City Journal

Heather Mac Donald
An F for Hip-Hop 101
At El Puente Academy, progressive education’s quest for “relevance” produces mighty strange results.
Summer 1998

As the M train crawls toward Brooklyn over the Williamsburg Bridge, it traverses a gauntlet of graffiti. Scrawls cover every surface of the bridge—from the aging wooden trestles all the way up to the central towers, so impasted with spray paint that they appear made of lace. The cupola of a church, visible from the train, wears a graffiti crown of thorns. So it is sadly fitting that below, directly in the shadow of the bridge, students at a Brooklyn public high school are learning how to write graffiti for academic credit.

"I don't know what happened with this piece," instructor Edgar Miranda says impatiently, as he scrutinizes a student's design for "bombing" a subway car, or covering it head to toe in graffiti. The scribbles don't hang together as an artistic whole, Miranda frets. Another student fares much better. "This piece is dope," Miranda enthuses in up-to-the-minute street slang, praising a design of a smoking man on one side of a subway car with a whale-like bubble on the other. "You've actually used 'characters'"—graffiti terminology for human figures.

Welcome to Hip-Hop 101, at El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, a course that teaches students not only how to write graffiti but also how to deejay at parties, break-dance (a once popular form of street gymnastics), and emcee or rap. These four activities make up the ghetto-born movement known as "hip-hop culture." Hip-Hop 101 students carry around the traditional graffiti vandal's "black book" in which to perfect their personal graffiti "tag." Do they transfer their learning to the real world? "I have no knowledge of it, nor do I care to find out," instructor Miranda laughs. But of course, the answer is both predictable and easily within reach.

A quick glance around El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice would suggest that a course in hip-hop culture is about as needed as Viagra at the high school prom. El Puente is a small, very friendly, emphatically non-traditional alternative public high school, crammed into every cranny of an abandoned church in the Hasidic and Hispanic neighborhood of Williamsburg. The billowing denim, the beepers, and the designer logos on the school's mostly Hispanic student body suggest a keen awareness of every nuance of ghetto culture.

But El Puente is not about to let mere redundancy stand in the way of a class as trendy as Hip-Hop 101, for the academy is the very embodiment of progressive education, and Hip-Hop 101 is progressivism made flesh. El Puente calls its teachers "facilitators," considers the collaborative student group the foundation of learning, and organizes its curriculum around large, politically correct themes, like sweatshops or the connection between sugar and slavery. Also quintessentially progressive is the central role political activism plays in the school's mission. El Puente evaluates students on their commitment to "social and economic justice." The students have demonstrated such commitment by protesting a local incinerator as "environmental racism"; as part of El Puente's after-school program, they will soon staff a center intended to help the garment workers' union, UNITE, organize workers. Executive director Luis Garden Acosta summed up the school's philosophy to Newsday in 1992: the school is "not just about reading and writing and math," he said, "but it's also about wellness, career development, housing, racial justice, and peace."

This may seem a large agenda for a small school, but Acosta is used to thinking big. After serving in the administration of New York mayor John Lindsay in the late 1960s, Acosta joined the Young Lords, a militant Puerto Rican gang whose 13-point platform included such demands as the abolition of capitalism, "liberation for all Third World peoples," and "armed self-defense and armed struggle [as] the only means to revolution." Acosta has become more Establishment since then, but his rhetoric, with its talk of "education for liberation," contains much of the old fire.

For progressive idiocy, nothing beats Hip-Hop 101. The course is a classic example of student-centered learning. Rather than imposing a fixed, traditional curriculum, student-centered learning argues for letting students pursue their own intellectual interests (though assuming they reliably have any is, of course, the first mistake). In the 1960s, this doctrine picked up a new catchword: students and teachers alike began demanding education that was "relevant" to youth, especially urban youth. The result? Courses in ghetto culture—of which Hip-Hop 101 is an extreme example—that reinforce the parochialism of inner-city kids rather than open their minds to broader intellectual worlds.

