Vail Daily column: Lessons from Ferguson
One would need to be living under a rock not to have taken note of the tragic shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
Complete and reliable accounts of what occurred are non-existent, but the basic facts are clear enough: A theft was followed by a confrontation … and ultimately a deadly shooting.
In the wake of this event, a small city in the outskirts of St. Louis was pitched into rioting, looting and the imposition of a near militarized state to control the violence. Nationally, politicians and pundits have weighed in with opinions on the situation, as well as its meaning for the country.
As difficult and emotion-laden the issues surrounding the Ferguson situation may be — such instances create what educators call “teachable moments,” where some key life-lessons can be taught in a way that could never be simulated or pre-designed.
A core (and too often forgotten) purpose of public education is the preparation of young people to assume their role as participant citizens in our republic. Because of this purpose, public schools have the responsibility to engage students in discussions about difficult, messy and controversial issues such as the one playing out in Missouri right now.
In these situations, opportunities emerge for students to apply critical thinking, learn to resist manipulation, and to identify propaganda and logical fallacies. Situations like this also present opportunities for students to critique evidence, weigh opposing viewpoints and to understand perspectives different than their own.
This is not to say we should capitalize on a tragedy; it is to say that for schools to adequately prepare citizens, classrooms must be laboratories for the kind of real-world situations our young people will face as adults.
The absence of diverse opinions and genuine dialogue leads to a psychological phenomenon known as “group-think,” where weakly vetted ideas are accepted as truth, half-baked “solutions” are implemented, dysfunctional decision-making abounds. Such conditions are the antithesis of our democratic ideals, where a free-market of ideas should determine our course.
Public schools are uniquely positioned to create an environment for learning that mirrors the diversity of our nation’s opinions. Students bring a wealth of experiences and backgrounds to our classrooms, allowing for managed discussions that critically challenge a dominant way of thinking.
In schools, we must resist the urge to bury the heads of our students in the sand when it comes to life that is unfolding right outside the school walls. Classrooms are places where concepts like tolerance, respect and the (forgotten) art of listening can be modeled and practiced.
The conditions that led to the Ferguson shooting are complex, deeply-rooted and just heart-breaking from every angle of analysis. However, I can’t help but wonder … would the devastated lives of the two young men at the heart of this controversy (Darren Dean Wilson, 28, and Michael Brown Jr., dead at age 18) have turned out differently if we had a world where respect for the dignity of others was a core value — one that was reinforced and nurtured through education?
I believe the answer to that wondering is yes, it would be different. And that each of us, in our own way, is also morally responsible for bringing that new world into reality. It’s on all of us.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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