Flow of Ideas

School Culture and Fear of a Blank Planet

Dishi Phillips

An essay for EDU3004 Education, Culture & Society Education Studies final year module, School of Education, University of Northampton

10th January 10th 2011

“The culture of the school is no competition for X-box, mood-altering drugs, the shopping mall and the mobile phone. We are right to fear the blank planet. Discuss.”

This essay will analyse the lyrics from ‘Fear of a Blank Planet’ [1] by the group Porcupine Tree in order to explore their significance for the culture of the school. To begin with, different definitions of ‘culture,’ will be offered to share the complexities of this concept. Moreover, the lyrics, articles and research will be used to demonstrate how young people are disaffected from the culture of the school and that of society as a whole. Finally, the essay will conclude regarding whether justification to fear the ‘blank planet’ really does exist.

The word ‘culture’ derives from the Latin word cultus, “which to the Romans signified cultivating soil and worshipping the divine” (Kirk, 2005, p.1). However, various definitions and perspectives of culture have since become synonymous with societal history, values and norms. Embracing social experiences as “creative expression, by which we define what it is to be human” (Corbett, 1999, p.2), means that culture becomes an important source of social identity. Thus, a symbiotic relationship of culture and society develops, supporting others with identical or similar values and norms. In essence, the way we live is “a way of life that is learnt” (Haralambos & Holborn, 1990, p.2).

Children in Britain spend a minimum of eleven years [2] in an educational setting whereby they become exposed to an ideal deriving from nineteenth century characteristics [3] and several layers of school culture. School culture can be loosely divided into ‘surface culture’, ‘deep culture’, attitudes and values. Surface culture (a term also interchangeable with school ethos or climate) incorporates behaviour which includes pedagogy and assessment; whereas, deep culture encapsulates the roots or the fundamental belief of belonging (Lawton, 2000). With additional subsets of school culture ranging from classroom cultures, staff cultures, and oppositional cultures [4] to name a few, it becomes easier to understand why a counter-school culture, or indeed social stratification, begins.

School culture, whilst an “unseen and an unobservable force behind school activities” (Prosser, 2000, online), is nevertheless complementing a society which devalues young people and fears their freedom. The National Curriculum (NC), a political construct implemented into schools ( for England, Wales and Northern Ireland), excludes social groups such as displaced pupils, travellers and those with special educational needs (Benjamin, 2002). Bourdieu (1976, cited in Hill & Cole, 2004, p.101) suggests the major function of an education system is to “maintain and legitimise a class divided society”. Furthermore, as the limitations of promoting equal opportunities within schools fails to encompass individual differences (Hill et al, 1997), the academic culture and achievements between girls and boys widen (Van Houtte, 2004). An excellent speech by Robinson (2006a and 2006b, online), further highlights how schools continually undermine ‘creativity’ in their pursuit of delivering subjects more suited to preparing a labour force [5]. Yet, when unhappiness and discontent is expressed, it is seen at best as ‘unruly behaviour’, and at worst as reason for pupil exclusion. The school culture and its related education system does nothing more than highlight economic inequalities and cultural discrimination to a society of young people which is causing repression: a blank planet. This resonates with parts of Porcupine Tree’s lyrics where various motivational levels of existence are desperately sought elsewhere:

“In school I don’t concentrate
And sex is kinda fun
But just another one
Of all the empty ways
Of using up a day ...”

The title of the album, Fear of a Blank Planet conjures an image of a planet consisting of nothingness; emptiness; clones with no individuality. The artists, Porcupine Tree, declare “the album is fuelled by a 21st century cocktail of MTV, sex, prescription drugs, video games, the internet, terminal boredom and subsequent escape” (Porcupine Tree, 2010, online). Rikowski (2007, online) views ‘blank planet’ as a metaphor for social processors affecting young people and their lives as they co-exist in a state of repression; further referred to as a “culture of emptiness.” This sentiment is placed inside the lyrics intimating an existence of drugs, boredom, truancy and crime as their lives of ‘emptiness’ permeates into society.

“I’m stoned in the mall again
Terminally bored
Shuffling round the stores
And shoplifting is getting so last year’s thing ...”