Hip-Hop 101 epitomizes ed school progressive claptrap in a second respect: its implicit lack of concern toward El Puente students' glaring educational deficiencies. These students have a very tenuous command of basic skills. The school's average SAT scores in 1997—385 in verbal, 363 in math (out of a possible 800 in each)—lagged far behind the city's already abysmal average of 443 in verbal and 464 in math. During a non-traditional mathematics class, the students were stumped by the concept "at least." The phrase "There are at least as many adult men as adult women on a wagon train" means, they agreed, that there could be fewer men than women. The phrase "There is at least one child per family" means "There is no more than one child per family," explained one girl with brown lipstick and long tendrils of hair.

Any school administrator not blinded by the folly of progressivism would put such pupils on a strict regimen of real language study, filling their ears with the best examples of English prose, as well as drilling them on basic math. To spend any class time studying and writing rap lyrics, with their street slang and obscenities—not to mention studying graffiti and deejaying—is an unconscionable diversion from the students' real educational needs.

Unfortunately, Hip-Hop 101 is no aberration. Desperate for "relevance," teachers across the country swamp rap groups such as Run-DMC with requests for lyrics. In New York, many teachers use rap lyrics as a way of "relating to where [the students] are," in the words of a teacher at Park West High School. Graffiti instruction is not yet as widespread, but it's a worrisome portent that Columbia University's Teachers College, the fountainhead of progressive-education gospel for the city and the nation, invited Edgar Miranda to give a presentation on Hip-Hop 101 last December. And El Puente's foundation support—the school has received thousands of dollars from the Annenberg Foundation—gives it the stamp of Establishment approval. Hip-Hop 101, then, provides a troubling benchmark for how far the trivialization of contemporary education can go.

How could a school so lose its moral bearings that it cheerfully teaches illegal activity? Hip-Hop 101's pedigree includes not just progressive pieties but also the 1960s' widespread belief that crime was a quasi-political protest of the oppressed. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, graffiti started metastasizing across New York City, quickly evolving from runic "tags" scrawled on mailboxes and walls to huge multicolored murals covering every inch of the city's subways. And just as quickly, the elites began romanticizing it. New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg declared the commission of graffiti a "necessity for entering the art scene." Norman Mailer, America's premier guru of adolescent rebellion, brayed that with each graffiti "hit," "something in the whole scheme of the system gives a death rattle." A New York magazine cover story in 1973, called "The Handwriting on the Walls: Should We Love It and Leave It?" cheered the "first genuine teenage street culture since the 1950s" and sneered at the "executive in his camel's hair coat," who cringes in subway cars with windows and interiors wholly blackened by paint. Did graffiti make the working stiff and office clerk feel besieged? So much the better, the elites gloated; they're faceless conformists anyway, whereas graffiti "artists"—they're authentic! Naturally, all the fawning media attention merely increased the incentive to "tag."

Soon enough, the media discovered that graffiti was part of a bigger, more exciting movement: hip-hop. In the seventies, many of the kids who were spraying subway cars were also staging open-air discos in Bronx parks. They would plug their sound systems into light poles and compete at deejaying—not just playing albums but also producing odd sounds by scraping the record with the stereo stylus. Eventually, they started talking over the instrumental breaks in songs, a practice known as emceeing or rapping.

Competition was fierce. "If the crowd didn't like you, you might get shot at," rapper Grand Master Flash recalled in 1983. Early raps celebrated partying and sexual prowess or railed at ghetto conditions. To accompany the rapping, kids spun and twirled like dervishes in a form of street dance called break dancing or B-boying. Here, too, the line between artistic competition and ordinary street violence was sometimes thin. "A [dance] battle would get you into a fight," former break-dancer Steve ("Mr. Wiggles") Clemente told the Washington Post in 1995. "[Crazy Legs, another break-dancer] got his jaw broken. He got jumped, I got jumped. Now we're more mature."

