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“B5—it got all the dinks”: Schools and Education on ‘The Wire’

by Lawrence Blum
29 Apr 2011 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: The Wire Files [4] | Article

Season 4 of The Wire adds to the continuing story of the drug trade, the police, and city government from the previous seasons a new element—schools and education. Season 4 introduces and follows four boys, Duquan, Randy, Namond, and Michael, as they enter 8th grade and through their first semester at the all-black Edward Tilghman Middle School.[1] We see these boys’ family situations and their relation to the world of the drug trade, to a local boxing gym run by the ex-con Dennis (”Cutty”) Wise, and to each other. Each of these extra-school venues is a “site of education” for the boys, and a theme of the season is that the boys are always learning but much of that learning goes on outside of school.

The education theme is also carried by Roland (‘Prez’) Pryzbylewski, a white police officer from the earlier seasons who has been cashiered for various infractions and missteps, but especially for having accidentally killed a black police officer. Prez’s character draws in part on the experiences of Ed Burns, the former police officer turned high school teacher, who is one of the co-creators of The Wire. Season 4 is as much about what Prez learns about teaching in his first year as a teacher as it is about what his students, and especially the four boys, learn from him.

Season 4’s Institutional Logic

The trajectory of Season 4 is shaped by the general meta-logic of the show as a whole. Education is explored as an institution, just as are the drug trade, policing, blue collar work, local politics, and journalism in the other seasons. This institutional context is a great strength of the show. Americans do not think well about the role of institutions in their lives, and popular culture seldom interrogates the workings of institutions. But institutions are very important to the creators of The Wire, who do a superb job of locating individuals within them. The overall view of institutions is a particularly bleak one. The co-creator of the series, David Simon, says in one interview: [I]f you want to suggest that [the show] is cynical about institutions and their capacity to reform themselves or be reformed, I would have to plead guilty to that.“[2] Those with power in the institutions are concerned primarily to hold on to their positions or to advance themselves. The rules of the institution are constantly at odds with constructively addressing any of the issues with which the institution is meant to engage (crime, education, governing the city). The lives of ordinary Baltimoreans are a low priority. A particularly clear case, important to understanding Season 4, is the way that policing is beholden to “crime stats.” Drug busts of street-level dealers, reductions in crime rates by reclassifying solved crimes upward to more serious ones (e.g. larceny to robbery), and unsolved ones downward take precedence over the careful and complex work necessary to tackle the devastation the drug trade is shown to wreak on communities.

Season 4 analogizes the pressure to produce crime statistics to pressure on Tilghman Middle to produce raised scores on standardized tests; as a result, actual learning and teaching are deeply compromised. The Season is particularly critical of the testing regime associated with the 2002 No Child Left Behind law. Just as Prez is beginning to discover some viable strategies for teaching math to his students, he has to shift to prepping them to take the standardized tests, an empty gesture in which the students learn nothing of value and which derails their burgeoning if shaky academic engagement.

The institutional parallels to Season 3 are particularly strong. Season 3’s drug containment program, “Hamsterdam,” involves carving out deserted areas in which the drug boys can peddle their wares to addicts without hassle from the police, in return for their abandoning the neighborhoods where their drug trade wreaked havoc. As a result, cops are relieved from having to engage in pointless street arrests and can focus on serious crime. Turf battles among rival drug gangs, often involving killing, are significantly curtailed. The neighborhoods assume some sense of order; ordinary decent people are able to go outside, tend to small plots, and socialize. Crime dips significantly in these neighborhoods. Public health measures such as needle exchange programs and drug treatment initiatives begin to take place in Hamsterdam. Yet the mayor and the top police brass become concerned that the perception (fed by an article in the Baltimore Sun) that “drugs are being legalized” is getting out to the public and is politically insupportable. This sinks the program, and the drug trade goes back to devastating the neighborhoods.

Analogous to Hamsterdam, in Season 4 a program (referred to in the show as “the project”) pulls a small number of disruptive students out of regular classes and puts them in a special, smaller, class with a larger number of adults. (Reinforcing the link between Hamsterdam and the school project is that a central adult in the project is former police Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin, who created the Hamsterdam program.) The students in the project group are “corner kids,” hanging out on the corners and involved in the drug trade, or heading down that path.[3] The project succeeds in two ways. It reduces disruption in the regular classes; and it allows focused and appropriate attention, with a greater adult-to-student ratio, to the students in the project class. But the program is terminated when the city’s top educational administration, and the incoming mayor, decide that a program that is not raising test scores and that smacks of “tracking” is too politically risky when the schools are running a $54 million deficit.[4] As with Hamsterdam, then, a promising initiative is tanked because of rigid bureaucratic goals.

