‘South Park’ fosters classroom discussions of social issues

October 26, 2010

The “South Park” kids are team-teaching with Philosophy lecturer Josh Baron and Sociology professor Sara Raley as they explore with their students such controversial social issues as gay marriage, immigration, race, consumerism, business ethics and pornography.

And who better to engage students and trigger impassioned discussions than fourth-graders Kyle Broflovski and Stan Marsh, stars of the Comedy Central cartoon TV show?

In more than 12 seasons and 180 episodes, “South Park” has never avoided an issue, no matter how explosive the topic, says Baron, who brings the philosophical approach to the Sophomore Interdisciplinary Studies course, “South Park and Contemporary Issues.”

“Instead, the show uses humor to make us examine the topic – and often it presents a third side to the issue,” Baron says.

In “Best Friends Forever,” which deals with euthanasia, the “South Park” gang is grappling with whether or not to disconnect a dying friend’s breathing tube. The case plays itself out in the media, with both sides airing images of the ailing friend on life support in a similar fashion to a recent situation in Florida. Then, they find a will and a third point of view – the friend has directed that he should not be put on TV if ever in a miserable state. Everyone has forgotten to even consider what the friend may have wanted.

It is often this third perspective and the funny way it is presented that surprises, intrigues and ultimately kindles thought.

“South Park gives us a way to talk about complex, contentious issues,” says Raley, explaining that the humor in the show frees the sophomores to think both critically and creatively about the topic and to offer their opinions in class discussions.

Raley and Baron guide their students’ experience using texts, theories and concepts from both sociology and philosophy in conjunction with selected episodes of “South Park.” But they say Stan and Kyle – even troublemaker Eric Cartman – are vital to the classroom energy.

In fact, the “South Park” boys are in the center of yet another controversy when immigrants from the future – dubbed “goobacks” for the extraterrestrial slime dotting their bodies – steal their snow-shoveling jobs by charging only 25 cents to the boys’ $15. Soon the goobacks – a physical amalgamation of all races and nationalities who speak a universal language – take over everything. While two sides argue about whether to make them go back to the future or not, Stan launches a campaign to make the future better so that the goobacks will want to stay in it.

Again, that third viewpoint pops out of the mouth of a South Park character.

“The show asks ‘What if we provided aid to improve the infrastructure of other countries? Would immigrants want to stay there?’” Raley says. “Students gain a deeper understanding of how to analyze and critically think through the very real social problems addressed in the TV show – and they see the benefits of applying an interdisciplinary approach to social issues.”

The class gives a rousing endorsement of the course, summed up in the words of Carly Ziegler.

“College is supposed to be about stepping out of the box, and this class does it,” she says “It’s helped me sort out social topics and educated me so that I can form my own opinions based on information.

“Now, when these issues come up in the dorm – and they do – I can add something to the conversation and talk about them intelligently.”