‘The Wire’ on education

You look in a ten-year-old’s eyes and you see promise, you see possibility, you see beautiful kids, and every kid deserves a chance, every kid deserves to be told they’re smart and can do anything, and a lot of kids are getting the opposite message.

–Jim True-Frost, “Prez,” The Wire

The HBO series “The Wire,” created by David Simon and Ed Burns, is widely regarded as one of the greatest television shows ever made. It brilliantly explores the complex, interconnected web of social problems in post-industrial America through the moving stories of Baltimore’s urban poor and the law enforcement officers who police them, and occasionally try to help them. Perhaps no season better illustrates this Gordian knot of social dysfunction in America than Season 4, which ventures inside of the Baltimore public school system to explore the systemic failures, social pressures, low expectations, institutional authoritarianism, and dearth of resources that contribute to what has come to be known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” As writer/producer Ed Burns explained on NPR’s All Things Considered, for poor inner-city students, schools become a “testing ground for the street.”

“This is the tragedy of their school experience. They spend time in class warring with the teacher. They’re suspended. They go to time-out rooms, and then they hit the streets, and within five years, a lot of them are victims of murders or are committing murders,” he says.

Burns hopes the show’s harsh critique of the school system will entertain, disturb and ultimately teach audiences something about kids.

He wants them to understand that when kids like those portrayed on the show go in the directions they do, it’s not from personal choice, but from other doors shutting around them.

“The trick is to keep all the doors open,” he says. “If we can begin to understand that, then maybe we’ve done something.”

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The fourth season of “The Wire” clearly reveals how our public school systems form the backbone of our troubled society–reinforcing not only its strengths but also its deep-seated problems and “savage inequalities,” to borrow the phrase of education activist and writer, Jonathan Kozol. As critical educational theorist Ivan Illich wrote in Deschooling Society, quoted on our Ideals Page:

“All over the world schools are organized enterprises designed to reproduce the established order, whether this order is called revolutionary, conservative, or evolutionary. Everywhere the loss of pedagogical credibility and the resistance to schools provide a fundamental option: shall this crisis be dealt with as a problem that can, and must, be solved by substituting new devices for school and readjusting the existing power structure to fit these devices? Or shall this crisis force a society to face the structural contradictions inherent in the politics and economics of any society that reproduces itself through the industrial process?”

As a powerful work of fiction, “The Wire” forces us to face those “structural contradictions inherent in the politics and economics of any society that reproduces itself through the industrial process,” though it remains an open question whether we as a society will successfully overcome those contradictions through radical engagement and reinvention of our learning sites and processes, or whether the corporate forces of education reform will succeed in rolling out “new devices” to readjust the existing power structure accordingly.

In any case, given the brilliance of the show, it makes perfect sense that William Julius Wilson, the director of the Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, has elected to teach “The Wire” at Harvard. As Wilson explains:

More than simply telling a gripping story, “The Wire” shows how the deep inequality in inner-city America results from the web of lost jobs, bad schools, drugs, imprisonment, and how the situation feeds on itself.

Those kinds of connections are very difficult to illustrate in academic works. Though scholars know that deindustrialization, crime and prison, and the education system are deeply intertwined, they must often give focused attention to just one subject in relative isolation, at the expense of others.

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