"Teaching" Ferguson

Ashley Thorne

A new hashtag is trending on Twitter for the second time this fall—the first was in August shortly after police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. This time the hashtag’s prominence comes as a response to the announcement Monday night of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson. 

“I am quelling my anger by taking refuge in the #FergusonSyllabus tag. Education is power,” tweeted a library and technology teacher from Chicago. “Thinking of how to channel my tears, disappointment, and profound anger into solidarity & activism in research & teaching #FergusonSyllabus” wrote a PhD student at Indiana University. One high school teacher, whose courses are in “human geography,” said she had “Scrapped today's lesson plan to talk about Ferguson. Thanks to the #fergusonsyllabus for ideas.”

Though it’s being referred to with a definite article, there is no one particular “Ferguson syllabus.” Rather, a set of groups, including the New York Times Learning Network, the National Education Association, and The Atlantic, are offering what they call “resources” for bringing the lessons of the Michael Brown case to their classrooms.

Michael Brown’s death was untimely and unfortunate. So is the racial unrest that should no longer afflict this country, but does. Clearly we are in the midst of a long and painful racial misunderstanding. It is right to ask, “can’t we learn anything from this?”

The shapers of the Ferguson syllabus concept think so. But the lessons are limited; for instance, this isn’t a time to talk about the importance of weighing evidence in pursuit of the truth. As with much of the media maelstrom swirling around this story, most of which included “white police officer” and “black unarmed teenager” in reporting, the main thing in #Fergusonsyllabus is the perpetuation of one narrative: racism in America. It is a narrative in no danger of neglect in our schools, and not the only relevant one in this story.

Another way to see Ferguson is to view it as a consequence of American indulgence of identity politics nationwide. In school and college, students are encouraged to see bias everywhere. That nurturing of grievance doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it does not lead to deeper human unity but to the intensification of racial polarity. #Fergusonsyllabus is an effort to capitalize on this particular moment in time to continue the grievance-mongering while acting as if talking about racism in school is a new thing.

Various versions of the Ferguson educational resource lists consist of grade-appropriate guides on how to talk to schoolchildren about white privilege, racial profiling, and inequality in communities with “students of color.” Links to articles, TED talks, and NPR segments along the same lines are also being shared by the NEA and its companions.

The apparent frontrunner in this trend was an August 2014 post on the website of Teaching for Change, “Teaching About Ferguson,” by Julian Hipkins III. It opens:

As the new school year begins, first and foremost on our minds and in our hearts will be the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Teachers may be faced with students’ anger, frustration, sadness, confusion, and questions.  Some students will wonder how this could happen in the United States. For others, unfortunately, police brutality and intimidation are all too familiar.

The article seems to be what most people are referring to when they use the hashtag #Fergusonsyllabus, and it was reposted yesterday by the Zinn Education Project (an initiative aimed at promoting the teaching of books by radical revisionist historian Howard Zinn). In it Hipkins offers Ferguson-themed topics for classrooms, such as police brutality: he cites the Black Panthers’ 10-Point Platform of demands and suggests a curriculum in which students are encouraged to write their own demands. Many of Hipkins’ recommendations come from a Paulo-Freire-inspired group called Rethinking Schools, an “activist publication” which writes curricula according to a particular vision of social justice.

At the bottom of Hipkins’ article we learn that the creator of the #Fergusonsyllabus tag is a Georgetown University faculty member, Marcia Chatelain, who coined the tag in August and began using it as a badge that could be added to books and articles that support the dominant, race-based Ferguson narrative. She told the New York Times, “Please don’t fixate on debating the merits of the actors in this drama. Rather, look at this as an opportunity to help your students understand the complications of it.”  Essentially, what Chatelain means by saying “don’t fixate on debating the merits of the actors in this drama,” is that we shouldn’t weigh the evidence to try to understand what really happened.

On Monday all documented evidence in the case, which the grand jury members painstakingly sifted through over the course of several months, was released to the public. It is easily accessible online, and you can click on any testimony transcript, photo of physical evidence, autopsy report, or forensic analysis.

But is that what Marcia Chatelain did when she “taught” Ferguson yesterday in her history classes? According to her Twitter account, she “Had students finish statements in pairs: When I heard the news from the grand jury/When I think of Michael Brown's parents.” Another pair Chatelain asked students to complete was “When I talk to my friends about Ferguson/What scares me the most.” She focused on feelings rather than facts.

A term I’ve heard several times recently in conversation with college students and recent alumni is “emotional safety.” Students believe their college ought to keep them insulated from offenses. But that’s not the college’s job – no college campus should be a cozy bubble of homogenous thought. Beyond emotional safety, however, should be a concern for staying in touch with reality, and keeping students cognizant of the world as it actually is. Training them to react in fear and anger won’t accomplish this.

When he read the decision Monday night, St. Louis prosecutor Robert P. McCullough said that the grand jury’s role had been to “separate fact from fiction,” and he took media to task for distorting the truth by insisting on a storyline before the credibility of all the witnesses could be evaluated and the testimony held up against physical and other evidence. At least one faculty member, David M. Perry of Dominican University, is encouraging others to follow the jurors’ example and go to the primary sources.

But it appears that Marcia Chatelain and most of the other #Fergusonsyllabus hashtag users are continuing to insist on their preferred storyline. They are right that this case presents a teachable moment. It is a moment teachers and faculty members—no matter what they think of the jury’s decision—can use to have students consider the importance of always trying to find out what really happened. We live in a world of hearsay, hyperbole, and hoaxes, and we all have to do as McCullough said and separate fact from fiction. American life could be vastly different if we all practiced deliberately trying to understand things that anger us. We need to teach students shrewdness in the way they come to their opinions. Colleges today call this “critical thinking.” They could also call it truth-seeking. 


Image: "A Twitter Banner Draped Over The New York Stock Exchange For Twitter's IPO" by Anthony Quintano // CC BY-SA

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