The History of Education Society seeks to further the study of the history of education by providing opportunities for discussion among those engaged in its study and teaching.

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Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Exploring the history of education through pop music

by Charlotte Rochez

“The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with — nothing brings it all to life like an old mix tape. It does a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do. Every mix tape tells a story. Put them together, and they can add up to the story of a life.” 
― Rob Sheffield, Love is a Mix Tape

Did you ever make a mixtape when you were younger? What memories do those songs bring back? How do they relate to your educational experiences? Do you think your mixtape was similar to others of your generation? Would those songs bring back similar memories for them? A top hit would likely be meaningful to many different people of similar ages, though it may be imbued with distinct recollections.

If, rather than reflecting on your own experience, you were to nominate a song relating to the broader theme of 'education', which would you choose? And if we were to take these collectively, what might such a 'people's playlist' tell us about the history of education over the last 60 years?

Popular music is not only culturally reflective, it may be prophetic, provocative or ameliorative. Charting such a musical history may afford insights into popular perceptions, the creation and proliferation of contemporary ideas and the dialogue between them.

In following playlist of British popular music relating to education we witness the movement of positive associations or reminiscences of schools and teachers to a criticism of the school system, its methods and aims. This is not a simple trajectory; Madness's 'Baggy Trousers' celebrates good times within a flawed system was as a response to Pink Floyd's critical condemnation of schooling in 'Another Brick in the Wall'. Through time similar motives reappear: Busted’s ‘What I go to school for’ sexualises the theme of teacher admiration in Lulu’s ‘To Sir With Love’ and Elton John’s ‘Teacher I need you’; the Kaiser Chiefs’ ‘Never Miss a Beat’ echoes Madness’s ‘Baggy Trousers’ in celebration of cheeky youthful defiance, but with young people’s location moved from messing around in school spaces, to playing truant on the streets.

In US music, too, there is a movement from celebrating schools as a place of learning to challenging the pedagogy and curriculum of conventional schooling, and more recently to questioning the impact of social stratification according to popularity on adult life experiences. 

Which songs do feel provide particular insights into the history of education? Share with us on Twitter or Facebook.


  1. One that comes to mind from the US context is Van Halen's 'Hot for Teacher' (1983), whose lyrics - and video (in relatively early days of music video) presented a radically different view of school (and teachers!) compared to many others (see those explored by KJ Brehony in the British context, see Brehony (1998) 'I used to get mad at my school. Representations of schooling in rock and pop music,' Brit Jnl. Sociology of Education 19, no. 1. Another one from my own youth (dating myself here) is The Beastie Boys' '(You gotta) Fight for your right (to Party)' - I think from 1986?- ) was more in line with the leisure/school dichotomy Brehony found more generally.

  2. Thank you for the Brehony (1998) suggestion. His article suggests so many new lines to look at. It would be interesting to see how music of the last fifteen years relates to his analysis, and also to explore the impact of online music sharing platforms with popular engagement with such records of the past. The latter line of interest arising particularly in relation to Brehony's claim: "Since the 1950s, each subsequent generation of youth in the UK has made the transition from childhood to adulthood accompanied by a pop soundtrack. Once it was more or less unique to that generation. Now... the re-release of a song means that it becomes available to another generation of youth who produce their own reading of it, regardless of its author's intentions or the context in which it was first located." (p.131)

    I've add Van Halen's 'Hot for Teacher' to the U.S. platlist, (including Beastie Boys) above - makes for great comparison with Doris Day's 'Teacher's Pet'.

    Thanks, Charlotte


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