The graffiti vandals, rappers, and B-boys organized themselves into "crews," somewhat less criminal forms of association than gangs. Some ended up break-dancing and spraying graffiti murals at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center; most turned out less glamorously. Almost half of all 15-year-old graffiti writers apprehended in 1974 had been arrested three years later for burglary and robbery. Says one survivor of the late 1970s graffiti and break-dancing scene: "[A lot of us] were stickup kids, things like that. We all did our foul stuff also."

In the early 1980s, film crews and reporters descended on Washington Heights and the South Bronx to capture this movement. Sure, graffiti was colorful and break dancing energetic, but what really attracted the media was hip-hop's attitude and style. As rap impresario Bill Adler has explained: "The meaning of [rapper] LL Cool J, whatever his explicit message is, is 'I'm young, I'm black, I don't sing, I don't smile for the camera, I don't wear a tuxedo, and I'm still making stupid dollars.'"

The elites ate up such contempt. Hip-hop, Time magazine enthused breathlessly in early 1983, was "black, young, and ineffably, unflappably cool, . . . like spray-painted murals down the side of a New York City subway, or a ghetto blaster carried on a shoulder broadcasting 130 beats a minute all over a Bronx street." Time swooned over "rapper flash . . . the jeans, the leathers, the heavy personalized belt buckles, even the jewelry," and tittered knowingly at ski cap "legends like i'd rather be skiing [that] refer not to snowy slopes but to white mounds of a certain illicit inhalable substance."

Today, rap music has overwhelmed all other aspects of hip-hop culture. Defeated in the subways, spray-painted graffiti has slunk back to walls and telephone booths, its glamour dulled. Break dancing may as well be a minuet, for all its current attraction to teens. Yet hip-hop, defined now almost exclusively as rap and attitude, is stronger than ever. Not only does it generate billions of dollars annually in record, video, and clothing sales, but it puts food on the table of many a professorial home, whose owners reciprocate by conferring on hip-hop the impenetrable jargon of the academy. Sample, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania's Houston A. Baker Jr., former president of the Modern Language Association: "We meditate the legal 'X' of erasure not in an effort to assume the role of latter-day phenomenologists—but to consider the inversive and brilliant powers of symbolic transformation possessed by African-Americans."

Progressive-education theory, then, may have put Hip-Hop 101's "facilitator," Edgar Miranda, in the classroom, but three decades of graffiti glorification and ghetto romanticization have given him his lines. Miranda is a wiry and articulate 27-year-old, with a narrow face and dark eyes framed by heavy glasses, goatee, and ponytail. His vintage graffiti cant is untouched by the broken-windows thesis or insight into the seriousness of quality-of-life crimes or any of the other advances in our understanding of public misbehavior. Miranda has a personal stake in graffiti glorification. "When I did graffiti," he recalls nostalgically, "I was making a statement. I was poor and small and grew up on public assistance."

In promoting graffiti, Miranda uses the favored strategies of academic apologists everywhere: false analogy (graffiti is like "hieroglyphics or petroglyphs in Caribbean caves"; "my students are learning an arts discipline, like if I asked them to draw a still life"); romanticization (graffiti is a "cry for notice: 'I'm still here!'"); and changing the subject.

Changing the subject—or the "root cause" strategy—is the most useful ploy. "To talk about graffiti," Miranda says, "you must critically look at the socioeconomic resources of the community." Or: Youths do graffiti because they "don't see themselves in a positive light on the news." (How defacing property will improve youths' image, Miranda doesn't explain.) Some "root causes," however, are taboo. In laying out the deficient "resources" of the community, Miranda observes: "If you give yourself a tour of a New York City housing project, you would find table-hockey tables in the community centers missing the plastic parts." Well, aren't the deprived youths themselves the "root cause" of those missing parts? "You can't solve the problems in one week," Miranda responds philosophically.

Invoking root causes allows Miranda to evade the biggest blind spot in graffiti glorification: the impact on the property owner. Why, I asked him, should a small property owner bear the costs of cleaning up graffiti? "You're missing the larger question," Miranda shot back. "Why are young people painting on this building?" Miranda never answered the smaller question.

