Democracy Incorporated

Writer Ed Burns on education, totalitarianism, and the possibility of community

Ed Burns on the set of <i>The Wire</i>
Ed Burns on the set of The Wire (Photo by Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

Ed Burns hasn't had what you would call a traditional career path. Working for the Baltimore Police Department, then as a public school teacher, he eventually partnered with David Simon in creating The Wire, one of the most acclaimed dramatic series in television history. His acute, jaundiced eye was trained upon Charm City's institutional failings as a metaphor for America's and arguably was at its sharpest during season four, which delved into the dysfunction of the school system. It's due to his take on education that the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union invited Burns to speak at its annual meeting this weekend, themed Youth Rights in Texas: Sensible School Discipline. The Chronicle recently spoke with Burns about education in the 21st century, the unabated rise of the surveillance state, and more.

Austin Chronicle: Knowing some of your background in police surveillance before you went on to teaching, I'm wondering if you had any preliminary thoughts about this recent Washington Post report, "Top Secret America," about how we're redoubling our efforts in surveillance essentially to the point of overkill. I was wondering if you thought any of this was surprising.

Ed Burns: I think there was a book out, Spies Among Us, a few years ago, which said basically that the intelligence process is 80 percent outsourced to private industry. So if you take away whatever's left of our constitutional safeguards, these guys can get pretty much whatever they want, you know?

AC: Yeah, I think that's probably what freaks people out the most is the confluence of private and public information and the real unaccountability with where that goes and how it's used.

EB: We talk about "private" and "public," but if you watch these guys, today he's wearing a government hat, and tomorrow he's wearing a private hat, and then the day after that he's back with his public hat. There's no barrier. It's a complete follow-up of what's been going on in Iraq. It's the perfection of the use of intelligence, gathered along with the police tactics, to sort of try to control the population. You could imagine what would happen if they turned that loose here in this country.

AC: A through line through all five seasons of The Wire is a sense of the difficulty of institutional change; season four dealt with schools and delivered a relatively bleak update on those prospects. Do you think our educational system can be reformed in its present state?

EB: If we look at reform – with the small "r" or a large "R" – as we have it, I don't think we can reform education. And that's just the way we teach. But if you think about its history, why do we have public education? What's the purpose of it? This grew out of the birth of the industrial age, where people like Rockefeller and Carnegie had incredible influence. And these guys were basically wanting a docile labor force. And this public school system, it doesn't really create energized, powerful citizens. Nor does it create, except for the top 20 percent or so, a world where people can really think, can really process. I guess if you're sitting on the assembly line, they don't want you angry. So, in that sense, if we change the approach to something more like an open-source school system, where the kid has more control over his education, if the burden fell on him and not the numbness of this testing, then in the short term, I think you could get some relative progress. But if you're looking for true reform – and now, I'm speaking more for kids who are coming from these really stressed neighborhoods – the damage had started for them before they even got out of the cradle. It is such a powerful drag on them that there's no catching up. They talk about the resilience of these kids, but, if you think about what they've gone through, the resilience doesn't always last. If you look at the numbers ... the third grade's doing really well, the second grade's doing really well, but, you know, middle school kids aren't doing well – and not doing well because there's a difference between schooling and education, and that's sort of where the twain parts. And the kids just are no longer captivated by the classroom.

AC: Yeah. That almost reminds me of one of the subplots in season four, where Bunny Colvin creates a school within a school for the corner kids and tries to engage them in learning and socializing in a capacity that hits home for them.

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen visits an AISD classroom.
Superintendent Meria Carstarphen visits an AISD classroom. (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

EB: If you want the product to be a creative, powerful citizen, paying attention to what the hell's going on in this country today, then you have to empower a childhood classroom. The classroom then ceases to become four walls, and teachers become facilitators, not just this industrial-age, line 'em up in rows, talk down to them, have them regurgitate, and then beat them to death with tests kinda thing. The testing system tests nothing, if you think about it. None of this is valuable to anybody but maybe 5 percent of kids who are gonna go off into some kind of academic world. So it sounds good.

You know, it's like that image of the family farm: the cow, the mom and pop, the kid, the cows and the sheep, all that kind of stuff. But the family farm is this big industrial corporation, you know what I mean? And we're not helping the family farmer. We're killing ourselves with the people who spray all the pesticides across the Midwest, with these megafarms. It's sold to us. And because we are no longer critical and because we are so enamored with the sound bites, that is not explored. And one of the big faults in the failure of democracy is the failure of the media. Once you lose that fourth estate, that ability to pry it open, look under the rock, and say, "Oh my God" – once you've given that up, then it's propaganda. So, when you talk about kids and schools and zero tolerance and all this, you and I could be having the same conversation in the 1980s. In the 1990s. We could have it 50 years from now, if there is 50 years from now. That's the thing – we're not paying attention to process.