The stories of Prez and the four boys, the regular class and the project class, provide a significant contribution to popular depictions of schools and education. They inject into the public arena images of black urban youth, their schools, and their educations, that are importantly distinct from dominant images circulating both in popular culture and in familiar public discourse. Four features of The Wire’s depiction are particularly worthy of note. First, the “inner city” kids, like kids anywhere, are shown as bright and curious, and capable of learning. Second, the ability of the schools to educate these children is shown to be strongly compromised by the kids’ world outside of school—their absent or dysfunctional families, their distressed communities, and the lack of any visible accessibility of the world of legitimate work. The centrality of this second point to The Wire’s creators is reinforced early in Season 5 when Baltimore Sun city editor Gus Haynes, the closest character to a hero of this season, replies to the new managing editor who wants the paper to do a series on schools, that you can’t understand the kids and their schools without looking at parenting, the drug culture, and the economics of their neighborhoods. The two further features are less closely tied than this last point to the show’s meta-narratives. The third is that despite these negative forces in the students’ lives, teachers and school personnel are capable of making small but significant contributions to children’s educational and personal growth. The fourth is that public schools are portrayed as natural and appropriate places for young people to be in the context of their developing lives (although the particular distressed school the boys attend is deficient in many ways).

To put these points another way, Season 4 manages to depict the powerful negative impact on the students’ education of the distressed communities in which they live, while honoring the appropriateness of public school as a setting for young people’s development, and showing what teachers can accomplish in reaching kids in these situations.

Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers

These apparently unremarkable themes may not seem a very significant contribution to public understanding—until one compares The Wire’s portrayal of schools and education to other familiar images from popular culture and from widely circulated tropes about public urban education. Hollywood has taken on school, and urban schools in particular, in a number of films over the past two decades or so. The 2007 Freedom Writers and the 1995 hit, Dangerous Minds (which spawned a spinoff TV series), are illuminating texts alongside which to place The Wire’s season 4.[5] These films are akin to The Wire in placing at their center a white teacher facing black and Latino students.  The two films share other basic features. The school administrations are portrayed as obstacles to teaching and learning. Dangerous Minds’ (black) principal is presented as a robotic bureaucrat who cares only about conformity to largely meaningless rules. Freedom Writers’s central administrative character, a department chair, is contemptuous of the students and nostalgic for the days not long ago when the school had a different, “high achieving” (and, by implication in the film, white) population. Both administrators constantly frustrate the central characters, teachers LouAnne Johnson (Dangerous Minds) and Erin Gruwell (Freedom Writers) in their attempts to reach and teach their students. Other teachers in the schools are portrayed as burned out, cynical, uncaring, or contemptuous of the students. So the charismatic white teacher becomes an entirely solo operator, saving her students of color when everything else in the school works against them. Dangerous Minds goes even a step further when a black grandparent calls Johnson a “white bread bitch messing with my boys’ minds.” So the white teacher has to save the students from their racist parent figures as well as from other teachers.[6]

The teacher’s whiteness is shown, in both films, as integral to the students’ success in their respective classes.[7] As Henry Giroux says about Dangerous Minds, Johnson’s whiteness is portrayed as “the archetype of rationality, authority, and cultural standards,” in stark contrast to the students (almost all black and Latino) whose world represents pathology, moral decay, and delinquency.[8] This description is only slightly less true for Freedom Writers. Neither Johnson nor Gruwell attempts to make use of the students’ ethnicity- or race-based experience to enhance their education. Johnson uses Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas in her teaching of poetry, and the film ridicules a culturally or experientially responsive curriculum by having Johnson’s jaded but amiable colleague read to her, for viewer derision, a statement from a student about cultural bias in the teacher’s course materials. Gruwell does ask her students to write about their own experience in their journals (the source of the title, Freedom Writers); but the only actual subject matter shown is the Holocaust.