Actually, Miranda does have a solution for the small property owner—reach out to youth. Artists are starting to gentrify the area around El Puente. Remember that, according to Miranda and every other graffiti glorifier, graffiti is, above all, artistic expression. And yet, oddly, Williamsburg's new residents don't recognize graffiti vandals as fellow artists. In fact, according to Miranda, they're downright offended when their doors get tagged. One friend of Miranda's, however, "trips out" his fellow artists, Miranda says, because he has the only untagged door on his block. The reason? He has "reached out" to youth. "Young people see these [new residents] as invaders," Miranda explains. Their response: "'What are you doing here?' Ta! Ta! Ta!," Miranda cries, mimicking the blasts from a can of aerosol paint.

But why should the burden be on the property owner to "reach out to youth" as a precondition of unmolested property? Small business owners, in particular, find New York's hostile business climate overwhelming enough; to demand that they also engage in youth outreach to ensure a graffiti-free storefront is extortion. I asked Miranda if his graffiti students would be allowed to tag El Puente Academy. No, he replied,"how we look at it is, they don't tag their own home," and El Puente is like their home. It turns out that graffiti is rich artistic expression as long as it's on someone else's property. Miranda may get the opportunity to test his convictions soon, for he is planning to buy a house in Williamsburg. I ask him: If someone tags your house, does that make you an oppressor? "I don't want to get down on the person," he says, beneficently. It would be interesting to know how long his open-mindedness will continue, if local teens decide to "resist the economic conditions of youth" on his front door. For now, however, his graffiti and hip-hop gospel is unsullied by conflicting loyalties.

One day last April, Hip-Hop 101 met in a bright classroom at the top of a narrow staircase. The students sat in a large semicircle, pressed up against the far walls of the room; Miranda, wearing a black Young Lords T-shirt inscribed with the slogan every generation carries the struggle forward, lectured in front. Ironically, Miranda is a neat, organized teacher with terrific graphic skills and a fairly strict classroom manner. Rather than putting the students in collaborative groups, he uses a question-and-answer format. Students take exams and write research papers. But there, any similarity with traditional education ends.

Take the exams, for example. These tested the students' knowledge not of history or literature but of graffiti principles. In one, the students had a mere ten minutes to execute a sketch for "roasting" a subway car—a clever simulation, no doubt, of real-world conditions. In another, the students had to produce a more elaborate full-color mural on an 11-by-17-inch stencil of a subway car-like target practice on a human outline. "Points were taken off if they did fill-ins" or violated other graffiti conventions, Miranda explains. That day in April, Miranda individually examined those few students who had actually completed their graffiti assignments ("What are the style, elements, and theme of this piece?"). The students were supposed to write a short essay addressing these questions; few, if any, had done so.

Such academic conventions add up to a "fine arts" course, rather like studying the Renaissance, Miranda claims. Just for the record, it does not. Leaving aside for the moment the all-important question of illegality, graffiti remains, with few exceptions, a crude (if energetic) form of visual expression.

During Miranda's one-on-one student conferences, the rest of the class, directed to practice their individual graffiti tags in their black books, just sat passively, waiting for the next part of the class. That came quickly, since there were so few graffiti murals to examine. Before closing out the section on graffiti, Miranda once again quizzed the class: "When we talked about hip-hop, we talked about its four elements-graffiti, emceeing, B-boying, and deejaying. Who can describe what graffiti is?" "The expression of selves," answered one student. "Artistic expression," chimed in another. Good, they've got it. Time to move on to break dancing.

Either out of good pedagogy or because there is so little substance to Hip-Hop 101, Miranda frequently reviews material from previous classes; evidently, classroom drill, anathema to progressive educators, is permissible for subjects dear to facilitators' hearts. After drawing a lovely freehand map of the Western Hemisphere on the blackboard, Miranda recaps a lecture on the transmission of African culture to the Americas. The students remain a bit confused over geography. Asked why a dance, the capoiera, began in Brazil, one student answers that the slaves were going north in the underground railroad. So crammed are today's students with the by-now iconic figures and institutions of the abolitionist era—the only historical figures they've reliably encountered—that these keep popping up in inappropriate places. When Miranda asks for manifestations of African culture in the United States, the students volunteer, correctly enough, songs and spirituals. But then they keep going with the underground railroad, Harriet Tubman, and the code name "Moses"—all only distantly related, if at all, to Africa. Such free associations suggest that what these kids need most is history, not hip-hop, but that is not the agenda here.

