A while back I realized that once upon a time I was actually in Ferguson, Missouri. It was around Christmas of 1970, and I was visiting a friend—in fact a girlfriend—in Florissant, the other town with which Ferguson shared its high school.
Ferguson and Florissant were then, at least as I recall, quick-sprung suburbs of modest tract houses and orderly streets, having grown probably way too rapidly to house manpower for the giant McDonnell-Douglas plant and other factories we drove by on the highway. Ferguson was a poster-child town for American postwar suburbia, a new phenomenon to me on that scale, although I guess I had seen smaller versions around Buffalo.
I vividly remember the moment in which I most egregiously embarrassed myself, asking, as we drove along another long, low brick-and-glass building that I figured must produce airline components by the thousand, “What do they make in there?”
“That’s my high school,” was the rather chilly response from my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. And indeed it was McCluer High School, forty-some years later the school of Michael Brown.
I had seen big public high schools before, but nothing on the scale of McCluer. She and I had talked about our schools before, naturally, and my eyes had goggled at the number of students in her class—many hundreds, perhaps a thousand—as hers had goggled at the tiny number, seventy or so, in mine. Two Americas, or at least two distinct American experiences, has met. And now I had seen, and passed a kind of judgment, on a big part of hers.
In those days the American high school as factory was not a metaphor I had yet encountered, and maybe it hadn’t been created, but McCluer, from the highway, certainly had that look about it. In 1968 it had sent my friend and a handful of her classmates off to “elite” New England colleges, and one imagines, darkly, that it had also yielded more than its share—there is no such thing as a fair share in this—of students whose names are now etched in the blackish stone of a long, low memorial in Washington, D.C. The civil rights movement was a big thing in our lives, but the signal tragedy of our coming of age was Vietnam.
Like so many other towns on the edges of great cities, Ferguson, barely having caught up with itself as a teeming suburb, was destined for still more change. Its story of white flight, job loss, and tax base erosion is pretty common, and I can only surmise what each of these extended, slow-motion paroxysms must have meant to successive generations of teachers and students at McCluer High School. I can surmise, but because there are plenty of people who lived and are living it, I have scarcely a right even to try.
And now, perhaps marking an end and a new beginning, we have the tragedy of Michael Brown and the larger tragedy of Ferguson. This is most of all a tragedy for America, a place where change comes so rapidly and seems increasingly untethered from the core values that we claim to hold at the center of our society: in the words of the Superman prologue which any McCluer student of the 1960s could have recited, Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
In 1970 we were learning in Southeast Asia that our nation could no longer, if ever it could have, bend steel in our bare hands or change the course of mighty rivers. We were developing our special technique for leaping headlong into situations whose implications were obscure and unpredictable, where steel could break and mighty rivers flood. Our suburbs, a kind of point of national pride even as we understood some of the irony of their sameness and sterility (thank you, Mad Magazine and John Updike), were ultimately going to be just as unpredictable in their development, and the body of Michael Brown, moldering for so long not in its grave but by the side of the street, seems to symbolize a situation we might have seen coming and done something about long ago.
We just let things happen. We let our high schools look (and some people say feel) like factories, we let our factories look like ruins, we let communities decay into war zones, we let our police forces look like armies. I don’t want to think that in all this we have begun to look more and more like our true selves or that it is all beginning to look like our destiny.
Lots of educators these days talk about “mindfulness.” Too often this sounds like yoga and aromatherapy, but we need to embrace this notion on a macro level and use the lessons that are staring us in the face in Ferguson and ten thousand other places that haven’t erupted but that have been just as caught up in the mindless currents of American social history. Superman isn’t here, and I stopped waiting for him after the assassinations of MLK and RFK in ’68, so it’s going to be up to us and our children (and, surprise! our students) to get us back on a path toward Truth and Justice.
As educators, we have to begin to stand up and name the places where we have gone wrong: income inequality, persistent racism, the dismissal of education itself as a tool for social justice. These are topics we cannot ignore in our classes and in those conversations we call professional development. We in independent schools like to talk about our public purpose, and the biggest public purpose of all is to make sure that our society endures and that it is driven by the better angels of our nature. We need to face up to reality and acknowledge that these angels exist, must exist and be nurtured, and that their urgings must tether us mindfully and heartfully to our values and to one another.
And what would this mean in practice?
For one thing, working to build some transparency around privilege in our own communities. It may be a long way from your campus to Ferguson, but you probably have some students who travel a similar route each day. How much does your school community acknowledge the differences in resources and opportunity that exist with in it, and how often do we ask ourselves and our students to contemplate what these differences in cultural, social, and economic capital mean? How often do we operate under the kind of blasé assumption that we all share a kind of cozy sameness in our lives? Acknowledging the degree to which this is not true is a step toward opening deeper conversations about what these differences mean not just in our own schools and communities but in the world.
For another, we need to make effective and strategic efforts to bring “the real world” into our teaching. If you dig back to the era of the Founding Fathers and some of our earliest schools, you can find plenty of aspirational “mission” language around preparing citizens to live in a democratic society; John Dewey then said it again at greater length. Let’s embrace this notion explicitly and stop pretending that daily events have nothing to do with 6th-grade English or 10th-grade biology or Latin III or studio art. They have plenty to do with all of what we teach, and teachers need to see their curricula as preparation for a life in the world and make note of the clear but often complex connections between class content and the social and cultural context of students’ lives.
It’s not about standing on soapboxes and haranguing students and colleagues to care. It’s about realizing that the challenging issues of the world, whether they relate to Ferguson or climate change or global terrorism, have a place in our schools that ought to be making urgent demands our thoughtful, and above all honest attention.