Finally, and most distinctly ideological, both films explicitly reject the idea that the disastrous nature of the students’ lives and circumstances—constant violence, family pathology, parental absence—is an important part of why students do not succeed in school. Students must simply choose to rise above their circumstances, these films say. In a central exchange in Dangerous Minds, Johnson tells her class that it is their choice whether to learn or not, that nothing in their circumstances can be held responsible.  “There are no victims in this classroom,” she says. The trope that Blacks are constantly claiming “victimhood” as a way either to excuse their failures, or to stake a claim on public responsibility for improving their life prospects, was particularly strong in public discourse in the ‘90’s in the U.S. And Johnson’s little speech is clearly meant also to evoke the quintessentially American trope of the individual’s ability and responsibility to transcend any circumstance. Similarly, Gruwell tells her class, again in an exchange marked with significance in the film, “The person you were before this moment is over. You take over from here.”

In summary, both Freedom Writers and Dangerous Minds imply that the students’ distressed environment imposes no real barriers to education, only excuses (used by school personnel, and by the kids themselves) for failure to teach or learn. The normal functioning of schools is a complete disaster; there is nothing there for the students, and nothing to give them a reason to be in school. The teaching profession in general is largely worthless. No benefit to being an experienced teacher is shown; veteran teachers are almost always burned out, cynical, or incompetent. Only the inexperienced white knight of a teacher who breaks all the rules, generally has an extraordinarily stressful personal life because of her commitment to her students, and receives nothing but grief and obstacles from other school personnel and administrators, can lift the students above their disastrous lives, and create an educational experience that speaks to their potential.[9]

The Conservative View of Urban Education: The Thernstroms’ No Excuses

Moving from film to popular discourse, a related trope concerns the “achievement gap” between blacks and Latinos on one side, and whites and Asians on the other. In No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom present an influential conservative response to this achievement gap.[10] They argue that schools should be able to close the racial achievement gap without addressing inequalities in the society in which those schools are situated. Inequality in education is the source of other forms of socio-economic inequality, not the reverse.[11] The only barriers to equality, they argue, are the will of educators to seek it and the culture of African Americans that subverts African American children’s academic success.[12] In their earlier, best-selling, America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible, the Thernstroms denied that current black/white racial disparities should be and could be significantly improved through public action.[13] In No Excuses, they extend this argument in more detail to the domain of public education. Echoing Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers, the Thernstroms argue that familial and communal dysfunction caused largely by poverty and racism are common excuses for, but not actual causes of, school and educational failure.

The Lives and School Careers of Michael, Randy, Namond, and Duquan

The Wire’s Season 4 presents a very different picture of schools in relation to their social environments, and thus to inequality in the society more generally. The stories of Namond, Michael, Randy, Duquan exemplify, in different ways, how forces in the family and street lives of these bright boys deeply compromise their educational choices and often render the best efforts of their teachers powerless to help the boys realize their educational potential. At the same time, the show portrays school itself as an appropriate place for kids of their age, and any age, a potential haven from distressed families and the lures and dangers of the street, and as able to achieve “small victories” (the name of a popular book detailing the day-to-day struggles of an urban white teacher[14]) in the face of daunting social forces.

The crushing of potential by circumstances is most striking for Michael. Michael gets the answers right all of the time in Prez’s class. His behavior among his group of friends and in the drug world, in which he initially plays only a very peripheral role, show his leadership capability. If he lived in some other world he could be a successful professional, politician, or business leader. But in his actual world, his gifts are put to very different uses.

Michael’s major life project in the context of Season 4 is taking care of his younger brother, Bug. The boys’ mother is a drug addict and Michael is Bug’s only real parent figure. Michael picks Bug up from school, feeds him (sometimes their mother sells their food for drugs), and supervises his homework. But Michael’s intelligence and leadership skills are noticed by rising drug kingpin Marlo and his crew, and they make overtures to Michael to join them. They will be “a family” to him. At first Michael spurns these offers. He doesn’t want to owe anyone anything, he says. But Marlo persists. Bug’s father is released from jail and, with the mother’s blessing, comes to live with them. This man has sexually abused Michael in the past, and Michael is worried he will do the same to Bug. Michael comes to feel that he cannot protect Bug, and he eventually turns to Marlo’s assassins (Chris and Snoop) to kill Bug’s father. Michael finally throws his lot fully in with Marlo’s crew and engages in murder himself, at the end of the Season.

