August in Ferguson, Missouri
  • Jeff Roberson/AP Photos
  • August in Ferguson, Missouri

The national conversation recommended as the antidote to the racial toxins of Ferguson will begin just as soon as the Super Bowl’s been played, or once March Madness is behind us, or after we’ve paid our taxes. If there’s nothing good on television.

There’s an excellent chance it won’t begin at all. At best we’ll hear about it at the dinner table if our kids tell us what they did that day at school.

I’d settle for this. Actually, it’s the only kind of national conversation I can imagine. And I can imagine this one only because it’s quietly going on already.

Facing History and Ourselves is an educational initiative that began in Boston in 1976 and now reaches three million high school students a year around the world. (That’s a drop in the bucket.) Like everyone else, these adolescents have heard the warning that we’re doomed to repeat the past if we don’t remember it, but they take the warning seriously. They examine history at those perilous moments shaped for better or worse by profound moral choices. “Facing History students are encouraged to think outside the constructs that have been created by norms, stereotypes, and dogma,” says a brief video that introduces the organization. “We’ve all seen the terrifying rise in hate groups, and how the world is becoming increasingly polarized. And yet, we rarely learn civics, how to participate in communities, understand one another, or simply how to be more humane. Facing History does this.”

A friend, Judy Wise, has played a critical role in organizing Facing History in Chicago and London. I’ve been to their annual dinners. I’m impressed.

But that said, when I read a Facing History blog post the other day titled “Talking to Students About Ferguson,” I had questions. Steve Becton, an associate program director for urban education based in Memphis, wrote the post last August, soon after Michael Brown was shot dead by Darren Wilson, and he began with a list of classroom goals. The first was:

Give students a safe outlet for expressing their thoughts without arguing about the incident.

But why should argument be such a big no-no? It’s one thing to look back at the Holocaust, or the genocide in Rwanda, and dispassionately reflect on the malign role played by dogma and stereotype. But there’s a time for passion. “People—kids in particular—want to respond in a way that changes things,” I said to Becton in an e-mail. “If they are steered away from confrontation they feel steered away from mattering.”

And Becton had continued in his blog post: Avoid further perpetuation of the fear and hatred of law enforcement that these incidents encourage. Facing History would do this how? On the one hand, the fear and hatred are real and vast. But on the other, so is the conviction of the police themselves that what they do is thankless and honorable. We saw this last Sunday, when the Saint Louis Rams lined up for pregame introductions and five players raised their arms in the “don’t-shoot” gesture favored by protesters. Before the day was done the Saint Louis Police Officers Association had issued a statement calling on the NFL to discipline the players and apologize. The president of the Saint Louis County Police Association said the players’ gesture was “classless.” “Here was a great opportunity to stand up and show St. Louis some pride and unity in our community,” he said, “but instead they chose controversy and division.” The president of the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police said the gesture “doesn’t help the healing process at all.”

How, in the name of healing, does a chasm so wide get bridged? And how does Facing History illuminate both sides without seeming noncommittal at a time that demands commitment? High school students aren’t journalists who coolly watch the world fall apart and scribble the reasons why in their notebooks (and sometimes even journalists can’t stand being that); they want to be engaged.

I asked Becton that too. And he wrote back.

“The goal is not to avoid confrontation,” he explained, “but to confront ideas with civility. . . . As the gloves go on and jabs are traded, the more important issues never get explored.” More or less off the top of his head, he composed a list of the sort of questions a Facing History teacher would pose to lead a Socratic conversation on Ferguson:

• Almost everyone would agree that far too many young black men are dying at the hands of police. How do we begin to understand why this is happening?

• How do we as a civil society, governed by just laws, confront the long and troubling history of the relationship between police and the African-American community?

• If the laws that govern the police responses are unjust or insufficient to preserve the life of unarmed citizens how do we change those laws?

• If data shows that law enforcement officers are more likely to shoot an unarmed black male as compared to others, how do we as a just society change this? What does this say about the value we place on the lives of black males?

• What role does stereotyping play in the way we see an event? How does stereotyping impact our judgment of both Officer Wilson and Brown?

• For those who feel that justice has not been served what are some effective responses? Is violence ever appropriate?

• How do we responsibly place Ferguson in a larger conversation about the state of race relations in America?

• How do we place these events in an historical context without making facile comparisons but learning from the past?

• What do I need in my tool box to create change and how do I work with people whose perspectives are different from my own? Where do I get reliable information?

Becton went on, “Any honest person would admit that there is a troubling history of Black males’ deadly encounters with law enforcement. The hard work is in sitting across the table from people with a different perspective on the root cause and solutions. . . . We are trying to give youth the practice and opportunity to develop the skills to work across difference so that when they become police officers, jurors, or policy makers they can refrain from making decisions based on prejudices and fear of the other.”

Is there any chance Facing History students will actually sit down with cops and talk things through? In towns where that’s possible, said Becton, he believes Facing History will try to arrange it. The possibility I hadn’t considered until he mentioned it is that some of the high-minded citizens Facing History is trying to create might wind up among the cops at the table. The idea, Becton told me, “is to lift the conversation beyond merely defending one’s own perspective or just letting off some steam (although there is a place for letting off steam).” It’s to get to the questions “that might lead to really facing the historical, systemic, and institutional issues of race that continue to manifest in these tragic shootings. Questions that we as a nation need so badly to have an honest conversation about.”

I can’t really picture that conversation. I can picture a quiet process of cultural and educational osmosis we won’t even recognize until it’s changed us. Or superseded us with our children.