Pink Floyd, Education, and Modernity
— Adarsh Badri, Vivin Nair
‘We Don’t Need No Education’ — a catchy first-line of a Pink Floyd’s 1979 release of ‘The Wall’ became an instant hit spanning multiple boundaries and reaching an audience that had never heard of the band before. The popularity of the album reached new heights with the release of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part-II)” in the early 1980s so much that numerous schools had to issue a ban on the song.
Roger Waters, a lead bassist and lyricist of the band, wrote the three-part song lyric, expressing his personal experiences in the form of a story of a character called Pink. The song did not only capture the reality of educational institutions but also deep-seated human beliefs and the authoritative institutionalisation of individuals.
The essence of the song could be captured in “We don’t need no thought control,” which expresses rebellion towards the school education and its indoctrination and conformity towards a rigid, predefined path of learning and knowledge. And such an institutional indoctrination makes us just “another brick in the wall.” Much of these ideas echo Orwellian sentiment towards a system that constantly feeds you with what to think and feel.
In the work, Pink Floyd and the Philosophy, George A. Reisch succinctly puts forth: “It is not an attack on education per se.” It was an attack on certain teachers, who torment their students with ridicule. And it is an attack on education when it becomes indistinguishable from ‘thought control.’ For instance, in a subject of History, the teacher becomes a tool of production of correct citizens – the ones that hold ‘right’ opinions and ‘patriotic’ beliefs – that do not question the status quo. It is in this context, Norman Douglas wrote: “Education is a state-controlled manufactory of echoes.”
With the “Birth of Modernity,” the school system began to introduce a certain form of mannerism. It taught the students ways to express the most profound human emotions, developed a new standard of behaviour – where self-discipline over desires and emotions became a civilised form of conduct. The enlightenment project gave the modern world with the pedagogy of learning, which established a uniform grading-system, a certain doctrine of teaching-learning, merit, and the examinations.
In the words of Dennis O’Keeffe, “Modernity is the combination of capitalism and democracy. Its economic core is based on property rights, which mobilise the organisation of resources. It also requires mass education to select intellectual talent for a complex division of labour.” As a result, our education system tends to create individuals that are suited to benefit the capitalist structure. In the process, the school system indoctrinates us into what makes of a good student and a bad one.
All-day long, the students do nothing, but follow instructions – solve so and so questions, add these numbers, multiply the other, do your homework, and stop talking. The industrial-age mentality of mass production and mass control is deep-seated in our school system. At schools, one is awarded for doing exactly as you are taught.
As children, our aspirations are destroyed to fit in a system that our society deems us to be. In the process, a child is taught to learn alphabets as A-for-Apple, B-for-Ball, C-for-Cat, instead of A-for-Apple, B-for-Big Apple, C-for-Custard Apple, for an Apple loving child. The creativity of a child is suppressed in such an education system. The students have become products in a factory – with labels of a good product and a bad product – that are evaluated by a standard grading system.
In his work, The One World Schoolhouse, Sal Khan refers to a phenomenon known as “Swiss-cheese gaps.” We are taught multiple subjects in our prime days of schooling that we never really learn anything inquisitively. When a child is taught multiple subjects at school, he might show interest in a particular subject more than the other. Since the evaluation is based on ‘a minimum score’ required to pass, the student may end up only learning things in bits and pieces. The students have been constantly pushed ahead regardless of their mastery over a topic. And when this process is continued for several years, all the knowledge that a student might have acquired makes little sense.
Examinations – a mechanism that evaluates what gets written, how it gets written, and how not to write something – legitimises such an education and the values associated with it. The education system based on inauthentic rote learning, staying up all night to memorising useless facts that are forgotten the next day, and evaluating children based on their test scores is an acutely inhumane exercise. Thus, some children are tagged as dumb and others are praised as intelligent.
We are all a product of such a system. A system that judges a fish by its ability to climb a mountain. It rigidly curtails one’s interests, their ability to critically think, and propose a pre-defined path that most likely result in ‘another brick in the wall.’
The society we live in is changing rapidly, but our education system hasn’t changed much for hundreds of years. It is mired by an industrial-age mentality of churning out factory workers. However, we live in an Information Age. In the era of rapid unabated information flow, our education system also needs to tailor to individual needs and interests.
In the years that follow, there is a need for an education that is digitised, automated, interactive and individual-centric – with the pace of the learner. There has to be an increased encouragement towards peer-to-peer learning in the school system. Ceteris paribus, we don’t need no education that controls our thoughts.
Disclaimer: Adarsh Badri is a Masters student at the University of Delhi, and an author of a forthcoming book, the ‘Republic of Reservation’. Vivin Nair is an alumnus of the London School of Economics, and a Smart City Fellow with Government of India.