The Birth of the #FergusonSyllabus

In St. Louis and around the country, professors and students grapple with the lessons of Ferguson. 

How do schools teach Ferguson?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Lucas Jackson/Reuters and Thinkstock.

What is college for? In the scintillating world of higher-ed wonkery, we are constantly arguing about this: The cultivation of a critically thinking citizenry! Vocational training! Upward mobility! But another great way to think about college is as a place where students learn to think about the world outside themselves. College can offer students a safe, productive, and stimulating environment to speak—and learn—about current events; to learn about those events’ historical, social, and political contexts; and to bring a modicum of understanding and peace to what seems at times like a violent and incomprehensible world.

The recent shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—a suburb of St. Louis, where I live—is just such an event, and it was fresh on the minds of college students and faculty when school began here in mid-August. Students at Washington University and Saint Louis University took part in peaceful protests, walkouts, and community actions across town; meanwhile, professors in related disciplines—sociology, social work, criminal justice—quickly adapted their syllabi to address the history that continued to unfold on their doorsteps.

Yes, agree the faculty, we are living history. But what their course plans endeavor to show is that we are always living history—that, in fact, to understand the events in Ferguson is to understand the complex and painful historical context of the region, one permanently stained with the legacy of white supremacy: slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, “redlining” (refusing to grant mortgages to majority-black neighborhoods).  

And it’s not just happening here. The desire among professors and students to explore the context of the Brown shooting has resulted in an informal nationwide movement, in fact, loosely gathered under the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus (begun by Georgetown professor Marcia Chatelain). Participants from a variety of disciplines have offered articles, books, blog posts, videos, and more to help teachers help their students understand what is happening here.

This “syllabus” is certainly far removed from the esoteric fare your average freshman encounters—sure, The Epic of Gilgamesh and drosophila flies are important, but their immediate relevance to 18-year-olds is often a bit of a stretch. The events of Ferguson—and, more broadly, the workings of the U.S. criminal justice system, and the racial and economic segregation of our cities—are, on the other hand, palpable around them now. To transform the needless death of a young man to a “teachable moment” may feel heartless, but that doesn’t mean our students shouldn’t learn from it. In fact, they’re eager to.

Many of the most important contributions to the Ferguson syllabus come from this area’s colleges. At Saint Louis University, for example, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that criminology and social work professor Norman A. White will focus on what he has termed “human justice,” a new way of looking at “offenders and the justice system” that concentrates on “providing dignity to everyone.”

Meanwhile, the regional branch of the University of Missouri–St. Louis, which is itself located just down the street from Ferguson, is deeply involved in the community response to the shooting, and it is there where criminal justice professor Daniel Isom (a former St. Louis city police chief who was just appointed the Missouri director of public safety) is looking to “to build a case study” with his students on handling a charged police shooting: “How would you deal with a protest situation, what are the steps you go through as a law-enforcement agency in terms of managing a crowd and releasing information to the public?” He and his students, he told the Chronicle, will also discuss best practices in community policing, and “whether a more-diverse force might have been able to quell some of the unrest in Ferguson or build a better understanding and communication with the community.”

Let’s say, however, that you don’t live here, but you are teaching (or taking) a course in sociology, criminology, or contemporary American history or culture. Let’s say you would like your students (or, for that matter, your professor) to learn more about the historical and cultural context of what’s happening here (and in Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, New Orleans, etc.). You’re in luck, because contributions to the Ferguson syllabus have come in (and keep coming in) from around the country. It’s daunting to revamp a syllabus or rethink a course just as the school year begins. But professors who are looking to explore these issues in greater depth have a rich trove of #FergusonSyllabus material to discuss.

For example, Chicago organizer and educator Mariame Kaba has posted a full set of interactive lesson plans on her blog Prison Culture. There’s also Chatelain’s original Ferguson syllabus, this real-time Tumblr compilation, the spectacular reporting of Slate’s own Jamelle Bouie, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ magisterial history of redlining, Brittney Cooper’s rigorous work in Salon, Aphrodite Kocieda’s takedown of the “fatherless men” trope, Sarah Kendzior’s in-depth analysis from St. Louis, and these blogs by the Crunk Feminist Collective and Black Girl Dangerous. I would even go so far as to say the Ferguson syllabus should be required reading for all of us—yes, even those who support Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, and who, indeed, is just as much a product of this redlined region as Brown was.

The immediacy and importance of the Ferguson syllabus is another useful reminder that the academic world and the so-called “real world” are actually the same world. Yes, sometimes some college courses do focus on esoteric material—but, as you can see here, many more do not. Higher education is more than vocational training; it’s more than the highfalutin life of the mind; it’s more than expensive baby-sitting for helicoptered 20-year-olds. At its best, college, with its structured reading environment and safe discussion spaces, can give an entire generation the tools not just to begin to understand our violent, incomprehensible world—but to make it a little bit less violent, and a lot more comprehensible.