EDUPUNK or, on becoming a useful idiot

I can only imagine that the greatest supporters of this idea [EDUPUNK] are those conservatives who wish to tear down public education.

Now they have useful idiots carrying their water.

I’ve always been an idiot, but I never thought I’d become a “useful idiot,” but it looks like that may be proving to be the case. The above comment on one of the now many, many articles about EDUPUNK has been stinging me for months—and yesterday when I read this article by Glenn Harlan Reyonolds in the Washington Examiner, it seemed that the above comment was absolutely right. Here is a bit from Reynolds’ article that gives you a sense of his vision for Higher Ed:

It may actually make them [students] more economically productive by teaching them skills valued in the workplace: Computer programming, nursing or engineering, say. (Religious and women’s studies, not so much.)
Post-bubble, perhaps students — and employers, not to mention parents and lenders — will focus instead on education that fosters economic value. And that is likely to press colleges to focus more on providing useful majors. (That doesn’t necessarily rule out traditional liberal-arts majors, so long as they are rigorous and require a real general education, rather than trendy and easy subjects, but the key word here is “rigorous.”)

Not only does Reynolds want to gut the education system to become a feeding lot for employers and this nebulous vision of productivity and “economic value” (whatever the hell that means) —but he comes up with that lame ass excuse for a good education, “rigor,” as a means to save liberal arts from the neo-liberal imposed gas chamber. I love how the dismissal of women’s studies, religious studies, and by extension philosophy, english, art history, fine arts, music, theater, and on and on, brings into sharp focus what the neo-liberal vision of an unregulated, free market education might look like: service training for the new de-humanized economy (The Wire, anyone?). What we are seeing is the gentrification of higher ed as an impulse to razing public education though the liberatory rhetoric of innovation and efficiency—only to have the process devoured by the wolves of the free market. And this next quote is the kicker from Reynolds—-and another reason why I can’t read DIY U:

My question is whether traditional academic institutions will be able to keep up with the times, or whether — as Anya Kamenetz suggests in her new book, “DIY U” — the real pioneering will be in online education and the work of “edupunks” who are more interested in finding new ways of teaching and learning than in protecting existing interests.

Reynolds understands the “edpunks” as the useful idiots who very well may help bring the public education system down, and that’s all part and parcel of the framing of EDUPUNKS as the romanticized destroyer—or necessary idiots—who pave the way for the eduprenuers, the ultimate heroes of Kamenetz story. It’s a tough narrative for me to swallow, and I don’t need to read the book to follow it’s arc. But when organizations like NCAT get framed as a solution in terms of efficiency at warehousing their services like box stores, you know the solutions aren’t going to end well.

Part of the beauty of a term or idea like EDUPUNK is that it’s protean, and you can’t control its meaning and interpretation—and I think that’s important and necessary. At the same time, I think a personal intervention is in order (at least for my own head) because an EDUPUNK that devastates public education in service to the unregulated promise of free markets and capital is possibly the worst vision one can imagine. Reynolds compares higher education to the housing bubble, but ironically it was the neo-liberal/libertarian push for the lack of regulations on lending, hedge funds, and shadow banking that led us into the global economic mess we’ve been straddled with for the last two years. I have no faith in the free market, and I think I can say that with a certain amount of confidence these days.

And if student loans are the next bubble to burst, how will the privatization of higher ed (and by extension its transformation into service training) help? The public education system in the US (both higher ed and K12) have been steadily dismantled over the last two decades, and just look at the tuition increases in California’s state system at a whopping 43% (the former gem of high quality public education on the cheap) and it quickly becomes apparent the that education as a subsidized public service is what is really under attack. The average tuition for a public college or university is debilitating for most families, not to mention those with less, and this is a deeply entrenched problem. But I’m afraid the rhetoric behind privatizing education, i.e., efficiency, reduced costs, and curricular freedom, will ultimately accelerate the decline of higher ed into a series of feeding lots for the private sector job market—-which is the worst possible scenario in my mind.

