Teaching “The Wire”

We’ve had a number of posts here before about teaching.  Here’s a question I’ve seen debated a fair bit: does HBO’s, The Wire, have educational value?  In particular, can it be a productive part of a college course in sociology?

I’ve just begun watching the series myself, and yes, I am enjoying it.  But I didn’t need to watch it, or like it, to know that it could help teach.  In fact, it strikes me as curious that there would be public debate about whether The Wire could be curriculum.

Ishmael Reed thinks that the show reinforces stereotypes about blacks.  I’m not sure about that yet, one could argue exactly the opposite, but even if it this is true, what better way to address the stereotypes prevalent in popular culture, than to critique them in a class which also requires reading rigorous social science?

Some point out that one can learn a lot more facts  in an hour of reading about urban social problems than one can by watching one episode of a fictional television program.  I certainly agree, but there are a couple obvious responses: First, popular and critically acclaimed television may have an emotional impact is a valuable part of education, and in some ways cannot be matched by other content.  Second, watching The Wire need not replace reading peer-reviewed studies or other academic approaches.  I think it is quite plausible that one could expect students to do a typical reading load and have them watch some episodes of the Wire on top of that.  So for me there is no question about whether The Wire can be used in education, the only issue, but a very real one, is how it should be used.

Here’s what I find odd about this whole debate… how many unimportant and/or poorly taught classes are being taught this semester, in colleges all across the country?  Answer: lots.  How many articles do you see about important issues in higher education published in outlets like The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post?  Answer: few.  The reason this debate is prominent is that people want to read about The Wire, while pretending to read about important issues in education.  OK, that shouldn’t be a revelation for most people.  But it is worthwhile to have pointy headed types pointing out that that is what’s going on.

If, like me and millions of others, you can’t help but be interested in a somewhat silly debate about The Wire, William Julius Wilson and Anmol Chaddha defend their class in an op-ed for The Washington Post.


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