From his thumbnail sketch of early African-American culture, Miranda jumps to the present. "How is hip-hop similar to or different from these elements?" he asks. To get the class thinking, he writes "Gangs, Crews and Family" on the board and asks them to respond. Except for the mention of "drugs," "cops," and "fighting," the image of gangs that emerges bears more resemblance to the Elks than to the perpetrators of drive-by shootings. Family, however, receives the highest marks. As one student explains: "Family is like something you should keep real with. Your gang can only go so far with you; your crew and your family can go all the way with you." Not the ideal endorsement, perhaps, but an endorsement nonetheless.

Next, Miranda quickly traces the emergence of break-dancing crews from street gangs, mentioning in passing the noble, communitarian origins of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. Then, it's time for that staple of modern education: watching videos. Miranda recycles even these, popping in for quick review two videos that the students have already watched. In the first, a 1983 PBS documentary on graffiti, the camera pans over massive graffiti murals as the cheerful narrator, who sounds as if he just stepped out of a 1960s educational film of the Better Living Through Chemistry ilk, extols the hip-hop state of mind he calls "rocking." "For graffiti artists," he explains admiringly, "it's rocking the city with your name on the train; for the B-boys, it's rocking the mike." The scene shifts to a dance floor on which two break-dancing teams compete by writhing and spinning. One boy moons the competition; another finishes his number by grabbing his crotch.

In the next video, a low-budget movie from 1984 called Wild Style, a terrified-looking white woman with platinum hair and a string of pearls wanders woodenly through a throbbing black club scene. As a rapper in a turtleneck chants: "I'm proud, I'm proud to be black, you know," the blonde tentatively starts smoking a joint and swaying to the beat. Bing Crosby in blackface could not have come up with a more stereotypical portrayal of blackness.

However devoid such videos are of intellectual content, nothing so fully conveys the educational vacuum that is Hip-Hop 101 as the students' "research" assignments. Miranda had brought into class heartbreakingly neat file folders, filled with carefully copied articles from such fan magazines as Rap Pages on such topics as the "neglected but not forgotten West Coast graffiti scene," deejays on the black-run New York radio station Hot 97, and up-and-coming Latino hip-hop. To write their "research paper"—on "pioneering artists in hip-hop"—the students had merely to pick out a few articles and summarize them.

Nothing in this assignment comes remotely close to offering the slightest shred of education. Miranda's students may sense, however remotely, that they are being shortchanged. I asked a student who was sitting slumped in his chair why he had not responded to Miranda's call to pick up some articles. "I got those magazines in my house, too," he answered, contemptuously.

Now what is the payoff from this craven capitulation to anti-intellectualism? Virtually nothing. Student-centered education promises to deliver excited, involved learners. None of those was in evidence at Hip-Hop 101. Students slouch in their chairs, eyes glazed, though at least they are not disruptive. No one bothers to open a notebook, much less take notes. Miranda might as well be translating Sallust, for all the "active learning" going on. And students still hand in assignments late and incomplete.

So the bargain has proved hollow. Progressive educators jettison the great body of Western learning in a desperate bid for students' attention, only to find the same blank looks and poor performance said to be the natural outcome of dead languages and white male Anglo-European authors. Debasing the classroom with the most superficial aspects of contemporary culture is no guarantee of student interest.

What Hip-Hop 101 has guaranteed, however, is a future supply of graffiti "artists" in the city. El Puente officially denies this. Alpha Anderson, the school's courtly assistant principal, says quite sincerely: "I don't think anyone has the right to spray-paint your property; we don't advocate that." Miranda is far less straightforward: "I'm not telling them what to do and what not to do." Such calculated neutrality is hardly convincing. But even if Miranda had tried to discourage real-world application of his lessons, it is preposterous to think that a course lionizing graffiti vandals will have no effect on its students' graffiti production.