But what is driving this fear and perceived constant rebelliousness where young people feel their ‘youth culture’ is slowly disintegrating – its freedom and expression being silenced and youth-hood being eradicated piece by piece? Certainly school culture and the media are two major influences for generating this phenomenon. By criminalising [6] deviant behaviour (such as truancy and unauthorised absences), the attempted removal of religious items (Knapton, 2008, online), and school exclusion when the school dress code is not adhered to (Desira, 2009, online), expression and individuality is evidently being suppressed. As such, a dichotomy of ‘resistance and exclusion’ or ‘conformity and inclusion’ to school, are the only choices being faced by a generation of disaffected youth. A life of escapism through computer games and technology, mind-altering drugs and truancy is an image the media is only too happy to portray. Moreover, extraordinary violence in a school heightens this perceived fear even further. The media headline after the shooting of staff and pupils at Columbine High School (DeFoster, 2010), was ‘an epidemic of teenage gun violence’ (Whittell, 1999) despite the fact actual gun crime occurring inside a school (in Britain) is rare.

Britain’s youth culture is demonised (rightly or wrongly), as indicating a social group with no respect but individualistically centred, as the following headlines demonstrate: “Drugs ‘part of mainstream youth culture’” (BBC News, 1999, online); “Youth justice system is more concerned with protecting thugs than public” (Hope, 2010, online); 'Out-of-control' British teens the worst behaved in Europe (Clark, 2007, online), and “Britons fear rise of the yob” (Doward, 2007, online). Yet, social labelling, such as ‘yob culture’ only exacerbates the isolation. The active choice of placing restrictions such as ‘Anti-Social Behaviour Orders’ (ASBO’s) onto individuals demonstrates a society with a desire of social segregation in preference to discourse, counselling and integration. Moreover, other significant factors contributing towards deviant behaviour such as mental health and the family structure have neither been considered nor regarded. Perhaps more worryingly, poor school performance has been associated with adolescent suicidal behaviours (Ayyash-Abdo, 2002), an area of grave concern and an area within a school culture that needs to be challenged. Again the lyrics echo these emotions:

“Bipolar disorder
Can’t deal with the boredom...” and

“How can I be sure I’m here?
The pills that I’ve been taking confuse me
I need to know that someone sees that
There’s nothing left I simply am not here...”

Percentage rates of mental health problems increase among children as they reach adolescence (Mental Health Foundation, 2006, online) and youths with marked psychopathic traits such as violence have an earlier onset of anti-social behaviour (Dolan & Rennie, 2006). Yet a study looking at mental health and social capital found that having an effective mental policy and service provision actually strengthens social capital within the community. This includes social cohesion, active parental inclusion and a collective efficacy (Almedom, 2005). However, the stigma attached to mental health, especially in young people, often goes untreated or unnoticed, consequently resulting in low educational attainment, negative childhood experiences and in many cases the breakdown of the traditional family unit (Craig & Hodson, 1998). The following lines from the lyrics demonstrate this lack of emotional and developmental support from a traditional family unit being replaced instead with a surrogate influence, the X-box:

“X-box is a god to me
A finger on the switch
My mother is a bitch
My father gave up ever trying to talk to me.”

The family structure has become at odds with governmental policies, resulting directly or indirectly, in the growth of non-traditional family structures. The removal of marital taxable benefits and the introduction of child tax credits encouraging lone parents back to work are prime examples of ‘anti-family’ governmental policies in the UK (Morgan, 1995). Morgan observes the widening disparity of income between single parent families (with children) and married families (with children). A gradual shift in life-styles within a marriage whereby one partner worked and one could remain at home to raise a family have jeopardised this choice, resulting in a generation of both parents working. This has inevitably created and continues to create a family-less and marriage-less society, and, as the lyrics indicate, forcing young people into a non-communicative, alternative reality of entertaining themselves by worshipping an idol (X-box), thus creating their own silent culture.

The school is often the mesosystem (Brofenbrenner, 1979) within a community reflecting similar values and norms from the demographics within. As such it can offer a constructive or destructive line of support to young people. A study by UNICEF looked at the overall wellbeing of children in 21 industrialised countries. Unsurprisingly, the UK was ranked last highlighting the detrimental effect attitudes are having on young people (Johnston, 2007, online). As previously stated, mental health issues young people face are not deemed a priority for communities, even though the British Prime Minister has accepted top-heavy controlling which has “turned lively communities into dull, soulless clones of one another” (Number10, 2010, online).

In conclusion, whilst most measures implemented by legislation appear heavy-handed (such as criminalising truancy), tighter security measures in schools after the shootings at Dunblane Primary School in 1996, are a necessity. Whether the culture of the school is a “fertile garden or a black hole for improvement” (Stoll et al, 2003, p.137) changes to current distributions of power within schools, public policies and society need to change. Until then, the chances of promoting a form of democracy closely aligned to a socially cohesive community will be lost (Leitch & Mitchell, 2007) and other social groups deemed a hindrance to society may get treated alike. We are right to fear the blank planet.


