So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Teacher

By Drew Lindsay — January 01, 1999 20 min read
Hendrix, Madonna, and Marilyn Manson. Do they belong in the high school curriculum?

Paul Friedlander steps onto the auditorium stage and looks out on what promises to be a tough crowd. It’s the first day of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s summer institute for teachers, and though Friedlander is one of the program’s headliners, his introduction elicits only a smattering of polite applause. Some of the teachers don’t even bother to put down their morning coffee to clap. Many of them are cranky; a snafu earlier in the morning left them cooling their heels for some 30 minutes at their downtown Cleveland hotel, waiting for the vans scheduled to shuttle them to the day’s events at Cuyahoga Community College.

Undeterred, Friedlander moves to the front of the stage and goads his audience. “Give it up. C’mon. You’re rock ‘n’ roll teachers.”

Over the next week, the institute’s participants will have ample opportunity to test whether they are indeed rock ‘n’ roll teachers. The museum has prepared a jampacked schedule of lectures and workshops, all with the goal of advancing rock music as a subject of serious study and a legitimate teaching tool. Friedlander, it soon becomes apparent, is one of the institute’s most ardent evangelists. Director of the music industry program at California State University at Chico, he is a musician, a pop-music historian, and author of Rock and Roll: A Social History, which is recommended reading for the institute. He’s also a baby boomer who’s lived much of the history he studies. Growing up in New York City in the 1950s, he hung out with street-corner doo-wop groups and played banjo in Greenwich Village cafes. In the 1960s, he heard Hendrix at Woodstock, a fact that gives his rock résumé the ultimate stamp of authenticity.

These days, though Friedlander’s hairline is in full retreat, his heart still seems to belong to a rock-crazed teen. At one point during his lecture, he blasts Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” from the auditorium’s sound system and bounds across the stage, banging out chords on an air guitar that bounces up and down on his middle-age paunch.

Though Friedlander eventually settles into his lecture, his thoughts flit here and there, dancing on unseen currents as he turns for inspiration to Plato, Aristotle, an obscure scholar named David Shumway, and even Thomas Jefferson. But his message is clear: In today’s media-saturated society, it’s critical that kids learn to decipher the messages that Hollywood and Madison Avenue deliver through television, videos, movies, and pop music. Rock may not be education’s fourth R, he says, but studying it is becoming every bit as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Some will scoff at the idea of rock in the classroom, Friedlander warns the teachers, but don’t be swayed. The study of rock will teach kids critical analytical skills, and it will bridge the generation gap that makes teachers seem like aliens to students and vice versa. That gap may seem huge, Friedlander says, but music shrinks it to nothing. Cueing up the ‘70s-era Led Zeppelin song “Whole Lotta Love,” he proclaims, “I can guarantee you that 90 percent of your students will jump up and start boogieing to this.”

In his influential 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom blanched at the idea of kids boogieing in the classroom. Education, he proclaimed, “is the taming or domestication of the soul’s raw passions.” And rock, with its throbbing beat and suggestive lyrics, “has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire.”

More than a decade later, it is perhaps inevitable that rock music would make a bid for legitimacy in the classroom. In the early 1990s, Vaclav Havel spoke of rock as a key liberation force in the Czech struggle for freedom and confessed his love for Lou Reed and Frank Zappa. About the same time, Bruce Springsteen began a remarkable metamorphosis from Jersey Shore rocker to poet of the people, hailed on the cover of the New York Times Magazine as “Steinbeck in Leather.” And today, pop diva Jewel has certified rock’s literary impact by passing off what reads like excerpts from her diary as a bestselling collection of poetry.

With rock’s star so surely on the rise, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum opened three years ago in Cleveland. Designed by modernist I.M. Pei with a helter-skelter floor plan and largely glass exterior, it is a slick shrine to guitar heroes and rock stars. But it’s also a museum, and as such, part of its mission is to educate. The museum targets teachers with most of its education programs, which include conferences, tours, a newsletter, and publications like 1997’s “The Times They Are A-Changin': Teaching the 1960s Through Music.” If rock is ever to be accepted as a subject worthy of serious study, museum officials believe, teachers must be the first converts.

