The Wire has always been more than a TV show to me. So when I read that it is also going to be the subject of a university course at Harvard, I Googled feverishly to get as much information as possible.
It’s refreshing to know that one of the world’s finest educational institutions plans to use a groundbreaking work of art to begin a dialogue and hopefully create solutions to some of urban America’s most daunting problems. Harvard certainly has the resources to give the class – which will be taught by Dr. William Julius Wilson – every opportunity to be cutting edge. Similarly, Dr. Wilson has the knowledge and perspective to lecture with authority and rigor about The Wire. Nonetheless, I wonder exactly what the impact of this class will be.
First and foremost, Harvard is interested in influencing public policy. So on one level, Dr. Wilson will look to use his course and the research emerging from the coursework to do that, just as his book – entitled “When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor” – did over a decade ago. However, the rate at which one class – even a Harvard class – can influence public policy, is glacial.
When recently discussing The Wire, Dr. Wilson had the following passionate words to say, “I do not hesitate to say that [The Wire] has done more to enhance our understanding of the challenges of urban life, and the problems of urban inequality, than any other media event or scholarly publication, including studies by social scientists.” However if Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higgenbottom, chair of Harvard’s Department of African and African-American Studies, is to be believed, Wilson’s passion won’t be present in the classroom.
According to Higgenbottom, “The new class will focus on relating The Wire to real-life experience in the black community. And when I say real I don’t mean R-E-E-L. We won’t be talking about The Wire as an artistic production, but [Dr. Wilson] will be talking about The Wire as a lesson, as a window into understanding the very serious problem of poverty in our country today, and the social and cultural implications of it.”
The Wire is a masterpiece of pop culture. Whether he knows it or not, it’s the show’s artistic sensibilities which has Dr. Wilson so excited. If the artistry and the beauty of The Wire is ignored, then the point will be missed and the class will be a dry, clinical rendering of the woes of urban America. If Dr. Wilson’s course is to be a success, it must be inspired and think creatively about the nuanced issues that The Wire raises.
The two most complicated characters in The Wire were Stringer Bell and Michael Lee. Bell was a hardened criminal with brains and entrepreneurial dreams. Lee was a brilliant good-hearted teenager who became a cold-blooded killer due to the limited options that life in West Baltimore presented him. There are tens of thousands of Bells and Lees throughout urban America. Devising methods to reach and mold that genius must be one of the primary goals of the course.
For that goal to be reached, this class must have the soul of an artist, not of a social scientist. At the ground level, it must be integrated with what’s going on locally; Boston and Cambridge must be part of the course. A year ago, Boston’s Ella Baker House, in conjunction with former Wire co-star Sonja Sohn, started a program called “reWired for Life”. This program uses The Wire to help young men and women with their life choices, but lacks Harvard’s resources. Harvard and Dr. Wilson – who are aware of the efforts at Ella Baker House – should join forces with that program.
If influencing policy is one of the goals, then the course should require that its students also instruct community members on how to craft policy and advocate for it at the municipal level. However, as impactful as that could be, it still seems like an underutilization of all that The Wire has to offer. The real question is whether or not it is actually possible to mine the treasures of The Wire in just one semester.
For the lessons of The Wire to be fully learned and implemented, a college level curriculum is required. Creating a full curriculum is beyond my skill set, but I do have at least three ideas for 200-level classes that would be helpful to the cause. Wire 201-203 would be “What if Stringer Bell were as well-versed in the philosophies of Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois as he was with those of Adam Smith?”, “The Gangster Psyche: Why Avon Barksdale Resisted The New Day Co-op” and finally “Can drug profits be legitimately used to help revitalize urban America?” These may seem like oddball classes but it is precisely that type of oddball thinking that is needed to break the back of urban poverty and despair.
Nonetheless, every great journey begins with the first step, and I applaud Harvard and Dr. Wilson’s effort as I wait with great anticipation for his first class. If I were Dr. Wilson, though, I wouldn’t be satisfied until Harvard offered an entire interdisciplinary major on The Wire that required one year studying “abroad” – right there in the hood.