Michael hangs on in school for much of this period. School is a place to see his friends, and to function in a space that represents his more innocent, though increasingly receding, self. He might even be aiming to acquire some skills and knowledge that may come in handy in the drug-selling life into which he is increasingly being drawn. Or he may partly be wanting to hold on to a vision of a different life that he may have once contemplated. But by the end of the Season (and into Season 5) he no longer has a relationship to school. In a heartrending scene near the end of Season 5, Michael is unable to remember a youthful exuberant and innocent moment from that life that Duquan wants to share with him.

Randy’s situation is less extreme than Michael’s, but still illustrates how forces in the kids’ lives can make school success virtually unattainable for them. Randy is good-natured, bright, and entrepreneurial. He runs a candy business in the school, pretending he is a member of all three of the grade cohorts in the school (he changes school uniform to mark his entry into these different groups), to maximize his client base. He is very excited about math when Prez shows him how probability theory can help him calculate odds in dice and poker. Randy also wants to learn math so that he can open a business; in contrast to some other students’ professed career ambitions (one wants to emulate Dr. Ben Carson[15] and become a pediatric neurosurgeon, but has no idea what is involved in doing so), Randy’s are shown as realistic and appropriate. Randy likes being in school, and responds to Prez’s educational and personal overtures to him.

Randy lives with a caring and responsible foster mother, Miss Anna, and he will do anything to stay with her and keep out of a group home.[16] Randy has no ties to the drug world. But by a complex though entirely plausible set of developments, Randy attains a (basically undeserved) reputation for being a “snitch,” and kids at the school spurn and threaten him. Miss Anna pulls him out of school, at first temporarily, to keep him safe. The police, through stupidity, incompetence but also good intentions, contribute to Randy’s plight. Eventually Randy and Miss Anna’s home is firebombed and Miss Anna is badly injured. Randy feels deeply betrayed by the police who said they would keep him safe. At the end of the season Carver, a good-hearted and responsible police officer who tries to rectify the police’s abandoning of Randy, is unable to stop Randy’s placement in the dreaded group home, whose awfulness is compounded by his snitch reputation. Randy is beaten up as a snitch soon after his arrival. By nature a trusting and warm-hearted kid, Randy is shown briefly in Season 5 as brutalized and having himself become a brutalizer by his stint in the group home, compounded by a deep and corroding distrust of the police.

Namond is also shown as damaged by his home situation in a way that impinges on his relation to school. He is the son of Wee-Bey, a top lieutenant in the Barksdale drug gang, who is serving a life sentence for multiple murders (more than he has actually committed). Namond’s mother, De’londa, looks to Namond to step into his father’s shoes to continue the cash flow and maintain their relatively comfortable life style. But Namond does not have the temperament or, as time reveals, the values, for the job. His mother comes down on him hard as he struggles without success to be tough and to run his corner drug operation. Namond is a fun-loving, warm-hearted kid who likes to hang out and is good to his friends. He slowly and painfully comes to recognize that he will never be able to and does not want to follow his father’s path in the drug world. “I ain’t him,” Namond says ruefully.

During this period, the stress on Namond plays out at school, where he is disruptive of the regular class, bullies more vulnerable kids, and is disrespectful and even abusive to his teachers. He is one of the prime candidates for the “project” class. As the Season progresses, Namond is shown as eventually coming to a place with some positive potential for his future relation to school and life, partly because of the project class itself and partly because Colvin, the former cop and now project class aide, takes Namond under his wing. Colvin makes it possible for Namond to leave his mother and the life of the corner entirely. He and his wife essentially adopt Namond, who makes progress so that he is able to move back to the regular class. In Season 5, he is briefly but pointedly shown in a debate competition, making an argument for action to deal with AIDS in Africa.

The fourth boy, Duquan, has (like Michael) a drug-addicted mother, who, with her male partner, sells Duquan’s clothes for cash. School is shown as a crucial refuge for Duquan, as first Vice-Principal Donnelly and then Prez help keep him in clean clothes. Duquan thrives in the class and becomes the resident computer whiz. He shows care and sensitivity to other students—for example, to Letitia, a troubled girl in the class who razor-slices another girl who has tormented her and has humiliated Duquan (by moving away from him in class, saying that he smells). Duquan is helpful to Prez and to classmates who do not understand a math problem. Duquan’s hard won but precarious place in school and life is threatened by a new policy that requires that he be promoted to the 9th grade in the middle of the year (ironically a product of his academic success) when he is not socially and developmentally ready to do so. When Duquan’s family is thrown out of their apartment, Michael invites Duquan to share the abode he and Bug have established (after Michael has moved them both out of their mother’s place following Bug’s father’s murder). Duquan is shown at the end of the season giving up on school after a brief, indirect, and inchoate plea to Prez to keep him at Tilghman or at least to look after him, and despite a game attempt to attend the high school to which he has been assigned but for which he knows he is not ready. Duquan becomes a street drug dealer and no longer goes to school. (In Season 5, his life becomes more and more marginal and hopeless, and he eventually becomes a drug addict.)