This is the third year of the teachers’ institute. Next summer, the museum hopes to go global and put the workshops and lectures online. But for now, it will have to spread the word to the 50 or so hardy souls who have pilgrimaged to Cleveland. Nearly half of them are from Ohio, but there are also teachers from Georgia, California, and even Alaska--15 states in all. Most are English or social studies teachers, but there are also a few music teachers and one PE teacher who says she wants to use rock to teach drug awareness.

Most of the attendees are boomers who talk about the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album in reverential tones. But there are also Gen Xers who think Natalie Merchant is pretty righteous. Though everyone seems to like rock, some are clearly aficionados. Allan MacDougall could easily be lecturing at the institute. He’s taught an American culture course with a generous rock component at a Brookline, Massachusetts, high school for more than a quarter century. With ample girth, overflowing beard, and long, graying hair pulled back into a ponytail, he’s vaguely reminiscent of one of rock’s patron saints, the late Jerry Garcia.

After decades of concert-going and collecting rare bootleg recordings, MacDougall now must contend with rooms in his house literally stacked floor to ceiling with albums. Indeed, museum officials are eager to sift through his treasures for artifacts. MacDougall’s most prized possession: a dime that Smokey Robinson used to fix a microphone during a college concert.

MacDougall and his colleagues need little convincing that rock works in the classroom. Bill Clinton won the votes of teenagers with his 1992 MTV campaign stop, and the teachers figure to win their minds with a similar ploy. “You have to try anything to reach these kids,” says a teacher fresh from his first year at a high school. “At least anything that won’t get you sued.”

The heart of the institute’s instruction is a history of rock ‘n’ roll delivered over the five days by Bob Santelli, the museum’s education director. Though a former college professor, Santelli is the antithesis of tweed. His hair is a thick, blond, Robert Redfordesque mane, and he’s dressed smartly in black pants and a yellow, open-collar shirt with a white T-shirt underneath. He’s finishing work on a Ph.D. from New York University’s prestigious American studies department, but just after graduating college in the early 1970s, he toiled as a substitute teacher in New Jersey. Assigned to some rough schools, he found that talking about rock and its lyrics helped him reach kids quickly. “It got me through,” he tells a handful of teachers during a break one day. “It saved me.”

Perhaps it’s inevitable that rock would bid for legitimacy in the classroom. After all, pop diva Jewel has successfully turned what reads like diary excerpts into a bestselling collection of ‘poetry.’

As he opens the institute, Santelli says, “We’re going to have fun, no question about it.” But it’s obvious during his first talk that he’ll leave the merriment to others. He stalks the stage for nearly two hours, speaking extemporaneously yet never straying from an outline as precise as an architect’s blueprint. He is a wonderful lecturer, and the teachers dig his message.

Rock is worthy of study, Santelli argues, because it is a mirror in which we can see American history play out. The roots of rock, he notes, stretch back to the songs of the African slaves working on plantations in the 1600s. Over the years, rock has become America’s biggest cultural force, he contends, and at times it has shaped change as well as reflected it. Exhibit A in this argument: Some of the first whites to embrace the civil rights movement grew up listening to black music. As teenagers in post-World War II America, they had rejected the Bing Crosby crooning in the family living room, retreated to their bedrooms, and tuned in the newly invented transistor radio to black-music stations.

Rock is a uniquely American experience, Santelli argues. “We’ve come to understand that this music is who we are,” he explains.

Over the five days of the institute, other speakers echo the idea that using rock to teach is a good thing. Ann Powers, a New York Times rock critic, urges the teachers to show kids how to analyze music videos. And Tim Connors, an adjunct professor at Case Western Reserve University Law School, suggests that attacks on rock as a demonizing force offer teachers a ready-made lesson on censorship and the First Amendment.

For counsel on the meaning of music to kids, the institute calls on Jonathon Epstein, a sociologist at Southern Indiana University and author of the book Adolescents and Their Music: If It’s Too Loud, You’re Too Old. Wearing an earring and reddish hair flooding well past his shoulders, Epstein appears as if at least part of him is still trapped in his teenage years. “Yeah, yeah, I know. I don’t look like a professor,” he says by way of explanation. “But I’ve looked this way since ‘72, and everybody else is used to it.”