Miranda's refusal to intervene in his students' extracurricular activities has an unimpeachable source: progressive-education ideology. "Following [Marxist pedagogue Paolo] Freire, I don't have the power to tell a young person what to do and not to do," Miranda asserts. "I can give them the tools"—an unfortunate image—"and they find the path. If I tell a child, 'don't, don't, don't,' they'll say, 'Why always No?'" But the role of a teacher, despite progressive theory, is precisely to exercise intellectual and moral guidance; once that is abdicated, education is not possible.

Well, Miranda may not care to find out, but how are his students applying their knowledge of graffiti principles? I ask a tall boy in a big jacket, who has been sitting low in his seat, legs splayed, throughout the class, to show me his black book. It is filled with scribbles resembling tangled fishing wire. "I've been practicing my Gs," he explains. Like many of the class's budding graffiti "artists," "Jigga" (the boy's nom de can) is modest about his accomplishments. "I just started with graffiti—on phones," he says, "but I'm not a pro yet." Who decides if you're a pro? I ask him. "If you will look corny, [then you're not a pro]," he replies. But who judges? "Yourself and what people say about your pieces." Jigga knows what he needs to do to become more professional: "More style, more graphics. When you write bubble letters, it's wack, it's corny. You have to be [more] creative."

Like any downtown artist, Jigga seeks exposure. "You go writing everywhere, because the more you get around, the more famous you are." Are there any samples of his work in this neighborhood? I ask. He nods. Jigga obviously does not shrink from competition, since the area around El Puente is already tagged to saturation.

Another boy has not yet made his professional debut, but he intends to. "You take a plain wall and make it look so magnificent," he says dreamily. Like Jigga, this husky boy knows his artistic limits: "When I first started [practicing], it was kind of corny, but I'm getting better at it. I want feedback." Where will he debut? "Well, I live on Coney Island," he hints.

Not all Miranda's students share such artistic ambition; some, in fact, repudiate the message that graffiti is art. One baby-faced boy, who got 100 on his subway mural exam, says he doesn't like graffiti: "It's just messin' up other people's property." But many students are convinced that doing graffiti represents a career path. "These are established artists," a boy with a nascent mustache tells me. "If a kid wants to start developing himself, they do travel, if they make it big." Another adds: "People do get hired. Pepsi . . . Marvel . . . and a clothes line, PMB, was started by three graffiti artists."

Youth culture can be cruel, however. For all Miranda's street talk and cool demeanor, he is already obsolete. One student, asked what he thought of the class, responds witheringly: "I'm not going to comment. I expected to learn how to professionalize on the lettering, but I already knew everything." Another student agrees: "Most of the stuff in the class I already knew. It was more like a refresher." There is a lesson here for anyone who dares teach popular culture to teenagers: don't bother—you'll be behind before you even begin.

Hip-Hop 101 is on the same spectrum as other progressive-ed nostrums, not in a world of its own. That a school could embrace a practice both illegal and destructive of the city's spirit is a troubling indication of how far the educational system has lost its bearings. Desperate to show "sensitivity" to minority students and to create subjects in which they can unequivocally excel, schools have cast aside responsibility for academic and moral education. The decision to teach graffiti is also the natural outcome of the inclusion of contemporary popular culture in the curriculum. Once you shrink from distinguishing Montaigne from Madonna, it becomes indefensible to make distinctions within low culture and exclude aspects of it that some benighted segments of society deem illegal.

El Puente's teachers and administrators are clearly well-meaning, but they could not have designed a course more likely to keep their students down than Hip-Hop 101. Meretricious and evanescent, hip-hop "culture" is simply not something that schools should waste a single second on when facing children as ignorant of the wider world as El Puente's are. But cutting-edge educators are sleepwalking through the apocalypse, seemingly indifferent to the educational meltdown we face.

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