TV degrees and other true fictions

Outcry across the web because Harvard students are to study the TV show The Wire .

Said Sociology Professor William J. Wilson:

The Wire’ has done more to enhance our understanding of the systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the poor than any published study.”

Not everyone agrees.  “Just when you thought the show couldn’t be anymore overrated” wrote TheBaffler on the Huffington Post.  Another commented that if was a good show, if you had “to teach TV shows to rich and coddled post-adolescents”.  Over on Twitter, killahmcgillah is more forthright: “uh, #harvard students get to take a class on “the wire” next year? i knew that shithole was barely a real school”.

Well, apart from the fact that as I have previously commented, watching The Wire is more like work than play, I can’t see what all the fuss is about.

Ok, TV shouldn’t be a replacement for all formal academic study. I doubt I could become a successful journalist based on the lessons of the newspaper staff in The New Adventures Of Superman. And I’m pretty sure I won’t hone my catering skills just by following the exploits of Monica from Friends. Just because Dawson Leery was a great film-maker does not mean I will be.

Yet I can still see the benefit of Harvard students watching The Wire.

For one module of my politics degree at Nottingham University, I spent a semester watching TV. West Wing, Yes Minister, even The Simpsons at one point. We also watched movies like Mr Smith Goes To Washington and heaven forbid, read a few books, Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate being just one example.

The class, surprisingly very popular, focused on the representation of politics in fiction.  We used these sources as a starting point from which to ruminate on matters from how the non-political sectors of society perceive the political to the more philosophical question of whether life is essentially a social construct shaped by art.

All that from watching the work of the (great) Aaron Sorkin.

An unorthodox teaching method? Certainly. Useful and memorable? Very much so.

In arts subjects – perhaps science too though I’m no expert – we frequently refer to newspaper reports and commentary as source material. English students have long been using literature as a basis to consider pertinent social ansmits460d cultural questions.

So why not use unconventional source material like TV shows? It doesn’t mean dumbing down, and it doesn’t amount to a degree in David Beckham studies.

The reality is that we live in a worlds where the lines between the imagined and the actual are blurred. How many of us can distinguish between what Sarah Palin said in the run up to the 2008 election and what Tina Fey did as her TV alter-ego. Was Obama’s election aided by voters seeing ethnic minorities as the very capable Presidents Matthew Santos and David Palmer, from West Wing and 24 respectively, as successful holders of the office?

Fiction doesn’t come out of nowhere. Even the most outlandish story has some relevance in society – think Shelley’s Frankensteinian monster as a recreation of the outsider, alienated in a capitalist society, or The Simpsons as a comment on the changing face of the nuclear family.

Art imitates life. It’s only logical that life can learn from art.

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