All this does not change the fact that the cost of higher ed has gone insane in the US, but rather than positing the entrepreneur, corporation, or free market enthusiast as savior—we need to recognize that their has to be a third space. There has to be a way for people to organize and share freely and openly through a series of trust networks that aren’t necessarily mediated by institutions. But given so many of the demands of accreditation, and the current expectations for the system as it currently operates, given the choice between grief (a public, subsidized higher ed option) and nothing (the rise of privatized workforce factories), I’ll take grief every time. But all the while continuing to work towards the idea that there can and will be another way outside of this debilitating binary we are working through right now.

Anyone who works within higher education understands it’s not a process of efficiency, and the push for clearly definable outcomes through assessments is voodoo metrics at best. What’s more, technology as some cost cutting measure for teaching and learning is one of the most ridiculous arguments ever, the way universities and colleges have saved on teaching and learning over the last twenty years is part-time, benefit-free labor. And that is the direction these online, privatized universities have taken (think Phoenix U) and will continue to take in the near future, and that actually frames the bigger issue of this whole discussion, to what degree is the dream vision of DIY U a means of further gutting the salaries, rights, and benefits of educational professionals? We’ve gotten rid of the high paying, unionized blue collar jobs over the last three decades, and I can’t help but think that the public professional jobs that have some of those same benefits are next on the chopping block. What we have is an economy disinvesting its own workforce from the bottom up in the name of efficiency, cost cutting measures, and productivity—but in the end we’re all just fodder for profit-driven system that depends up the exploitation of the many for the wealth of the few. Last I checked that’s really not what EDUPUNK was all about, but I don’t write books, so you’re gonna have to take my word on this. I’m not really a useful idiot. I’m not…I’m not….

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24 Responses to EDUPUNK or, on becoming a useful idiot

  1. Brian says:

    From a recent review of DIY U found on

    “Kamenetz, ironically mirroring the corporations that Groom detests, hijacks edupunk for her own ends. Her previous book Generation Debt chronicled her disillusionment after leaving Yale, and finding herself saddled with crushing student debt, and woefully unprepared for the job market. DIY U is her revenge upon higher education…”

    …”Luckily, beyond Kamenetz’s book, there are the edupunks and their fellow travelers. For a sample of their interesting thoughts and experiments with Web 2.0, take a look at Jim Groom’s blog (at ), or the philosophical musings of Barbara Ganley (at, or the University of British Columbia professor Jon Beasley-Murray’s fascinating use of Wikipedia to teach Latin American literature (explained in an excellent essay here:

    Groom, Ganley and Beasley-Murray are all proponents of using new technologies inside and outside the classroom, but for them, and unlike for Kamenetz, those technologies are just tools to be used towards humanistic ends, not ends in themselves (as Groom puts it, “I don’t believe in technology, I believe in people”). This view is far different from the one put forward in DIY U, and could represent part of an actual, viable future for higher education.”

  2. Jim, how can you justify NOT reading my book—any book–out of fear of what it might include? Don’t you want to decide for yourself whether the “edupreneurs” are my “ultimate heroes”?

    That guy didn’t read my book. I didn’t have any student loan debt, and I’m not disillusioned with my experience at Yale.

    I don’t think they are. I wrote the book to give more attention to your and your work. If it turns out that the edupreneurs win this one, it’s because folks like you sat out the conversation.
    With love,

  3. Reverend says:


    I know, I have to read it, but this post focuses more on a single response to your book (and its not totally clear Reynolds read it, mind you) and the morphed idea of EDUPUNK and the way it is being seen as a liberterian/neo-liberal attempt to dismantle what’s left of public education. I’ve been pretty dismayed by how many people have taken personal attacks at you, rather than dealing with the ideas and the book—your character always seems to come into question in so many reviews, and that is nuts.

    In this post, I’m simply struggling with how an idea might get co-opted by a whole series of forces and groups you could have never imagined—kinda like Rage Against the Machine becoming the frat party soundtrack. But, in the spirit of dialogue, I’ll read your book and respond in kind—you know I am nervous about the economic focus of all this, but I think its time to sit down and read-so you gotta deal. And no personal attacks—I promise, it is the summer of love after all 🙂

  4. I totally, totally respect that feeling and that fear, and let’s keep talking about it.

  5. Matt says:

    I have always wondered how people can say that some kind of bursting of the Higher Ed bubble will change anything. What exactly did the bursting of the housing bubble change in the housing market? Ummm…. they got rid of a few bad ideas on the fringe, but the main system stayed in place. And is now re-bounding (depending on who you listen to). So how is a bursting of the higher ed bubble going to change anything?

