock. Anyhow, the second point I want to mention is that most kids I work with are into hip-hop, but lack exposure to its activist roots. In a recent workshop in Brooklyn I asked a group of African American youth if they knew of any artists that had politically or socially conscious lyrics. None had. Then I showed them Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” video shot by Spike Lee; they were speechless. It was as if aliens had entered the room and seized their brains. But I’d seen this look before; I knew it meant they were truly absorbing something. Rebellion had gotten under their skin. And in the school of punk rock, that’s what it’s all about. 

Antonio Lopez is a retired punk who teaches nationally and writes media criticism. He also participates in the Dharma Punx community in lower Manhattan, which practices meditation and social service.

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