AC: I'm wondering about your opinion of Arne Duncan, who Obama brought on as secretary of education. He was pretty controversial back in Chicago for propagating stuff like pay-for-performance, shutting down low-performing schools, and possibly paving the way for charter schools. It doesn't really feel like a refutation of No Child Left Behind; it seems more of a tweaking or continuance of a lot of that stuff we saw under Bush.

EB: I agree with you 100 percent. I think that at least No Child Left Behind, as a slogan, suggested we were going to make an effort. But Race to the Top is something that's counter to how the good schools teach. You go to these really fancy schools where the parents are shelling out $25,000 for kindergarten – there it's all cooperative, they can interact, and this is the way it's done in the cutting-edge businesses; this is teamwork. Race to the Top suggests, "I'm going over top of you; you're going over top of me; we'll crawl our way to the top." And Duncan basically has no experience in education that I know of; he's out of the [Chicago Mayor Richard M.] Daley machine, and he's someone who has that Milton Friedman idea of "Let's privatize." And again, the charter school is like the idea of the family farm. You know, if you had a neighborhood charter school where teachers and parents were all involved, okay. But are charter schools that way? You know, a lot of them are corporations. ... Again, in the aggregate, it's this whole idea of privatization. When you have $500 billion sitting out there to be exploited, people are going to make an effort to take that money.

AC: Aside from these sort of faux-populist movements like the tea party, it doesn't seem like there's any true populist, public outrage at this stuff. I don't know if that's just something endemic to America and the whole concept that it's unpatriotic to hate on the big guy, but you'd think with things being the way they are now, if this wouldn't inspire revolt in the street, then what would?

EB: Well, if the purpose of the school system is to increase anxiety and put failure squarely on your shoulders, then the difference between the 1930s and this first decade of the 21st century is the real impact of a group of people who are being hosed down and yet not in the street. And the difference between Obama and Franklin Roosevelt is Roosevelt had people in the street, and he could turn to the rich men and say, "You'd better give them a little something, or they'll take it all." And Obama doesn't have that. Not that I'm a big fan of his, but he doesn't have that energy that's pulsating and pushing him, so he's staying pretty much right of center. And if things were different and people were throwing bricks, then maybe with the reforms we're seeing that are so watered down, so biased toward the lobbyists and the powerhouses, maybe that would change.

AC: Yeah, but without that groundswell, it's really hard to create that pressure to make that possible.

EB: And what it opens itself up for is fascism. Do you know Sheldon Wolin, the writer? The philosopher? He sort of followed up on Hannah Arendt, who did the classic book on totalitarianism. His book is called Democracy Inc. He talks about this idea of inverted totalitarianism. So all the mistakes of classical totalitarianism – the leadership of the individual, these types of things – that's gone now. It's now a corporate state. We have a myth of democracy, but it's only a myth. No matter who you elect, it seems to be the same guy. And nothing seems to change. If you look at health care and what happened to that, if you look at the Wall Street reform and what happened to that, you're looking at a plutocracy, where a very few people have absolute control, and since they're wedded with the military, I don't think they're gonna give it up very easily.

AC: Invariably, it's the old "half-loaf, whole-loaf" question: Should we be thankful for what's been accomplished under the circumstances, or should we take a step back and say, "Wow, this is so incredibly minuscule in response to the problems that we're facing"?

EB: True. We haven't got to the worst times yet, but if we ever do, it'll be the only hope for this country. When people are so disenchanted with the rhetoric and so frustrated that they sort of throw off the yoke, then maybe we'll see some kind of meaningful reform. But until that happens, then we'll be playing these games, and the media will put its two talking heads together, and they will talk back and forth in a very narrow parameter, and nothing will mean anything, and the two candidates we'll look at will be lock, stock, and barrel members of the corporate state. Nothing will change. Where I see hope is in turning in to the community. Turning back to community, to children, very young children, and creating a process. And in so doing not only help to create the environment where the children can heal but create an environment where we ourselves can get out of the white noise of what's happening and find some kind of rejuvenative strength.

The ACLU of Texas Annual Meeting and Youth Rights Conference occurs Saturday, July 31, at the Omni Austin Hotel at Southpark. For more information, visit

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Ed Burns, The Wire, Barack Obama, ACLU

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