    The whole idea of open education and do-it-yourself learning is starting to sound more and more like just simple revenge on higher ed. I think there are some good ideas in there, so I won’t toss out the whole idea… but I am getting a little tired of the obvious spirit of revenge that is beginning to permeate the whole idea.

  6. Reverend says:


    I find the idea of “revenge” in regards to the critiques of the state of higher ed right now kinda fascinating. And while I trust Anya when she says that was not her intention, on a broader level the whole revenge motif actually fits cleanly into an argument about gentification and the “cleaning” up of our major cities (a process of getting rid of rent control, running various groups out of the main cities, etc.)—all in the name of reclaiming the city from the “savagary” of crime, filth, and general decay. Neil Smith actually talks about this idea of the role of revenge in this process, and I wonder what you make of it. Here is a quote from his book The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City:

    Revange in French means revenge, and the revanchists comprised a political movement that formed in France in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. Angered by the increased liberalism of the Second Republic, the ignominious defeat to Bismarck, and the last straw, the Paris Commune (1870-1871) in which the Paris working class vanquished the defeated of Napolean III and held the city for months – the revanchists organized a movement of revenge and reaction against both the working class and the discredited royalty. This movement was as militarist as it was nationalist, but also made a wide appeal to ‘traditional values’ … it was a right-wing movement built on populist nationalism and devoted to a vengeful and reactionary retaking of the country.

    Might the cleaning up of higher ed, and the struggling with it structure, be in many ways such a movement of taking back highered? I would argue for some it may be, but the larger issue I have with revenge as the sole explanation for the hostility emerging against institutions is that it ignores that fact that many of the critiques out there right now are fair. Universities do have a monopo’y on accreditation, they are crazy expensive, and are often not preparing us for the realities of our moment. I’m struggling with trying to balance these realities, and it’s proving pretty hard.

  7. I feel somewhat culpable too, because your initial post put the suspicion of corporatism front-and-center, and I feel like my post later that night tried to balance that a little more equally with the DIY ethic — tried to make these things roughly equal. For me they are inseparably entwined — Maker culture, lo-fi, punk, Freeganism — none of these movements are used as tools of free enterprise. In all of them the DIY element empowers you to live life the way you want to, regardless of what people are trying to sell you. That’s the ethic in the DIY ethic for me — setting your own agenda rather than buying one prefab.

    So why should we put these two things side by side, right — the DIY ethic and the suspicion of corporate appropriation? Aren’t they intertwined in that same way?

    Except with education, there’s a difference, because there’s a bunch of public money floating around in it, and everybody wants some of it, either as a budding market or a tax rebate. So … well, difference.

    If the recording industry in the 70s had been publicly financed, the Sex Pistols would have been managed by William F. Buckley.

    As far as joining the debate — I’m not sure the debate wants me. I think it’s very quickly mapped onto the same old political divide, and I honestly don’t know if explaining this is even possible.

  8. I also want to make a belated apology for de-capitalizing the term. That was mistake number one.

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  10. Jon K. says:

    After it’s brief mainstream popularity in the late 70’s, punk went underground for most of the 80’s until it gained enough groundswell to support it’s re-emergence in the 90’s. In the 80’s there was a whole underground eco-system that supported itself. Maybe edupunk goes that way… open education until someone figures out how to monetize it (and buy it all up).

    Until then, I hope y’all will keep doing interesting things, that make a difference, and everything else can stay out of the way.

  11. While I share your angst, I think this doesn’t have to be so bad, but we have to put it in perspective. First of all, part of the problem is that the traditional 4-year liberal arts program was never designed to scale to meet the needs of every single American. We have turned “vocational” into a dirty word, making it all or nothing for higher ed. Really, we should have other tracks that allow those who really want and need to focus on bettering their lives economically. The trick is to execute a soft landing from this bubble, or at least to minimize the carnage, so that we can create alternate paths for those students who need them without removing the option of a liberal arts education for those who need *that*.

