Mark Sherman: Hail, hail rock and roll

Mark-Sherman SQUARE“For most of American history, parents could expect that their children would, on average, be much better educated than they were. But that is no longer true. This development has serious consequences for the economy.”
— “The Great Stagnation of American Education” by Robert J. Gordon, New York Times Sunday Review, Sept. 8, 2013


“Britain’s stagnating schools: UK teenagers slip down world league in maths, science and reading”
— headline in Mail online (British Daily Mail), Dec. 13, 2013


“We don’t need no education.”
— Pink Floyd, “Brick in the Wall (Part II),” 1979



After all the studies of why American (and British) kids have fallen behind so much of the world in academic achievement, I believe the best explanation may come not from the studies, but from the words of the famous British rock group, Pink Floyd, who sang, “We don’t need no education.” I know, I know, many of you are wincing at the use of the double negative, thinking it should be “We don’t need any education,” but that throws off the rhythm of the song, and when you’ve made as much money and are as famous as Pink Floyd, then you can talk to me about double negatives.

Of course, rock and roll didn’t do much to further education either in England or America. Chuck Berry captured perfectly the way teenagers felt in his classic 1957 song, “School Days,” with its inspiring line, “Soon as 3 o’clock rolls around, you finally lay your burdens down.”

I think all the analyses of why American and British students have dropped so far behind those in countries like China, Singapore and Japan have missed the simple answer: rock and roll.

I remember when rock and roll arrived on the scene. I was about 11, and like most tweens (a word that, thankfully, didn’t exist back then), I felt bored, confused and unhappy. Suddenly, however, I heard something new on the radio. It was “Sh-Boom.” Hey, wait a minute, this wasn’t my parents’ music. This was good stuff. And then there was “Earth Angel.” Ah, “Earth Angel.”

Sure, I still knew school was important, but I had finally found a real reason to live. I could turn on the radio and there was music that grabbed me. But those two songs were just a prelude to what would put me over the edge, show me that forever more I would realize that school came second; and this realization would come, ironically, from a song used in a movie about school, a scary school, a veritable “blackboard jungle.” The song was “Rock Around the Clock,” and I can still hear those opening bars.

When rock and roll arrived on the scene, many in my parents’ generation were alarmed. You would hear people say that this was the end of America as we knew it. There were scenes of disc jockeys destroying rock and roll records. This music was going to destroy America, they said, and, looking back, I realize that they were right. But who cared and who cares? As Chuck Berry sings at the end of “School Days,” “Hail, hail rock’n’roll/Deliver me from the days of old.”

Or as Neil Young put it years later, “Hey, hey, my, my/Rock and roll will never die.”

Britain may still have been doing okay in the 1950s, when America was already going down the rock hole, but when they — namely, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones — took our music and brought it to a new level, it was over for both countries. We talk about the “British invasion,” but, keep in mind, they were turning our own poison on us, in a most delightfully palatable form.

It took everything I had to get through college and graduate school, because it was hard to get my mind off women and my ears off that music. And, of course, we guys saw that there was a strong relationship between the two. Yeah, sure, a girl might be excited by your intellect and wit, but when you saw teenage girls screaming and swooning over first Elvis, and then the Beatles, you knew you didn’t have a chance against that.

The term “rock star” didn’t come out of nowhere. It is the ultimate. Why did Bill Clinton and Barack Obama strive toward the presidency of the United States? Only because they weren’t good enough musicians to be rock stars.

Sex, drugs and rock and roll. Come on, everybody, let’s be honest. What sounds better than that? American history? Practical math?