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Ayyash-Abdo, H. (2002) Adolescent suicide: An ecological approach, Psychology in the Schools, Vol.39 No.4, pp.459-475. Available from: www.interscience.wiley.com [Accessed 28 December, 2010].

BBC News (1999) [online] Drugs part of mainstream culture, available from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/348814.stm [Accessed 14 December, 2010].

Benjamin, S. (2002) The micro-politics of inclusive education, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1976) The school as a conservative force in scholastic and cultural inequalities in schooling and capitalism, in: D. Hill & M. Cole (eds) (2004) Schooling and Equality: Fact, Concept and Policy, London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979) The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Clark, L. (2007) [online] ‘”Out-of-control” British teen’s worst behaved in Europe, Daily Mail, 26th July, available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-470919/Out-control-British-teens-worst-behaved-Europe.html#ixzz18TMo20iN [Accessed 14 December, 2010].

Cole, M., Hill, D. & Shan, S. (eds.) (1997) Promoting Equality in Primary Schools London: Cassell.

Corbett, J. (1999) Inclusive education and school culture, International Journal of Inclusive Education, Vol.3 No.1, pp.53-61. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/136031199285183 [Accessed 8 December, 2010].

Craig, T.K.J. & Hodson, S. (1998) Homeless youth in London: I. Childhood antecedents and psychiatric disorder, Psychological Medicine, Vol.28, pp.1379-1388. Available from: http://journals.cambridge.org [Accessed 26 December, 2010].

DeFoster, R. (2010) American Gun Culture, School Shootings, and a “Frontier Mentality”: An Ideological Analysis of British Editorial Pages in the Decade After Columbine, Communication, Culture & Critique, Vol.3, pp.466–484. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-9137.2010.01081.x [Accessed 14, December, 2010].

Desira, J. (2009) [online] 65 pupils excluded in school uniform crackdown, available from Gazette Live, 30th January: http://www.gazettelive.co.uk/news/teesside-news/2009/01/30/65-pupils-excluded-in-school-uniform-crackdown-84229-22817778/ [Accessed 14 December, 2010].

Dolan, M. C. & Rennie, C. E. (2006) Reliability and validity of the psychopathy checklist: Youth version in a UK sample of conduct disordered boys, Personality and Individual Differences, Vol.40, pp.65–75. Available from: www.sciencedirect.com [Accessed 26 December, 2010].

Haralambos, M. & Holborn, M. (1990) Sociology: Themes and Perspectives, (3rd Edition), London: Unwin Hyman.

Hope, C. (2010) [online] Youth justice system is more concerned with protecting thugs than public, The Daily Telegraph, 26th March, available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/7521281/Youth-justice-system-is-more-concerned-with-protecting-thugs-than-public-report-finds.html [Accessed 14 December, 2010].

Johnston, P. (2007) [online] Crisis point over Britain’s disaffected youth, The Daily Telegraph, 15th February, available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1542725/Crisis-point-over-Britains-disaffected-youth.html [Accessed 14 December, 2010].

Kirk, R. (2005) America’s British Culture Edison, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Knapton, S. (2008) [online] Sikh teenager who won bangle battle quits school, The Daily Telegraph, 1st September, available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/2662867/Sikh-teenager-who-won-bangle-battle-quits-school.html [Accessed 29 December, 2010].

Lawton, D. (2000) Values and education: A Curriculum for the 21st Century, in: J. Cairns, R. Gardner & D. Lawton (eds.) Values and the Curriculum, London: Woburn Press.

Leitch, R. & Mitchell, S. (2007) Caged birds and cloning machines: how student imagery 'speaks' to us about cultures of schooling and student participation, Improving Schools Vol.10 No.1, pp.53-71. Available from: http://imp.sagepub.com/ [Accessed on 29 December, 2010].

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MetroLyrics (2010) [online] Fear of a Blank Planet lyrics, available from: http://www.metrolyrics.com/fear-of-a-blank-planet-lyrics-porcupine-tree.html [Accessed 14 December, 2010].

Morgan, P.M. (1995) Farewell to the Family? Public Policy and Family Breakdown in Britain and the USA, Institute of Economic Affairs, IEA Health & Welfare Unit, London: IEA.

Number10 (2010) [online] Big Society, transcript available from: http://www.statutelaw.gov.uk/ [Accessed 29 December, 2010].

Porcupine Tree, (2010) [online] Porcupine Tree – Official website, available from: http://www.porcupinetree.com/background.cfm [Accessed 14 December, 2010].

Prosser, J. (2000) [online] The Evolution of School Culture Research – Chapter 1, available from: http://www.personal.leeds.ac.uk/~edujdp/culture/Evolution.htm [Accessed 27 December, 2010].