    Second, one of the reasons that vocation has become a dirty word is that we have separated most people from control over the means of production. Consequently, economic/work life is perceived as being divorced from meaningful, personal life for most people. This doesn’t have to be the case. Consider, for example, the Institute of American Indian Arts (, where student can learn about their cultural heritage while learning to become independent artists and artisans. (I happen to be writing this from Santa Fe.) That’s an obvious connection between work and personal life, but really any employee-owned business has the potential for that kind of integration. Education can bring more than just economic well-being; it can bring economic empowerment.

    I also think that Anya’s response to this post on her own blog ( is spot-on with regard to academics needing to participate in and even demand university cost control. If we look at the rising cost of college, there is just no reason to believe that a good college education *has* to cost that much. We need to figure out where the bloat is and take responsibility for getting rid of it. If you want to talk about useful idiocy, the worst, most enabling thing we can do is to continue to fail to take responsibility for the cost of college education.

    Whenever there is big change, there is always a tug of war to define that change between the progressive and regressive forces. Co-optation is an inevitable hazard. It seems to me the best way to avoid being either paralyzed or victimized is to (1) consistently reflect on your own moral responsibilities, (2) always engage in dialog with the opposition (which means never ceding the field), and (3) don’t let the opposition divide and conquer. “Edupunk” is defined as much by the “edu” as by the “punk.” There can be disagreement among allies. As Benjamin Franklin said, “If we do not all hang together, then we shall surely hang separately.”

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  14. Matt says:

    Michael F – you make some excellent points there. I also think that many degrees, such as English and Philosophy majors – were never made to be as popular as there are. There will never be as many viable job openings in those two fields as there are graduates.

    Also, to John K – you speak as if the resurgence of the wimpy wanna-be-pop-punk of the 90s was a good thing 🙂 (I say that as a fan of the 70s and 80s punk, so take that with chip-on-shoulder fully intended).

    Anyways, to go to Jim’s question about revenge… good question that I can only reflect on and not come up with good answers. Just because someone acts out of revenge… that doesn’t mean they are wrong like you have said. But can they sustain change over the long term? I am fearful that ultimately the drive for revenge will cause them to keep going to unhealthy levels.

    Take accreditation as an example. Someone that has been burned by it in the past might push to get rid of it totally. The problem is not accreditation – we need something that proves that people have learned what they are supposed to. The problem is, like you noted, the monopoly that higher ed has on it. But revenge might drive someone to throw out the baby with the bath water. Revenge is sometimes compared to the different forms of cancer that actually makes people feel better and more energetic and all that in early stages… because it is attacking areas of the brain that control pain or fatigue. But eventually, it ends up killing them if it isn’t dealt with. That is the problem I see with revenge – at first, it might seem like people seeking revenge are doing the right thing, but in the long run it will probably end up going off the rails in some bad way.

    No matter what, higher ed is going to be slow to change. I probably shouldn’t have said “simple revenge” – it is never that simple. But I think we are getting to a point that those who are just motivated by revenge are going to be exposed as such. those that truly want to “take bake higher ed” will (hopefully) rise to the top.

    I think that the idea of having a place where people who want to gather an intellectually explore various ideas – which is really the core of a “university” – is a great idea. We need a few changes though. 1) It needs to become “okay” in society if people don’t want to do that… or wait until later in life to do so. 2) the whole system needs to become open, affordable, and interactive with the community around them. 3) professors need more accountability for not just lecturing and wasting time. I think we still need to let people be academics as a full time profession – but they need to be kept more on their toes 4) “continuing education” needs to become part of the process… not some rejected step-child tacked on as a pity mission of the university. If you want to just jump into the discussion at some point for a year or so, even if you have been out of “college” for 40 years – you should be able to do that with out all of the red tape of becoming a student again.

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  23. A couple of quick thoughts here…its late and I’m a middle school edupunk teacher so I’ll keep it short.
    -the power structure has a rich history of using/manipulating counterculture for its own ends – hippy California LSD music military etc..hip hip weed drugs prison
    -we have to always keep d. Boon’s quote formost: punk is what we made it to be.
    -handwringing in any form is never punk no matter how old we all get!
    – I love ds 106 and anything mr groom decides to deconstruct.

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