Henry Rollins Pitches Education as the Key to Restoring Democracy

Hen­ry Rollins had dropped out of col­lege and was work­ing at a Haa­gen-Dazs in Wash­ing­ton, DC when he joined the sem­i­nal L.A. hard­core punk band Black Flag in 1981, a career move that would shape the rest of the singer/author/actor/activist’s life. And although he left high­er edu­ca­tion for a more indi­vid­u­al­ized path, Rollins has a very high regard for the poten­tial of a good edu­ca­tion to change peo­ple’s lives.

We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured Rollins’ moti­va­tion­al Big Think talk to young peo­ple on the dan­gers of resent­ment. In the short, but equal­ly inspir­ing, talk above–from the same set of inter­views–Rollins describes edu­ca­tion as the engine of a demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety, “the great equal­iz­er.” For Rollins, edu­ca­tion is the key to a “more vig­or­ous democ­ra­cy.” And although he makes some arguable claims about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of edu­ca­tion­al reform to sub­stan­tial­ly dimin­ish the effects of insti­tu­tion­al­ized racism and pover­ty, his view of what an edu­ca­tion should be cor­re­sponds to what edu­ca­tion­al reform­ers have stressed for decades—that mov­ing to a focus on crit­i­cal think­ing, rather than “teach­ing to the test,” is a shift that needs to hap­pen in order for stu­dents to become curi­ous, inten­tion­al, and inde­pen­dent learn­ers and, ulti­mate­ly, free and inde­pen­dent cit­i­zens.

Rollins spec­u­lates that cer­tain polit­i­cal actors and vest­ed inter­ests delib­er­ate­ly block edu­ca­tion­al reform to main­tain the sta­tus quo. Whether or not you accept his analy­sis, there’s no deny­ing that the state of pri­ma­ry, sec­ondary, and high­er edu­ca­tion in the U.S. is dire, and the func­tion­al effi­ca­cy of our demo­c­ra­t­ic process seems con­stant­ly in jeop­ardy. Allud­ing to the dic­tum attrib­uted to Thomas Jef­fer­son (who may not have actu­al­ly writ­ten this) that “An edu­cat­ed cit­i­zen­ry is a vital req­ui­site for our sur­vival as a free peo­ple,” Rollins believes that edu­ca­tion­al reforms offer “the way out” of our cur­rent polit­i­cal grid­lock and of the despair­ing sit­u­a­tions under­priv­i­leged peo­ple are born into. I think he makes a pret­ty com­pelling case in just under four min­utes.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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