Minor Threat


in Features


Higher education has been making the headlines a lot lately, but not because praise is being heaped upon it for the value it is bringing to the current generation of millennial students. Rather, headlines are loudly proclaiming that higher education is in danger, dying, or already dead. Take, for example, the cover of the September 2014 issue of The Atlantic, which reads “Is College Doomed?” and features a wrecking ball smashing the traditional paraphernalia of academia — textbooks, notebooks, pencils, cap and tassel, and, tellingly, a football. This question, “is college dead?” is certainly a hyperbolic one that has become pervasive in the media, but it should not be all that surprising to many academics. Higher education has been in a “crisis moment” for years now, especially in light of the emergence of nontraditional forms of education that challenge some of academia’s foundational assumptions. The rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and certain for-profit alternatives like Minerva (the upstart education company at the center of The Atlantic article) have shaken those foundations and, if we are to believe these headlines, will soon send faculty and administrators scurrying away from a crumbling ivory tower. It seems that all one needs to reap the equivalent rewards of a college education are access to technology and an entrepreneurial spirit.

My response to this perceived threat is to dust off some old records and drop the turntable needle onto the vinyl of the Talking Heads, Devo, Blondie, and maybe even some Joy Division. Higher education could take a lesson from these musical pioneers of the 1970s and from the radical transformation of the music scene they helped to usher in during that era. Indeed, the Ramones might tell us as much about where we are in this moment of higher education as any amount of self-assessment and institutional introspection or handwringing ever could. When the Ramones burst onto the scene shredding through songs lasting all of one minute, they represented a dramatic departure from the grandiose — some might even say operatic (we’re looking at you, Tommy) — rock that dominated the airwaves and concert venues of the time.

In the mid- to late-’70s, arena-rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and KISS pervaded the music scene, and, by this point in their careers, had become bombastic, over-produced, megalithic versions of their former cutting-edge selves. They were, as music critic Simon Reynolds describes such groups, “dinosaur” rock bands. The musical landscape populated by these bands was marked by lengthy, heavily orchestrated songs (Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” clocks in at over eight minutes); highly conceptual and theatrical stage performances (Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” in which a wall was literally built, brick by brick, between the band and the audience during concerts); and elaborate costuming (one word: KISS).

The 3-chord, 2-minute songs of the punk movement shredded these pretensions of arena-rock — just compare the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop,” blazing away at 177 beats per minute in two minutes and twelve seconds, to the aforementioned “Kashmir,” clocking in at an almost epic eight minutes and twenty-eight seconds; in so doing, punk returned rock music to its roots. Leather jackets, ripped jeans, and a horde of self-taught musicians burst onto the stages of CBGBs, Max’s Kansas City, and the Electric Ballroom. In fact, the essence of punk music has always been its bare bones, “do-it-yourself” (DIY) aesthetic, which stood in stark contrast to the contrivances of its mainstream rock music contemporaries.

Yet, as music history has shown, these movements have a hard time sustaining themselves. By many accounts, the punk movement was dead by 1978 — it seems to have burned itself out before it really began. Some, like Simon Reynolds, contend that punk exhausted itself because it really did not stand for anything; rather, it defined itself in opposition of the mainstream. An existence defined only in contrast of something can only thrive for so long. Of course, this is bracketing the overtly political aesthetic of “the only band that matters” (the Clash), as well as the American hardcore scene that also grew out of the quick collapse of punk. Nevertheless, the sonic boom of punk and its emphasis on DIY had a rippling effect on the broader world of music, inspiring varieties of experimentation. Punk rock opened the door for post-punk and new wave, not to mention further sub-genres like no wave and New Romanticism, which flourished in its aftermath.

What is interesting here is that many of the bands considered to be post-punk or new wave were, in fact, contemporaries of punk bands; groups we might consider to be the inheritors of the punk legacy were actually contemporaries. Blondie and the Talking Heads were taking the stage at CBGBs at the same time as the Ramones. But, the rapid ascension and collapse, or co-optation, of punk created the kind of disruption that opened the door for these bands and demanded further innovation. Consequently, there was a proliferation of highly experimental music during the late 70s and early 80s. These new genres played with rock-and-roll conventions in style and implanted subversive content in “pop-friendly” tunes — there is no better example of this latter approach than the entirety of Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ Armed Forces album; one cannot help humming along to “Oliver’s Army” before realizing that it is about mercenaries.

We can draw some insight from this explosion of musical experimentation because we are seeing an analogous moment in higher education. During the late 70s, it may have been difficult to tell which bands were going to survive and which musical experiments were going to flourish in the moment; but, people knew something different was happening, and with some critical distance and hindsight, the true impact of punk became clearer. Similarly, we are in a moment where it is difficult to tell what the future of higher education might be. Perhaps the doom and gloom headlines are partly right. What seems certain, though, is that because of the challenges to the traditional institutions of academia, colleges and universities need to play with pedagogical conventions and offer students radical new forms of learning in order to persist, if not prosper. Yet, at the same time, the seeds of really productive transformations already exist on campuses and are only in need of the right kinds of disruptions to unleash their potential, much like punk helped to disrupt mainstream rock and blow open a window for more experimental music to flourish.

