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Pink Floyd, Conformity and the History of Public Education

Updated on March 26, 2014

We don't need no education.
We don't need no thought control.
No dark sarcasm in the classroom.
Teacher leave them kids alone
Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it's just another brick in the wall.

These lyrics written by Pink Floyd's bassist Roger Waters seem shocking. And even more shocking when a children's choir sings them. They seem anarchist and dangerous. However, they're none of those things. The website sums up the song with this sentence:

Pink continues to speak out against the cruel teachers of his childhood whom he blames for contributing more bricks to his wall of mental detachment.

Rather than condemning education, Another Brick in the Wall (part 2) condemns abusive teachers and educational methods designed to turn kids into unthinking drones.

For Waters, the rote learning and sadistic delivery of his school teachers produced little more than faceless, social clones who knew the definition of an acre yet who could not produce an original, imaginative thought.

Not only is the song not saying education is unnecessary, it isn't even saying that conformity is a bad thing. After all, destroying a destructive educational system requires conformity in the sense that society must deem it harmful and demand change. Conformity can be a positive or a negative depending on what everyone is conforming to.

Childhood Before Public Education

Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research professor at Boston College laid out a brief history of education for Psychology Today. He pointed out that expecting strict conformity from children goes back to the rise of agriculture. Children in hunter-gatherer societies had plenty of free time to play and explore. Farming required long hours of unskilled labor that was often done by children. Many families had large numbers of kids meaning older siblings had to engage in childcare and help with cooking and cleaning. The labor of children was important to the survival of the family.

In the Middle Ages, with the rise of feudalism, children were often in servitude to lords and kings. These kids worked long hours, were often physically abused and their lives were valued less than their master's animals. Children had to suppress their own desires and be completely obedient.

Things didn't get any better during the industrial age. Business owners needed laborers and even very young children were employed. Many worked long hours seven days a week in dark, crowded, and dangerous factories. Thousand died every year from diseases, accidents and exhaustion.

For thousands of years, children were valued largely for the labor they provided. Unending hours of work required children to conform and be obedient. Allowing children to think for themselves, be individuals, play and explore was in no way beneficial to adults. Finally, in the 19th century, England passed laws putting restrictions on child labor. As factories became more automated less laborers were needed and child labor started to die out.

Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd
A one room schoolhouse
A one room schoolhouse

The Rise of Public Education

Now that children weren't needed to provide labor the idea that childhood should be devoted to learning started to take hold. The push for compulsory education started in some places as early as the 16th century. Martin Luther believed that salvation depended on reading the Bible, so everyone had to be able to read to know what the scriptures expected of them. Luther and other Protestants supported public education as a means to save souls. During the 17th century Germany required all children to attend schools run by the Lutheran church. Something similar happened in 17th century Massachusetts. Schooling was made compulsory as a means to turn all children into obedient Puritans.

Employers started to see schooling as necessary for creating a workforce that would be taught how to follow directions and engage in tedious labor. Nothing more than basic reading, writing and math skills were needed. Politicians saw public education as a way to create patriotic citizens and future soldiers. They believed children should learn about the greatness of their nation and the virtuosity of national heroes even if those lessons weren't always historically accurate.

While children left behind labor for education, they were still expected to conform to lots of rules. Education was not about what was best for the individual child. It was based on what churches, employers and national leaders felt children should become. Who children wanted to be and what they wanted to become was irrelevant. The methods used to make children good farm and factory laborers were transferred to schools. While short recesses were allowed play was not valued. John Wesley discouraged play in Wesleyan schools because:

he that plays as a child will play as a man

Children weren't allowed to think for themselves and were verbally and physically abused to ensure their compliance. They spent their days engaged in rote learning of material that would make them better citizens, factory workers and Christians.

The Importance of Play in Learning

It was this environment that Pink Floyd took issue with and condemned in Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2). Education was not about what was best for children. It was all about molding children to satisfy adult agendas. Modern economies require far fewer mindless automatons who are told how they should think and behave. Visionaries, dreamers, problem solvers, leaders and those who can think outside the box are becoming crucial in a knowledge economy. Many teachers, especially at the elementary level, have a nurturing rather than dictatorial relationship with their students.

Play is an important part of learning
Play is an important part of learning

We now know that play is a very important part of child development and that sitting quietly at a desk memorizing facts, while it has it's place, isn't always the best way to learn. Play helps children develop better motor skills, improve cognitive abilities, promote creativity and develop social skills. Look at Legos as one example. When building with Legos children learn to think in three dimensions. Building houses and cars out of rectangular shaped blocks promotes creativity. Figuring out how to build a structure that doesn't fall apart easily promotes problem-solving. Some schools are now using Legos to teach engineering knowledge and skills.

This is not to say that schools have become completely child-friendly. High stakes testing now starts at the elementary level. Schools are punished if their students don't perform well, so enormous amounts of pressure are placed on kids. Some children feel so much pressure, they're throwing up from stress. In America, teenagers are the most stressed of all age groups. So, perhaps things haven't improved a lot since Waters penned his protest song in 1979.


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    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 3 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Very informative and thought provoking Hub! I also agree that playing can be an important learning tool. Concerning this fact, I think it is interesting that many companies are developing gamification methods to train new employees. The traditional methods don't always work.

    • Hackslap profile image

      Harry 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Have always loved the video for Another Brick in The Wall ... good analysis here..

    • Learn Things Web profile image

      Learn Things Web 3 years ago from California


      Games and videos are very effective learning tools as are hands on activities. Sometimes books and memorization are effective but they don't work for everything.

      Thanks Hackslap. I've loved this song since I was a kid.

    • cheaptrick profile image

      cheaptrick 3 years ago from the bridge of sighs

      The full movie 'The Wall' is exceptional.This is the best translation of 'Floyd Talk' I've seen yet.Congrats

    • Learn Things Web profile image

      Learn Things Web 3 years ago from California

      Thanks cheaptrick.

    • Shinkicker profile image

      Shinkicker 3 years ago from Scotland

      I really admire Roger Waters, one of the most intellectual and thought-provoking Rock stars in the business.

      Nice Hub, combining the history of education with the Pink Floyd song.

      Voted up

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