The Thernstrom’s mantra of “no excuses” rings entirely hollow in face of the stresses of the lives of the Tilghman Middle students—as does Johnson’s “It’s your choice” and Gruwell’s “You take over from here.” The drug addiction, the crime connected to the drug trade, barely functioning families, and the like, can not help but impinge on the young people’s engagement with and success in school. The four boys try to engage with learning and with school and are occasionally successful but their situations just do not allow further progress. Until the larger issues of inequality and decent employment are addressed, The Wire is clearly saying, many kids will fail at school through no fault of the schools, or of their own.

The Students’ Potential for School Learning

But The Wire does not deprive the boys (or most of the students) of agency, constrained as that agency is by their circumstances. It is striking that the show definitively declares only a small number of the students so emotionally damaged by their circumstances that they are totally unable to respond to what school has to offer. One of the administrators says that only a certain number of the project kids are so completely damaged. Her point is to contrast this group with the larger group of project kids who, though disruptive and troubled (like Namond), are potentially capable of functioning in the world of school. The show wants to say that most of the kids in the school, very much including the four boys, would be capable of making significant educational progress were their lives and communities not so chaotic and troubled. The Wire portrays the students as naturally curious and constantly learning. They learn on the street, in Cutty’s gym, in school. With this trope, the show also implicitly rejects the familiar view, echoed by the Thernstroms, that African American culture is hostile to learning and to the use of the mind (as well as to school success).

One episode in Prez’s class—accorded special significance by its placement as the single scene before the opening credits (in this case, of episode 8)—nicely illustrates both the natural intelligence of the students, yet the distance the teachers have to travel to align that intelligence with subject mastery. Prez has put a math problem on the board and has written four possible answers to it in multiple-choice format. He asks the class which is the right answer. One boy, Calvin, provides it. Prez is a bit surprised (Calvin did not seem to have been paying attention) but asks him if he could explain how he reached that answer. Calvin comes to the board and notes that one of the four answers written on the board has chalk marks (“dinks”) around it [the source of my title for this paper]. Calvin knows that Prez teaches this same material to a previous class, so he infers that Prez has illustrated the correct answer to that class by standing at the board and putting dinks near the right answer in the course of explaining it, as Calvin has previously observed in Prez’s teaching style.

Calvin’s answer shows that he has been very observant, and has reasoned in an imaginative way from the available evidence to get the correct answer. What Calvin has not shown is any understanding of the mathematics Prez is trying to teach. But the barriers to his learning math are not portrayed as lack of capacity, or hostility to school success, but as his teacher’s having not yet figured out how to connect the subject at issue to this particular student or, more generally, to his class.

Prez’s journey as a teacher reinforces the value of school to the students and their potentiality for learning, as well as a more realistic and respectful take on the teaching profession than in the films discussed earlier. Prez is shown as initially entirely clueless as to what he will have to do as a teacher to connect with his students. Nor does he bring a natural authority or charisma to the job. When he speaks he is not heard by his students. His attempts at humor fall flat. Johnson and Gruwell also are initially unable to connect with their students. But they are portrayed as getting over this hump almost immediately, and the drama of both films revolves around the teachers’ losing confidence in their ability to sustain their performance of the role of the students’ savior, and their planning to leave the job. The students then entreat them to return. “You’re our light, Miss Johnson,” a student in Dangerous Minds, says, clearly speaking for the class (in doing so, reinforcing the racial subtext).[17] Prez is very different. He never becomes the kids’ savior. Rather, he is shown simply but continually trying to learn from his students what will work for them and what won’t. His openness, caring, and flexibility, qualities available to many teachers, are his great assets. There are no miracles, just small steps forward. The Wire does not say that unless Prez himself hangs in there, his students will be lost forever.