If one looks at the current state of the university system, it is not too difficult to draw comparisons with the previously mentioned musical dinosaurs of the 70s. While still hubs for innovative research, the actual learning that takes place on campuses, particularly for undergraduates, has stagnated over the last couple of decades. Numerous publications have been dedicated to documenting this trend, with Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift being perhaps the most recent and well-known. Yes, more technology has found its way into the classrooms, and it has extended learning outside of the walls of those classes, but technology that is implemented without accompanying conceptual innovation only superficially impacts the learning experience. This is the punk rock moment of higher education — technology has stripped education back to its basics, but it is questionable as to whether it really represents something different beyond just not being brick and mortar. A truly radical change in teaching and undergraduate education has been long absent on campus.

Fortunately, there are signs that change is about to happen, if it is not happening already. A still volatile job market, more ubiquitous ventures in online education — Khan Academy, Coursera, and the aforementioned Minerva, to name only a few of the most familiar — and the public’s questioning (whether rightly or wrongly) of the value of a college degree have created the kind of rupture that should force colleges and universities to evolve in significant ways. The rise of MOOCs and educational alternatives like Minerva poses a particularly interesting challenge to higher education, especially in light of this historical parallel to the 1970s punk/post-punk disruption in music. While MOOCs do not share similarities with the ethos or aesthetics of punk rock, they do share a similar disruptive function. These online platforms effectively render higher education 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.

The bare essentials of online learning remove the frills of higher education. Minerva, for example, seeks to remove the extravagances (no sports teams, fancy recreational centers, or resort-style student unions to drive up costs) of university environments from higher learning. 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. Traditionally, the lecture has been the basic building block of delivering information to students — it has been an efficient and cost-effective way for the faculty expert to impart her knowledge to masses of students. Online education shows that such a unidirectional approach to learning need not take place in an ornate lecture hall with stadium seating. Rather, the essential content of such lectures can be delivered in a streamlined (and streaming) fashion. This is the “DIYification” of higher learning, and it has grabbed hold of the public’s, and many politicians’, collective consciousness.

Coursera, Khan Academy, and Minerva may all have their moment and may very well continue to persist and remain significant as contributors to the landscape of higher education. Regardless of where the DIY and for-profit education initiatives find themselves, one thing remains certain — their approach to education has revealed a stagnation and weakness in the basic teaching models of universities and colleges, which demands a re-imagination of how the familiar spaces of their campuses and their curricula can be radically transformed in both form and content if they also are to remain salient.

But, many institutions are already accomplishing these kinds of transformations by developing novel curricular and co-curricular opportunities to augment the more traditional undergraduate enterprise. Often the infrastructure for these initiatives exists on campuses, and the seeds of innovative approaches are scattered throughout any number of departments and programs. Among the co-curricular initiatives are faculty-mentored intensive research experiences, community partnerships that bring applied learning into the field, hybrid learning spaces that promote hack jams among students and professionals, and an array of labs, workshops, and design spaces that facilitate the development of technical competencies through direct access to specialized equipment and technology (for while online education may lack costly student centers, they also lack lab spaces and research centers).

Perhaps among the more unique examples of such inventiveness in the curriculum are programs that allow students to design their own majors, effectively combining a DIY ethic with the resources available across an entire university. While such programs are not all that new at places like Hampshire College and NYU’s Gallatin School, they are gaining more purchase by taking a radical stance against traditional disciplinary dictates and by empowering students to take ownership of their education. This results in the creation of pioneering plans of study that synthesize knowledge across many fields, and, oftentimes, they are nimble enough to respond to innovations in research and the demands of a changing job market. Such approaches to self-directed learning create opportunities for students to actively engage in ongoing academic experimentation and invention. And, in an era where one is only a few clicks away from vast amounts of information and data, such self-designed and self-directed majors demonstrate an acknowledgement that many students have the informational resources to embark on their education as a matter of DIY. What the “post-punk” university can provide is the means to access, navigate, and apply that information in novel and meaningful ways.

All of these approaches are significant departures from lecture-based models of undergraduate education, and they move learning into new spaces and practices both inside and outside of the university. Again, many of these spaces and practices already exist within colleges and universities; yet, too often, they are disparate and unconnected. They must increasingly be brought together in intentional and experimental ways. In this context, imagine the university as CBGBs in its heyday — an energetic patchwork of new approaches to learning all within a familiar, recognizable space. This would truly signal the merger of novel educational content and novel instructional form that will keep institutions of higher education relevant and riding the “new wave” of inventive forms of learning.