“So what’s the point in university?” asks Billy Bragg in his 1996 song Qualifications. “For three years I read philosophy. Now I read barcodes all day long.”
This is a question that has been asked by a surprisingly large number of pop songs, two academics have revealed; and the answers, often, are depressingly similar.
Peter Gossman and Sam Illingworth, both of Manchester Metropolitan University, suggest that higher education has an “image problem” when it comes to popular music.
They examined the lyrics of 89 songs that referenced higher education or universities, and found that nearly half (42) gave a negative impression.
As in Qualifications, higher education is often presented as being pointless, the pair say. Another example is the 2010 Nas and Damian Marley song Patience: “Scholars teach in universities and claim that they’re smart and cunning/Tell them to find a cure when we sneeze and that’s when their nose start running.”
Another theme presents universities as sites of oppression, summed up by Bob Marley (Damian Marley’s father) in the 1979 song Babylon System: “Me say: da Babylon system is the vampire, falling empire/Suckin’ the blood of the sufferers, yee-ea-e-ah!/Building church and university, woo yeah!”
Young Conservatives by the Kinks, the authors suggest, sees universities as “a societal instrument of oppression” because it describes institutions as “turning out a brand-new breed of young conservatives”. Others put the stress on exclusion. A nice example comes in a song by the Undertones, in which the narrator complains of a “perfect cousin” who has “got a degree in economics/Maths, physics and bionics/He thinks that I’m a cabbage/’Cause I hate University Challenge”.
Only five of the songs that were examined were deemed to share a positive view of higher education. An example is Madame Joy by Van Morrison: “Steppin’ lightly, steppin’ brightly, with her books in hand/Going to the university to teach them, help them understand.”
The remaining songs were classed as “neutral”.
Writing in the Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, Dr Gossman and Dr Illingworth say that the portrayal of higher education in pop is far from a trivial matter.
“Universities in these songs act as oppressors and societal gatekeepers and even when they are only passively responsible for the exclusion, it is an indictment that they are not active challengers to these behaviours,” they write. “The perception of universities by popular music needs redressing.”
One possible way forward, Dr Illingworth told Times Higher Education, might be for lecturers to “play some of the songs in class and have a discussion with students about how true they think they are”.