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Ferguson's Lessons for the Fall Semester

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The most serious educational failure in America was on display in Missouri last week, and it has nothing to do with high stakes testing even though the stakes are very high for our nation. Ferguson is the latest, but not the only, community where Americans are flunking the lessons of racial justice and social harmony. The fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was a tragic event that demands explanation and resolution. But the subsequent days of police obfuscation on the facts, terrifying police militarization, press repression and, on the part of some angry citizens, looting and violent protests reveal significant social problems with long roots in educational failure.

Education reformers would have us believe that all that matters in schools today are data and metrics. But all the knowledge in the world is for naught if the most diverse nation in human history tears itself apart over the very differences that should be our greatest strength.

The education reform movement is a peculiarly cold and clinical affair, stripping most learning of flesh-and-blood human values and perspectives in favor of whatever can be measured on bubble sheets. Fundamental moral and ethical values that are essential to hold communities together --- respect for human differences, active solidarity with the poor and suffering, the ability to engage in successful conflict resolution, cultivation of integrity as a lifelong habit, a disposition for peace and justice --- are repressed in a curriculum engineered for short-term test results rather than lifelong citizenship and leadership in this very complicated society.

As students return to school this fall with the echoes of gunshots and angry protests reverberating across the country, how will teachers address the lessons of Ferguson? Will they even be able to do so?

The lessons of Ferguson weave through a broad swatch of the curriculum --- History, Sociology, Civics and Government, Psychology and Behavioral Sciences, Forensics, Ethics, Philosophy and Religious Studies.

Among all the subjects, the most obvious place for teachers to start is History. How will History teachers use this moment to ignite a more serious examination of the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, and in particular, the circumstances of protest, both violent and nonviolent, that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Just a few months ago, efforts to get today's students interested in something that happened 50 years ago might have evoked yawns at best. Now, the images from Ferguson layer-over images from Selma and Little Rock, exposing the stark reality that a half-century of progress may be eroding rapidly --- or, truthfully, never was as strong as we liked to think.

Just a little over six years ago, millions of American stood on the national Mall giving witness to the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Some pundits hailed the election of the nation's first African American president as evidence that we had moved to the "post-racial" phase of American life. How wrong they were!

In many ways, Obama's presidency, while a beacon of hope for many, has also deepened veins of racial hatred in some corners of our society where the Second Amendment is exalted while the Fourteenth Amendment is repressed.

President Obama, himself, has seemed maddeningly remote from most discussions of racial justice, even as he remained on Martha's Vineyard this week as Ferguson boiled over. But perhaps it's an example of a latent instinct to racism when we expect the first black president to solve national racial problems that his 43 predecessors could not address. No lesser historical figures than George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson did not confront the evil of slavery. Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves but could not have imagined the horrors to come in the subsequent years of Reconstruction, segregation, Jim Crow laws, lynchings and active racial oppression in this nation.

Ironically, the greatest piece of civil rights legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was signed by a president with a notable history as a segregationist. President Lyndon B. Johnson had a change of heart only after he started counting votes. The study of practical politics suggests that most great political and social change comes only after serious compromises; effective political leaders use all available tools to win consensus without demanding consistency at all times on all topics. (Congress: take note!)

What's happening in Ferguson is only one dimension of the American struggle with the sociology of racial and ethnic difference. Even as we shudder at the images of militarized police in helmets and tanks pointing rifles at citizens, along the southern border the immigration crisis also provokes, among some Americans, a militaristic rather than a humanitarian response. A nation of immigrants seems to deny its own multi-ethnic heritage, resenting other people who want the same things our immigrant parents and grandparents wanted for us.

To be sure, a rapid and even hard-edged law enforcement response is appropriate when people break the law. But police and security officers must know how to calibrate their responses. Looters are not the same as legitimate protestors, and protestors are not the same as reporters covering the scene. Stealing a cigar is not a capital offense. Police must be sophisticated enough to tell the difference, and this is also a matter of education and training.

"Who will police the police?" is a question as old as Plato. Philosophy is not an abstraction for professors but an essential component of teaching students how to reason logically in the face of extreme provocation. How to master and even conquer the emotion of the moment with a more intellectually sophisticated response to anger and confrontation is the philosophical talent a peaceful society must cultivate not only in its citizens but also in its police and political leaders.

Perhaps it goes to far to observe that the images of militarized police in Ferguson are prophetic. But unless and until the United States does a better job educating all of its citizens to act with respect for human dignity, to ensure genuine justice for all, and to build peaceful communities amid great diversity, the ugly specter of tanks and military rifles on our neighborhood streets will not go away.