His rambling talk focuses as much on his own teen years as on the modern headbanger. A Jimi Hendrix devotee in the late ‘60s, he gravitated to the synthesizer sounds of Rush in the early ‘70s. At the time, he thought the band’s lyrics were really deep; now, he says, “I realize they were just badly interpreted Ayn Rand.”

When Epstein’s talk turns to today’s teenager, he urges teachers to take note of their students’ taste in music. It may offend your ears, he says, but music is what they use to navigate their adolescence, and it’s a repository of clues about who they are. A kid who listens to Slayer or other thrash bands whose lyrics tout violence and Satan probably isn’t about to shoot up a school cafeteria, he says. “But it is a sign that they are troubled.”

If Allan Bloom’s rock-as-sexual-stimuli theory is correct, Joe Knap has been revving up his students’ hormones for more than a quarter century. Head of the English department at Bay High School in Bay Village, Ohio, Knap is one of seven local teachers brought in by the museum to give pointers to institute participants on teaching with rock. In between lectures, these teachers lead workshops in which they offer sample lesson plans as well as personal testimony about how rock has helped them reach seemingly unreachable kids--the skate-boarding slackers, the too-cool-for-school crowd, and the body-pierced, dressed-in-black kids who wear bad attitudes like badges of honor. Talk to these kids about rock, the teachers say, show respect for their music, and you may stir their dormant interest in academics.

Knap first deployed rock in the classroom in the late 1960s when he found himself teaching his elective class on poetry to empty seats. The revamped course, “The Poetry of Rock,” drew an overflow crowd that included the principal. “He showed up at the door daily,” Knap says. “It became kind of a joke; the kids kept a running tally.”

In one of his institute workshops, Knap tells the teachers how he uses the lyrics of Jimi Hendrix to demonstrate literary devices and teach students to mine poetry for common themes. Odd as it may seem, Hendrix’s mourning over the death of a loved one in “The Wind Cries Mary” actually makes a nice segue to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”

Of course, rock lyrics don’t measure up to the Greats of Literature, Knap says. But they’ll hook kids. “Hendrix is not Blake,” he explains, “but Hendrix is an introduction to Blake.”

At another workshop, Jim Lane, a veteran social studies teacher at Orange High School in a Cleveland suburb, describes how he turned the 1995 flap over the Joan Osborne song “One of Us” into a lesson on the Protestant Reformation. After reviewing Martin Luther’s protest against the Roman Catholic Church, Lane discussed the controversy over Osborne’s lyrics, which included: “What if God was one of us?/Just a slob like one of us?” He broke the class into groups and asked each to research the views of a key Reformation figure--John Calvin, Henry VIII, and the Pope, for example. Then he had each group prepare a presentation responding to Osborne’s song in the guise of the person they had studied.

After the kids completed the unit, Lane says, “they understood what all the fuss was about. Our two or three days on the Reformation, which would have been dry as dust, was instead memorable. I don’t know if it was more meaningful, but it was certainly more memorable.”

Such success is a persuasive rebuttal to Bloom. The museum’s Web site at offers even more ammunition to counter the scholar. Posted there are more than 50 sample lesson plans, including a unit discussing the Vietnam-era protest songs as primary historical sources, a study of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath through songs about protagonist Tom Joad by Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, and the heavy metal/hip-hop band Rage Against the Machine, and a hip-hop introduction to the use of allusion in literature.

If nothing else, these lessons demonstrate that using rock in the classroom is a valid teaching strategy. Rock can fire kids’ imaginations as well as their libidos, and teaching with it can spark substantive learning. Traditional teaching of history stresses politics, war, and legal landmarks, but an exploration of social history--how cultural forces such as literature and music both reflect and influence events--enriches students’ understanding of the past. And at a time when many kids are tuned out to school, rock seems a perfect medium through which teachers can excite kids about learning. “You have to hit them where they live,” Lane explains.

But teaching with rock is a strategy that also has limits, limits that the institute’s leaders in their missionary zeal either ignore or downplay. To their credit, virtually all the speakers warn the teachers to avoid the temptation to introduce kids to rock classics. “It happens all the time,” Santelli says. “Teachers come out of courses like this one all excited. They want to play ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and Bob Dylan. And that’s the worst thing you can do. If you want to reach them, you have to start with contemporary music and work backward.”

