Monday, April 6, 2015

The Wire and Public Education

For my English 101 classes this semester, we are using the television show The Wire as our curriculum, along with a collection of academic essays called The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television.  Each season of the show shines a light on a different institution of a modern American city (Baltimore), posing problems and causing us (the viewers) to reflect upon some very real issues we all face.

This week, we began watching season four, which focuses on the problems of public education in west Baltimore.  The schools are (of course) under-funded and most students come from very difficult socio-economic situations.  The students are mostly low-income African Americans, and it becomes tragically clear that, for most of them, education will not necessarily provide a path to a brighter future.

To deepen our understanding of what this show is saying about highly-segregated inner city public education, we read an essay called "Posing Problems and Picking Fights: Critical Pedagogy and the Corner Boys" by Ralph Beliveau and Laura Bolf-Beliveau, which examines how public education works (or doesn't work) in The Wire.

The show focuses on one school, Edward J. Tilghman Middle School.  Like most public schools in America, this one uses standardized testing, which encourages student passivity and rote memorization, rather than critical thinking.  In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, theorist Paulo Freire calls this the "banking model" of education.  Students are passive recipients of information, as opposed to active participants in their education.  Rather than empowering students, this model actually reinforces traditional hierarchical power relationships.  Despite its widespread use in America, this model is out-dated and actually harmful to students in the long run.

In The Wire, we see how this "banking model" is totally ineffective.  Forced to prepare for tests that have little to no bearing on their day-to-day lives, the students of Edward Tilghman Middle School often "buck" the system, rebel, ditch, or drop out, which leads to ever stricter and oppressive measures.  It's basically a vicious cycle in which real education takes a back seat to control and discipline.

In contrast to this obviously flawed model, Freire posits what he calls the "problem-posing model," which poses problems for students, and encourages them to use their creativity, critical thinking, and real life experience to solve them.  This model is all about fostering a "critical consciousness" in students which they can actually apply to their lives in meaningful ways.  This model, when effectively used, is empowering, rather than restricting.  It involves a more interpersonal and informal relationship between teacher and student, subverting traditional power hierarchies.

Duquan, Randy, Michael, and Namond

In The Wire, a new teacher named Roland Pryzbylewski (aka Prezbo) takes a job at the middle school, and experiences these problems first hand.  His struggle, as a teacher, is between the standardized testing he is forced to use, and his own creative ideas.  Instead of fostering his creativity, school administrators force him to comply with the ineffective "banking model."  Though some administrators understand Roland's plight, they themselves are under pressure from higher forces like the School Board, the Department of Education, the state, politicians, etc.  The problems are institutional.

But the situation is not completely hopeless.  The show follows a few individual students as they navigate the different worlds of school, family (or lack thereof), and "the street" (i.e. the world of the drug trade that is the primary economy of their community).  One character in particular shows the possibilities of what education can do for people, when it is unfettered by bad pedagogy.  Namond Brice is an 8th grader whose father is serving a long prison sentence for murders associated with a major drug gang.  It is expected that Namond will "fill his father's shoes" in the drug business.  Problem is, Namond has a conscience, and clearly wants something different.

A special program at the middle school allows Namond and a handful of "at risk" youths to experience education in a more progressive, experimental, and problem-posing way.  This small, experimental program proves highly effective for Namond, who eventually flourishes into a successful student.  Near the end of the show, we see Namond participating in, and winning, a city debate.

Namond Brice, one success story among many sad stories.

One reason The Wire is so critically-acclaimed is because it presents, through drama, very real institutional problems in America--problems with complex causes and effects.  As a teacher and an American city-dweller myself, I have been challenged by the show to think deeply about how I can more effectively navigate, participate in, and even challenge the larger forces that directly govern my life.  Paulo Freire would be pleased.

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