The show provides glimpses of the real world pedagogical challenges of the gap between Prez’s initial, conventional ideas about teaching and what his students bring to the subject of math. In his first class, Prez gives the students a problem about how long it will take to get from point A to point B given the distance and speed. Prez illustrates this problem by making the two points “Baltimore” and “Philadelphia.” The students query, “East or West Baltimore?” Prez is initially impatient with this answer, since for him the actual places don’t matter, only their role in the abstraction that solving the problem demands. So he says “It doesn’t matter—East Baltimore;” but the students hoot because they live in West Baltimore and East Baltimore is a different place (and a rival area). (The students also do not have a clear sense of where or what Philadelphia is.) Prez learns from this exchange both that he has to show the students how a math problem involves abstracting from a real life problem, and that some local knowledge will be important in teaching the students how to engage in this abstraction.

The issue of the abstraction demanded by math recurs a few times—a realistic portrayal of the teaching process, especially that of a new teacher. Highlighting this process as The Wire does demystifies the pedagogical challenges involved and makes it clearer that an ordinary reflective and flexible teacher with an intent to improve could well learn how to meet them. The show does not think all teachers are like this, and Tilghman Middle is peopled with burn-outs, time servers, and just lousy teachers such as the figures who dominate Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers and similar films, and who are the educational counterparts of similar characters on the Baltimore police force in The Wire. But the overall depiction of teachers is quite different from that portrayed in Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers, where Johnson’s and Gruwell’s success is not based on something transferable to others, something that inheres in a normal professional development of a teacher, but rather in a heroic commitment or special personal charisma. It is not that The Wire shies away from acknowledging the students’ educational deficits; many in the regular class are hardly working at grade level. But it shows that these deficits are far from entirely intractable by the teaching approach of a good, caring, tuned-in, and committed teacher, some examples of whom can be found in any existing school. The charismatic, overinvolved, outsider teacher of the two films is not the only sort of teacher who can reach the students in urban schools. But none of this is to deny the point emphasized earlier, that whether the students ultimately succeed educationally is not a matter of the teachers or the schools alone, but very much the larger community and society of which they are a part.

Soft-pedaling the “Cold Institutional Logic” in the Portrayal of Schools

In its portrayal of the potentiality of schools to address students’ educational needs, The Wire breaks somewhat from its own “cold, institutional logic” framework developed in relation to the police, the drug world, and city politics in the other Seasons. It is true that the demand for higher test scores requires the higher-ups to impose a deadening regimen on Prez’s class and the project class, and this is parallel to the demand for higher numbers of meaningless street arrests. However, the actual school administrators shown are by no means a bad lot, and none is analogous to Commissioner Burrell and Deputy Commissioner Rawls, who care about virtually nothing but their own position and advancement. Vice Principal Donnelly is a conduit for the school system’s institutional logic and defends moving Duquan to the high school before he is ready. She imposes the testing regime on the teachers without in any way trying to resist. Nevertheless, Donnelly is also a humane figure who treats students compassionately, helping Duquan, and treating Randy caringly when he is in a tough spot. She also (unsuccessfully) defends the project when it is threatened with termination. The black principal, though a very peripheral figure in the show, bends the rules a bit to allow the project to go through. The higher system bureaucrats at “North Avenue” (administrative headquarters of the Baltimore school system) are seen only very briefly. They impose short-sighted bureaucratic goals, but are not shown as narrowly careerist or cravenly self-serving like Burrell and Rawls. The district superintendent actually favors the project, acceding finally to the hard reality that City Hall won’t allow it in the current atmosphere (of budget deficits).

The general impression conveyed of the school system is that there are a fair number of competent and caring people trying to deal with a very difficult situation. Ms. Sampson, the teacher in the room next to Prez, is a knowledgeable and experienced teacher who helps Prez through various classroom management challenges; she frequently comes into his classroom to deal with behavior problems that are over his head, such as Letitia’s cutting of Chiquan. Ms. Duquette, the main project teacher, is also shown as a sound if not inspiring teacher. And of course Colvin, a hero from Season 3, functions as a very humane and caring adult in the project class. (This stratum of the Season’s characters is analogous to the “good” lower-level cops such as Greggs, McNulty, Moreland, Freamon, and Sydnor.)

Season 4’s more complex picture of the world of public education than the pure institutional failure and hopelessness that Simon sometimes articulates as the guiding theme of the show circulates to its viewers an important alternative to that conveyed by both the white savior films and the conservative strain of educational thought represented by the Thernstroms.