Still, the institute as a whole seems to embrace a vision of rock as it bloomed in the ‘60s. Those were undeniably the glory days of the music, a time when the songs captured what seemed like a world gone mad. The sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War were turning the country inside out, exposing blinding ugliness and beauty at the same time, and rock artists were there to try to make some sense of it all. Arlo Guthrie, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, and Bob Dylan were not celebrities or “personalities” trying to entertain; they were the voice of the counterculture movement. Within the lyrics of these icons, young people found deep meaning and even hope. “People looked to rock in the ‘60s for answers,” Santelli says.

Odd as it may sound, Hendrix’s ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ makes a nice segue to Poe’s ‘The Raven.’

Whether rock today wields such cultural force is a matter of debate--a debate that’s important for any teacher wondering whether spinning a few CDs in class will turn their kids on to learning. There is no doubt that rock has a strong grip on American adolescents. Teenagers spend an average of about 20 hours a week listening to music--twice as much as they do watching television, according to Teenage Research Unlimited, a market-research company in Northbrook, Illinois.

“Music is still the most influential thing in a teen’s life,” says Lori Majewski, senior entertainment editor of Teen People magazine, which puts rock and pop stars on roughly half of its covers. “They listen to music when they wake up, they listen to it in the car on the way to school, when they come home, while they’re doing their homework. It’s the soundtrack of their lives.”

But if rock is the king of youth culture, its supremacy is no longer a given in a world increasingly fixated on the visual. Teens are some of the most active computer users, spending an average of nearly nine hours a week playing video and computer games and surfing and chatting online, according to Teenage Research. Hollywood, meanwhile, is cashing in on kids’ obsession with television and videos; ticket sales to kids fueled the record profits of the movie Titanic, and teen loyalty props up the fledgling WB television network and its pubescent-driven shows, Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Just as youth culture has changed since the 1960s, so has the recording industry and the music itself. The 1970s saw rock divide and multiply until there were nearly a dozen new subgenres, among them the soft rock of James Taylor, the progressive rock of Yes, and the southern rock of the Allman Brothers. That fragmentation has accelerated over the years to the point that the rock landscape is pocked with as many factions as Beirut in the ‘80s.

Donna Gaines, a sociologist and expert on youth culture at Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City, says teens today fiercely identify with their favorite genre or subgenre of rock, whether it be hip-hop, techno pop, rap, grunge, alternative rock, rockabilly, or punk. Any teacher who introduces music into the classroom risks sparking a war among these subcults, Gaines warns. “They’re almost psychotic about their bands. It’s going to be very difficult to teach with the music unless you find a way to represent several of the subcultures at one time.”

Teachers enrolled in the institute echo Gaines. Kids today have tunnel vision about music, says Allan MacDougall. “It’s always: ‘My music is good, and everybody else’s sucks.’ Fights can be healthy, but many times kids are not open to other music.” Another teacher spoke in one session of her frustration at trying to introduce the boys from her rural Georgia school to the music of lesbian rocker Melissa Etheridge. “Anytime I even mention her name,” she said, “their minds shut down automatically.”

Perhaps more problematic for the teacher intent on a serious study of rock are the changes in the content of the music since the ‘60s. Rock may be a mirror of history, as Bob Santelli suggests, but what plays on the radio today seems more a mirror of teen angst. Absent from most playlists is the rock anthem, where guitars and vocals scream out against some social injustice. In its place we have the rock whine, a song whose core is nothing but the refrain of “life sucks.”

The Who’s Pete Townshend once defined rock this way: “If it screams for truth rather than help, if it commits itself with a courage that it can’t be sure it really has... then it’s rock ‘n’ roll.” Clearly, by that definition, most of what plays on the radio today is cotton candy. Indeed, much of it amounts to anti-rock. Take the music of Jewel. She is a singer with broad appeal among teenagers--"The girls like her lyrics; the boys think she’s cute,” said one teacher at the institute--and she’s established her gravitas by landing A Night Without Armor, her book of poetry, on the New York Times bestseller list. Yet her songs are not about repression, injustice, or poverty so much as they are about... Jewel. Her poems are much the same; writing about her grandmother, she gushes: “I hope her breasts were admired as mine are/Two silver deities/Two shining steeples/Giving testament to the sky.”

