Diversity and Democracy

Education in a Mash-up Culture

I've been thinking a lot about the "mash-up" as a metaphor for how so many of us try to lead our professional and private lives today. The mash-up, of course, is a digital remix of existing images, text, sound, and other elements into some new work. In life, the analogue is the intentionality with which so many of us create and fashion ourselves over time by engaging with religions, cultures, and traditions from periods and places different from our own.

Misha Charles
Misha Charles

To be certain, this collaging of the old to form something new is hardly novel. What, after all, would the Roman Empire have been without the crossroads of the Mediterranean? An Earth, Wind and Fire concert without a swirl of the ancient and futuristic? And we all know that the remix has long been a staple of hip-hop. What is new, I think, is the effortless zeal with which ordinary folks today, fueled by the Internet, peacefully pursue new ideas, information, culture, and technology, seeking to interact and blend with it rather than simply consuming or appropriating it.

Lawrence Lessig, the founder of Creative Commons and a leading figure of the Free Culture movement, gave a brilliant talk in March 2007 on this new culture and the Internet's role in driving it. Lessig described what he calls a "read-write culture," where the reader, aided by modern technology, is a participant and shaper (writer) of content. He celebrated the democratic potential of cultural production enhanced by widespread access to twenty-first-century technologies and urged his listeners to embrace the inevitable shift toward a read-write model.

Indeed, evidence of mash-up culture is everywhere. It's in Malian artist Rokia Traore's fusion of African, European, and U.S. styles in her music. It's in the work of artist DJ Spooky, whose recasting of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation is overlaid with hip-hop beats and the haunting sounds of a string quartet. It's in the global reach of the hip-hop community, in the user-driven content of YouTube, and in the spirit of shared Google apps. A few months ago, a colleague forwarded me an article about a New York gallery's recent "S&M: Shrines and Masquerades in Cosmopolitan Times" exhibit, which was a hodgepodge of cultural iconography from the United States, Africa, and elsewhere. Of the pieces mentioned in the article, one was an image of Michael Jackson's face painted onto Ghanaian cloth. Another was a tent that functioned as a shrine, a workshop, and a home--in the words of the writer, an "Afro-futuristic vision" that "owe[d] as much to Sun Ra as to the quilters of the American South and tribal crafts" (Cotter 2008). Intriguing.

So what are the implications for education? It seems to me that schools, colleges, and universities around the world have the responsibility of ensuring that all students have access to the shared wealth of remixable "content" in our world, and that they be equipped with the tools to engage respectfully and responsibly. The role of educational institutions will be especially important in the case of underserved students, many of whom (unlike Rokia Traore, who is the daughter of a diplomat) are not regularly exposed to the world beyond their villages, "hollers," neighborhoods, or cities. For these students, the education sector must spark and feed curiosity, provide access to the Internet and other forms of multimedia, create prospects for exchange (between cities, states, and countries), and provide opportunities to learn abroad. For these students, educational institutions must be, quite literally, their means for plugging into and engaging with the world.


Cotter, H. 2008. A multicultural swirl of Africa, the Americas and even outer space. New York Times, December 2. www.nytimes.com.

Lessig, L. 2007. Larry Lessig on laws that choke creativity. Speech presented at TED2007 conference, Monterey, CA. www.ted.com/talks/larry_lessig_says_the_law_ is_strangling_creativity.html.

Editor's note: This article originated in a March 12, 2009, posting on Full Agenda, Misha Charles's personal blog on education and politics (fullagenda.blogspot.com). The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Keene State College.

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