There are nevertheless some shortcomings in The Wire’s portrayal of urban education. The most serious is that virtually no families are represented as supporting their children’s education. Almost no parents help with homework, or even try to make sure their children are doing it. (Miss Anna, Randy’s foster mother, is the one exception to this.) No parents are shown wishing they could help but working too hard to do so. This portrayal is unfortunate since part of the conservative onslaught on public education is to claim that black urban parents don’t care about their childrens’ education. And this trope is often used, for example by the Thernstroms, to shift the onus for fixing the system away from policy to make the society more equal and the schools more effective.

This criticism echoes a point made by Elijah Anderson, a sociologist who has written trenchantly and influentially about day-to-day life in the kind of neighborhoods depicted on The Wire.[18] Anderson admires the show but says that what it omits are “decent” people—hardworking persons working at low-level jobs to try to do the best they can in a difficult situation.[19] That such a group exists is actually important to some elements of the show’s narrative. In Season 1, a “decent” person whom we barely meet is killed for being willing to testify against a Barksdale murderer. Season 3’s Hamsterdam experiment relies on the idea that if the drug trade is taken out of the neighborhoods where most inner city dwellers live, decent people can revive a semblance of neighborhood life. Occasionally a community meeting is shown in which such persons speak out. But none of them are actual characters in the show, and they do not command the viewer’s attention as individuals.

So it is clear that the creators of the Wire are aware of the existence of these people, but are not particularly interested in them. That is fine, unless the viewer is led by the show’s seeming gritty realism to think that the Wire is a panorama of all the important elements of urban black neighborhoods in Baltimore. Without evidence of the large number of stressed but not dysfunctional families who play a positive role in their children’s education, the viewer will miss a vital element of the educational equation. And one suspects that the show’s oft-noted male-centered outlook, and paucity of compelling and sympathetic community-based female characters, is related to the absence of any sympathetic mother doing her best to support her children’s education.

The Wire presents several central elements of a progressive view of urban education—a recognition of the inevitable impact of social and racial inequality on schooling, the intelligence and curiosity of black urban youth, the potentiality of public schools to make a positive difference in students’ lives, the good will and competence of many school personnel. Given the conservative and even reactionary character of so much public discourse and popular culture portrayals of the urban education world, this contribution to the politically-charged public conversation is to be greatly welcomed.[20]


1. Although David Simon says that the school is named after a Baltimore figure in the police department, I wonder if the name may have also been inspired by the lead singer, Earlington (“Sonny”) Tilghman, of the greatest Baltimore “doo-wop” group of the early/mid 1950’s, Sonny Til and the Orioles. [↑]

2. From blog “What’s Alan Watching?”, March 23, 2008. Sepinwall.blogspot.coom/2008/03/wire-david-simon-q.html [↑]

3. The project, and the show, officially assume that the kids headed for the drug trade are also the most disruptive kids (and vice versa). Colvin articulates this rationale, and it is never challenged. However, this oversimplified view is not actually borne out in the show; for example, Michael becomes a prime player in the drug world, yet is a completely “well-behaved” and exemplary student in the regular (not the project) class. (See discussion of Michael below.) [↑]

4. “Tracking” is an educational practice of separating students into different classes or groups according to their previous achievement levels, and providing less rigorous academic programs to the less advanced group. The project in Season 4 does involve tracking in this sense, but as Colvin and others point out, without the project, the students in the project would be doing little learning at all, and would be disrupting the education of the others. Although (avoiding) tracking is officially treated within Season 4 as if it were an example of a pointless bureaucratic rule, in fact the conversations about tracking in the show actually (rightly, in my view) accord the controversy about it more respect as a genuine and legitimate concern, though one ultimately outweighed by the benefits of the project. [↑]

5. Other urban school films are Teachers (1984), Stand and Deliver (1987), Lean on Me (1989), 187 (1997), Music of the Heart (1999), Half Nelson (2006). Robert Bulman analyzes this genre (in the context of other kinds of high school films) very insightfully in Hollywood Goes to High School: Cinema, Schools, and American Culture (New York: Worth Publishers, 2005), and I have drawn on his analysis to some extent. [↑]

6. One Hispanic father is more sympathetically portrayed in Dangerous Minds. But Johnson still has to win him over from his initial intention to punish his son; so the parent is, like the racist black grandparent, still presented as an obstacle to the child’s education. This trope is replayed in the 1999 Music of the Heart, in which a black parent similarly expresses resentment and race-based contempt for the white music teacher, and pulls her child out of the music class (only to have a change of heart later, in response to the teacher’s chiding her for her racial consciousness and bad educational values). [↑]

