Saturday, December 7, 2013

Educational Myopia

Barney Miller is my favorite television show - has been ever since I was a little kid.

I loved the off-beat and often dark humor, the pathos, the gritty NYC setting and the well-developed characters.

One of the recurring themes to the show is the frustration of working in a bureaucracy that strips people of their autonomy and their humanity.

A two part, hour long episode of Barney Miller from Season 7 dealt with just that theme, as Inspector Lugar comes into the 12th precinct to tell the detectives that the brass downtown have decided to reorganize the NYPD into specialty squads delineated by crime category rather than geography.

Lugar tells the detectives that he had to call in a few IOU's, but he got them a good gig - they're now going to be working homicide.

This is not something the detectives welcome, but as they are just cogs in the machine of the bureaucracy, they will do their best to adapt.

In the beginning of the first part, a recurring character who is Jewish is arrested along with the owner of business next door who is from an Arab background.

The two argue over who threw a rock through the Jewish man's window in an obvious parallel to the Israeli-Arab relations in the Middle East.

Both men are released early on, but the Jewish man comes back later to say that he now knows the Arab neighbor was not at fault.

He tells the detectives that he is being shaken down by kids in a gang and wants the detectives to put a stop to the shakedown.

Barney tells him the detectives of the 12th precinct cannot handle the complaint because of the NYPD reorganization.

He must go to another precinct where he does not know the cops in order to register his complaint.

We learn later from the man's neighbor that he never went to the other precinct because he wasn't comfortable going to strangers.

The kids come to shake him down again and in the process, the man is shot and killed.

The detectives at the 12th now get the call and Wojo says something to the effect of "I guess we can handle this now that it's a homicide."

A pall hangs over the precinct, as the dead man is somebody the detectives know for a long, long time.

Lugar comes back and makes some bad joke about one of the murder suspects in the holding cell in the squad room.

Barney looks at him sourly and Lugar says, "Hey, it's just a joke, Barn..."

Miller says "Wanna hear a joke, Inspector? I got a joke for you.  It's about specialty squads, this one...It's about cops bureaucratically confined into one singularly dehumanizing task so that they become so myopic, so cut off from the people, from the community around them, so insensitive to their needs...And this man who trusted us, who came to us for help, who lived around the corner for God sakes! The man is dead now and we could have prevented it.  That's the funny part, inspector, the whole stupid joke was on him..."

As I was watching this show, I couldn't help but think about my own frustration about the way educators have been forced to become myopically obsessed with test scores and with data, how we have lost some of the humanity of ourselves and our students in the process.

Times may have changed in New York City since Barney Miller first aired, but some of the themes the show dealt with surely haven't.

The struggle to maintain your humanity in an increasingly bureaucratic, mechanized, technologized machine - that's one theme that never gets old or out-of-date.

Watch the whole show if you have the time, but here's the part with Barney's monologue.  It's about 10 minutes and 25 second or so into the clip:

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