Rikowski, G. (2007) [online] Fear of a Blank Planet Revisited, MySpace, available from: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html [Accessed 14 December, 2010].

Robinson, K. (2006b) [online] Full transcript of the speech ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?’ available from: http://www.schoolskillcreativity.com/sir-ken-robinson-ted-speech-transcript.pdf [Accessed 30 December, 2010].

Stoll, L., Fink. D. & Earl, L.M. (2003) It’s about learning (and it’s about time): What’s in it for schools? London: RoutledgeFalmer

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Doward, J. (2007) [online] Britons fear rise of the yob, The Observer, 26th March, available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2007/aug/19/drugsandalcohol.crime [Accessed 14 December, 2010].

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Van Houtte, M. (2004) Why boys achieve less at school than girls: the difference between boys' and girls' academic culture, Educational Studies, Vol.30 No.2, pp.159-173). Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0305569032000159804 [Accessed 8 December, 2010].

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[1] See Appendix A for the lyrics to ‘Fear of a Blank Planet’ (MetroLyrics, 2010, online).

[2] Whilst forms of educational settings are available for children from birth to 3 years old (pre-schools, nursery or play-school), this essay is focusing upon the legal compulsory requirements, whereby in England, by law, all children of compulsory school age (between 5 and 16) must get a proper full-time education. A child becomes of “compulsory school age when he or she reaches the age of five and must start school in the term following his or her fifth birthday (unless a child is educated otherwise)” (Teachernet, 2010, online).

[3] According to Lawton (2000), schools were artificial constructs of 19th century institutions with characteristics not too dissimilar to workhouses, prisons and factories solving economic and social problems. As such large numbers of ‘workers/pupils’ were controlled by a small number of ‘supervisors/teachers.’ In addition, Lawton emphasises the contradictory aims of the school between emancipation and compulsion. Liberating the child in the hope of freeing them from ‘ignorance’ but then compelling the child ensuring they attend school.

[4] An example of oppositional culture to education is Paul Willis’s 1970’s ethnographic study entitled ‘Learning to Labour.’ The study of twelve working-class boys (referred to as ‘The Lads’) demonstrated a counter-school culture of resistance and opposition to authority, conformity and academia (see Thomson, 2008, online). Their behaviour (which was achieved by racial and sexual bullying, disruption in the class and mocking the pupils who conformed), within the school gained them a symbolic muscularity status. The school culture was not going to affect their principles. Ultimately for the Lads, the choice between the false aspirations of education versus the realistic opportunities epitomised the pride they had for themselves and their working class background.

[5] Full transcript of the speech ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?’ available from (Robinson, 2006b): http://www.schoolskillcreativity.com/sir-ken-robinson-ted-speech-transcript.pdf.

[6] Section 23 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 introduced additional powers under Section 444 of the Education Act 1996 authorising Local Authorities to issue Penalty Notices in cases of unauthorised absence from school (OPSI, 2006, online).

Appendix A

Fear of a Blank Planet, by Porcupine Tree (Title track, Roadrunner Records, 2007)

Sunlight coming through the haze
No gaps in the blind
To let it inside
The bed is unmade
Some music still plays

TV, yeah it's always on
The flicker of the screen
A movie actress screams
I'm basking in the shit flowing out of it

I'm stoned in the mall again
Terminally bored
Shuffling round the stores
And shoplifting is getting so last year's thing

X-box is a god to me
A finger on the switch
My mother is a bitch
My father gave up ever trying to talk to me

Don't try engaging me
The vaguest of shrugs
The prescription drugs
You'll never find
A person inside

My face is mogadon
Has given up on me
I'm tuning out desires
The pills are on the rise

How can I be sure I'm here?
The pills that I've been taking confuse me
I need to know that someone sees that
There's nothing left I simply am not here

I'm through with pornography
The acting is lame
The action is tame
Explicitly dull
arousal annulled

Your mouth should be boarded up
Talking all day
With nothing to say
Your shallow proclamations
All misinformation

My friend says he wants to die
He's in a band
They sound like Pearl Jam
The clothes are all black
The music is crap

In school I don't concentrate
And sex is kinda fun
But just another one
Of all the empty ways
Of using up a day

How can I be sure I'm here?
The pills that I've been taking confuse me
I need to know that someone sees that
There's nothing left I simply am not here

Bipolar disorder
Can't deal with the boredom

You don't try to be liked
You don't mind
You feel no sun
You steal a gun
To kill time

You're somewhere, you're nowhere
You don't care
You catch the breeze
You still the leaves
So now where?

Posted to The Flow of Ideas on 4th September 2011

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