Kids do need education

29th August 2008 at 01:00
Rote teaching to pupils in military-style rows may soon be extinct, but popular music keeps the image alive

"We don't need no education," droned Pink Floyd in their 1979 song "Another Brick in the Wall". Three years later, it became part of a film, accompanied by images of featureless pupils traipsing in line through a school recast as a hellish sausage factory - the pupils literally providing the meat.

Decades later, the song retains its potency: the 2003 film School of Rock used "We don't need no education" as a tagline; in 2006, a dance remix by Eric Prydz brought the message home to a new generation.

School is commonly portrayed in pop music as a place of drudgery and conformity to be escaped from, or even destroyed, claims Peter Cook, a senior education lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford, who recently addressed "The Teacher: Image, Icon, Identity", an international conference at Glasgow University on representations of teachers in film, music and literature.

The irony is that such portrayals of school are becoming outdated in the West, thanks to attempts to champion creativity, such as Scotland's A Curriculum for Excellence. Mr Cook believes it is crucial for educators to prove that the institution derided in pop music has changed - or else children will be at the mercy of increasingly malign influences outside the classroom.

He said the image of the teacher in the Pink Floyd film, The Wall, was clear: "authoritarian, conformist, sadistic, militaristic, and scornful of individual creativity".

But it was not an isolated case. In the 1950s, as teenage culture emerged in early rock `n' roll, school featured in many songs, invariably as "a boring, annoying experience, to be endured until the important things in life: crazy music, dance, and romance, can be accessed afterwards".

In his 1957 single, "School Day", Chuck Berry derided the teacher with her "golden rule" who "don't know how mean she looks".

In the 1960s, a burgeoning counter-culture led young people to reject the values and institutions of their elders, school included. The Beatles sang in "Getting Better" that teachers "weren't cool" and were "holding me down" and "filling me up" with their rules. Mick Jagger, a former student at the London School of Economics, boasted of being "schooled with a strap right across my back" in The Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash".

By 1972, Alice Cooper had gone beyond mere rejection of traditional education: in "School's Out", school had been "blown to pieces".

Such sentiments derive power from a tradition that extends far beyond rock `n' roll. Songwriters, albeit largely unconsciously, were continuing from poets such as Coleridge and Blake, who despaired of school in the 18th century, the latter, in The Schoolboy, complaining that to go to school on a summer morning "drives all joy away!"

Mr Cook stressed that not all teachers were being targeted - it was the teacher who demanded "conformity, passivity and subservience" who should be rejected. But while education in the West had "moved on from the post- war schools that provoked such a damning response in young rock musicians", scorn of school has become so deeply ingrained in pop music that it persisted to today.

Nickelback, in 2005's "Photograph", sang of having better things to do than go to school, such as breaking into school. Last year, Velvet Revolver, in "Just Sixteen", described "in fairly pornographic terms a teacher's illicit attraction to a student".

Mr Cook fears that the shift in Western education - towards "knowledge, creativity, personal growth and fulfilment, community, tolerance" - is struggling to contend with the increasingly malign influence of popular culture, which is drawing students in "towards selfishness, isolation, misogyny, racism, violence and cruelty as entertainment, and a cowboys and Indians mentality that divides humanity into goodies and baddies".

He cited computer games based on war and martial arts; iPods with headphones which "effectively cut people off from their immediate surroundings and from other people"; films showing images of torture and sexual abuse; and the linking of Islam with terrorism and political extremism by some branches of the media. He believes there is a "war of values" that education has to win, by convincing pupils that "we have their best interests at heart, that we care for them to become fulfilled individuals" - that they do need some education.


"I want a house with a poolShorter hours in school" Teenage Heaven, Eddie Cochran (1957)

"You can miss out school - won't that be cool?Why go to learn the words of fools?" Itchycoo Park, Small Faces (1967)

"Now I ain't foolin' when I say I had no schoolin'" Tattoo'd Lady, Rory Gallagher (1973)

"All I learned at schoolWas how to bend not break the rules" Baggy Trousers, Madness (1980)

"Belligerent ghoulsRun Manchester schoolsSpineless swinesCemented minds" The Headmaster Ritual, The Smiths (1985)

"Won't you believe it?It's just my luckNo recessYou're in high school again" School, Nirvana (1989)

"`Do you think you're better than the other kids? Well, get outside'You've got permission, but you've got to make the bastard think he's right" Expectations, Belle and Sebastian (1996).

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