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Another Brick in the Wall

Tags EducationMedia and CultureThe Police StateInterventionism

01/14/2010William Sievert

[Originally published as "Song that's driving teachers up the wall" in Libertarian Review, Vol. 9, No. 9 (September 1980), pp. 42–43.Download PDF]

The British Band, Pink Floyd's song, "Another Brick in the Wall" has been banned in South Africa, ignored by some radio stations in the United States, and attacked by schoolteachers all over the globe.

Yet the song has become the world's most popular rock record of 1980.

"Another Brick in the Wall," sung as an eerie chant by a children's chorus that backs up the band, is the centerpiece of a gloomy concept album, "The Wall," in which Pink Floyd lyricist Roger Waters charges that Western society uses its schools and other public institutions to build an impenetrable wall of destructive social conditioning around the individual.

While the song is not the first example of the antieducation theme in popular music, it comes at a time when increasing numbers of students are questioning the value of their education. Thus, young people are responding to the song with uncommon — and unsettling — enthusiasm.

In May [1980], the South African government banned the song — and the album — "because "Another Brick" had become the anthem of a national strike of more than 10,000 "coloured" (mixed) students and their white supporters. The students had been protesting the inequality of spending on education for the various races, as well as "intimidation" by teachers, whose authority the Pink Floyd song challenges. The government ban forbids radio stations to play the record, stores to sell it, and individuals to own it.

In the United States, educators in several states have tried — with some success — to have the song removed from the play lists of radio stations. Says Hope Antman of Columbia Records in New York,

The radio resistance has been surprisingly strong. Stations started getting angry calls and letters from teachers and principals and school boards claiming that "Another Brick in the Wall" was creating a crisis in their classrooms.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the record "is still very hot," said KSAN's Pierra Robert, a programming assistant, who said it was being played on "everything from rock stations to disco stations."

"We Don't Need No Education" graffiti has appeared on tunnel walls in the Sunset District of San Francisco, and its refrain has echoed through the lunch hours at private, Jesuit-run schools in the city.

Elsewhere, at least a dozen rock stations in major cities either stopped playing the record or refused to add it to their play lists. The resistance was even stronger in smaller towns, Antman says. One teacher in Chicago went so far as to cut his own record as a rebuttal to Pink Floyd, changing the lyrics to "We all need an education."

The rebuttal was an instant flop, while Pink Floyd's attack on schools has dominated the sales charts for months. According to the entertainment industry's trade paper, Variety, the album was number one in sales for twenty consecutive weeks last winter and spring, and "Another Brick" topped the singles charts for six weeks. Both have remained entrenched in the top five from February to June, although "Another Brick" never made the top five on Variety's list of the most-played records on radio.

Album sales have passed three million worldwide, with the single not far behind. "That's an unprecedented accomplishment for a record that has received so little radio exposure," says Antman.

Teenagers, of course, have always had a distaste for school, and their defiant spirit has frequently been captured in the lyrics of rock 'n' roll songs. In the mid-1970s, Alice Cooper's "School's Out (Forever)" topped the charts; In the 1960s, it was Gary U.S. Bond's "School's Out (At Last)."

Antieducation sentiment in rock dates to the very earliest days of the music, when Chuck Berry frequently contrasted the frustration of the classroom with the satisfaction of fast cars and music.

So why has "Another Brick" produced such an outcry? For one thing, it is far angrier in tone and content than its antischool predecessors.

As Rolling Stone magazine's Kurt Loder put it

in reviewing the record, Roger Waters is contending that in government-run schools, children are methodically tormented and humiliated by teachers whose comeuppance occurs when they go home at night and "their fat and psychopathic wives would thrash them within inches of their lives."

This is very strong stuff, and hardly the hallmark of a hit album.

Teachers found such vehemence especially troubling. "Many educators, particularly in the urban areas, were not only angered by the song's attack on their profession, but were afraid it would lead to a wave of student protests this past spring," says an official of the National Education Association, who asked that his name not be used.

Teachers were worried because their students were singing it in the corridors and quoting it in the classroom, and they felt a need to make some kind of response. The song has not led to any significant protests — at least in this country — because the current generation of high schoolers doesn't much believe in protesting. From the statistics we're seeing, they're more likely to drop out than to demand reforms when they feel they have been wronged in school.

According to Education Department figures, about one million teenagers of high-school age have quit school, leaving the average graduating class this spring with 25 percent fewer members than it had at the outset.

Interviews with numerous high-school students indicate that the Pink Floyd song has struck a chord of anger and frustration with which many students strongly identify.

Says Mark Jenkins of Alexandria, Virginia, "Pink Floyd is talking to me in that song."


William Sievert

William Sievert is a former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education Arts magazine.