7. The “white savior” motif is particularly striking in Dangerous Minds when it is compared with the book on which it is based (LouAnne Johnson, My Posse Don’t Do Homework [renamed as Dangerous Minds after the film’s release] (New York: St. Martin’s, 1992). The scene of the racist black grandmother does not appear in the book. And the principal’s race is not identified; nor is he nearly so pig-headedly bureaucratic as in the film. [↑]

8. Henry Giroux, “Race, Pedagogy, and Whiteness in Dangerous Minds,” Cineaste, March 1997, vol. 22, #4: 46-50. A film like Stand and Deliver (probably the best of the urban education films), in which the teacher is not white, does share some elements with the white savior urban education films; but there are important differences involving the teacher’s understanding of the lives of the students, his use of their ethnic identity as a positive educational resource, and the recognition that racial discrimination is a barrier to the students. Equally significant, Dangerous Minds’s so distinctly counterposing the white teacher’s exemplary commitment to the students with the problematic presence of other adults of color, and of the disorder of the students’ of colors’ lives, makes its racial message much more racist than Stand and Deliver. (Freedom Writers is not as bad as Dangerous Minds in this particular respect, though it is still problematic.) [↑]

9. I do not mean to imply that Freedom Writers and Dangerous Minds are entirely reactionary urban education films. In a theme echoed in The Wire, they do show very clearly that inner city youth, so often regarded in the larger culture as stupid and socially worthless, are bright, fundamentally decent kids deserving of a quality education few of them receive. [↑]

10. Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003). [↑]

11. The Thernstroms say, “The racial gap in educational achievement…is…the main source of ongoing racial inequality” (p. 1). [↑]

12. The Thernstroms in turn blame the lack of educational will largely though not exclusively on the “monopoly” of teachers unions over public education. “Every urban school should become a charter [school],” they say (p. 256). A main feature of charter schools is that they are not bound by union rules in staffing. The aspects of “African American culture” the Thernstroms emphasize as negative are parental practices such as not reading to children, not being sufficiently involved in their education, and allowing their children to watch too much television. [↑]

13. Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom, America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible (1997). [↑]

14. Samuel Freedman, Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School (New York: Harper, 1991) [↑]

15. Ben Carson is an African American head of the Department of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He is a prominent figure in Baltimore and could be expected to be known by black school children there. [↑]

16. Randy’s likely biological father, “Cheese” Wagstaff, is an important character in “Proposition Joe’s” drug operation; his relation to Randy is never remarked upon, as far as I could tell, but the last name is a giveaway (an officer makes fun of it at one point) and is clearly intentional. Cheese plays no role in Randy’s life. [↑]

17. Certainly the conventions of Hollywood film and the standard two-hour film format affect the shape of the story arc of these two films, and may help to explain the brief time given to the teachers’ learning how to connect with the students, the “High Noon” model of the teacher, the savior theme, the overstating of the impact of the teacher on the students, and so on. But I am concerned only with the cultural tropes in the final product of these films, not their source. [↑]

18. Elijah Anderson, The Code of the Streets (1999). [↑]

19. Anderson’s critique is described in a piece on Simon by Mark Bowden, “The Angriest Man in Television,” Atlantic Monthly, January/February 2008. A similar criticism is made in John Atlas and Peter Dreier, “The Wire: Bush-Era Fable About America’s Urban Poor,” Dissent, March 2008. [↑]

20. I wish to thank Laura Blum-Smith, Judy Smith, Ben Blum-Smith, and my “Race and Education” group, especially Lisa Gonsalves and Nakia Keizer, for watching and discussing many episodes of Season 4 with me; and Drew Hannon, Ben Blum-Smith, Harry Chotiner, and especially Judy Smith for excellent feedback on various drafts of this article. And without the model over the years of my professional, caring, and committed schoolteacher children, Sarah Blum-Smith and Ben Blum-Smith, I would not have known what to say in this article. I am grateful to them. [↑]

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Lawrence Blum is a Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Education, University of Massachusetts, Boston. His scholarly interests are in race theory, moral philosophy, moral psychology, moral education, multiculturalism, social and political philosophy, philosophy of education, the philosophy of Simone Weil, and, more recently, philosophy and the Holocaust, and ethics and race in film.
All posts by: Lawrence Blum | Email | Website

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