September 9th, 2014
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.