Harvard Prof Mounts a Defense of Teaching "The Wire"


“The Wire” is a fictional television show that many people really liked and that many people think is a very revealing take on The Way We Live in Urban Cities now. As you probably know, it is being taught at universities including Harvard, in a seminar on urban inequality. Now comes a defense of that choice: “’The Wire’ is fiction, but it forces us to confront social realities more effectively than any other media production in the era of so-called reality TV,” writes the director of the Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program at Harvard Kennedy, an esteemed sociologist. How is that possibly true? It’s fiction. It’s made up. (Also has he not seen “Jersey Shore”? Half-kidding!)

His case:

Of course, our undergraduate students will read rigorous academic studies of the urban job market, education and the drug war. But the HBO series does what these texts can’t. 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. With the freedom of artistic expression, “The Wire” can be more creative.

Yes, more creative than… the truth.

The study of fiction is a fine thing! It’s, you know, what you do in some of the humanities! There’s lots to look at in terms of critical reading and representation with this COP DETECTIVE CRIME SHOW. But this is an admission that kids are too… stupid? Inexperienced? Homogeneous?… to learn without fiction and illustration. (And no, it’s not just because the professor’s own good work was an inspiration for parts of “The Wire” itself.)

Here it is: “There’s this question of how you appeal to young people who feel-not all of them but many of them-far removed from the type of people who are the major characters in The Wire,” is what a “The Wire”-teaching Duke prof said. (I’m not sure how the gang at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies would feel about that statement.)

So the claim is that the top-notch sociology students of America are unfamiliar with (and probably not of) the urban poor and they will learn empathy and be introduced to poor people through a made-up TV program. That seems a little broken.