Of course, the tamest groups and cuts have dominated the airwaves for years. But even bands and artists who cop the rebellious, parents-be-damned attitude that is rock’s trademark are less likely to rail about truth and courage than they are to complain about their own pitiful lives. New York Times critic Jon Pareles recently wrote about what he called the “anathema” bands, groups who win teen loyalty with dress and lyrics designed purposely to shock and outrage adults. In the ‘80s, Pareles notes, these bands sported Satanic-sounding names like Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer and wrote songs denouncing “deadly, soul-crushing forces--state and parental authority, random violence, conformity.” Anathema bands and performers of the ‘90s--of whom the cross-dressing Marilyn Manson is probably the best example--do more navel-gazing than rabble-rousing, Pareles argues. They “have taken their strategy from Bill Clinton: They feel your pain, or at least a lot of their own. They are abject figures, more victims than brutes.”

That’s not to say there’s not music imbued with the same sense of social awareness as the rock of the ‘60s. Hip-hop and rap lyrics speak volumes about race, repression, and poverty in America. And the female singers who have come to prominence in the ‘90s--Alanis Morissette, Sarah MacLaughlin, and even Jewel--occasionally address divorce, sexual abuse, and other emerging social issues. But with a handful of multinational corporations controlling the recording industry, such music is not as ever-present as it once was. As a result, music’s power over teens is more diffuse, argues Paul Fischer, a professor in the recording industry program at Middle Tennessee State University. “I don’t think the power is a mass phenomenon as it once was. You’ve probably got to go looking for it. It doesn’t find you.”

Of course, not everyone subscribes to the notion that rock’s power has waned. Washington Post rock critic Richard Harrington flatly rejects the idea that the music has less influence on teens, arguing that they are even more music-obsessed today than they were in the ‘60s. The elaborate Internet sites and Webzines they build to honor their favorite artists put the fan clubs of yesteryear to shame, Harrington argues.

What’s more, the notion that rock in the ‘60s packed a more powerful social message than it does today may be an exaggeration born of nostalgia. Bands like U2 and Public Enemy write lyrics that stand up well against the songs of that era, Harrington contends. “There is a lot of music that has some sense of message and social consciousness. There just isn’t a counterculture movement to give it a presence that it had in the ‘60s.”

Still, teachers might be wise to pay heed to the words of Jann Wenner, a founding editor of Rolling Stone, the magazine that first recognized rock as a cultural art form worthy of serious journalism. Wenner once said: “You can intellectualize about a lot of rock and roll music, but it’s primarily not an intellectual thing. It’s music, that’s all.” Interestingly, Rolling Stone in recent years has broadened its coverage to include television, movies, and other pop culture. What was once the bible of rock is now as likely to feature a naked nymph from TV on its cover as the latest guitar hero.

Of course, Paul Friedlander has made a career of intellectualizing music. Wrapping up his lecture at the institute, he takes his listeners to the high ground, arguing that at stake in the teaching of rock is no less than the Founding Fathers’ concept of a pluralistic democracy. Jefferson believed it is the job of schools to prepare citizens to make educated and responsible decisions, Friedlander says, and the citizens who cannot decipher the music and media messages swirling around them will be at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace of ideas that is America. “It is vital to all of our futures that present-day students become discriminating consumers and advocates for a democratization of our society,” he argues.

But after Friedlander solemnly sells the teachers on the sanctity of the task ahead of them, the corners of his mouth pull up into the grin of a mischief-maker who knows he’s pulling a fast one. To close his lecture, he rolls a video of a live performance of the Rolling Stones. The song? “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll.” As Mick, Keith, and the boys shimmy on a big screen behind him, Friedlander moves to the front of the stage again, clasps his hands behind his back, and smiles.

PHOTO: Springsteen: Born again as populist poet
--Charlyn Zlotnik /Michael Ochs Archives/Venice, CA
Jewel: A navel-gazer, but not a rabble-rouser
Marilyn Manson: Feel my pain
--Michael Ochs Archives/Venice, CA