The Gilded Age and Ferguson: Teaching Students to Weigh Evidence as Apprentice Historians

by Caleb Lagerwey.
night scene of a row of armed police across from a group of protesters
Police face off against protesters in Ferguson, Missouri.

The story of Ferguson, Missouri and the subsequent grand jury decision was hard to ignore in my school in the weeks before the Christmas break. The subject came up before, during, and after a few of my classes, and I noticed that some of my students were rather one-sided about the entire event: they either took the side of Officer Wilson, laying the blame exclusively at the feet of an aggressive and belligerent Brown, or they took Brown’s side and decried Wilson’s trigger-happy bigotry.

I decided to seize this opportunity to apply historical thinking skills to current events. As I told my students, to the expected chorus of groans, “Just like in our history investigations, the story in this case is rarely just black and white…pun completely intended.”

I wanted to focus on one historical skill in particular: history teaches students how to use evidence to draw complex conclusions about complicated subjects, both past and present. Through our activities, I wanted to show students that affixing blame is seldom an easy task. Whether studying history or current events, cavalierly drawing a stark contrast between guilty and innocent usually conceals a more convoluted background. It is the job of the historian or journalist to put perspectives together to form a coherent narrative based on what they believe actually happened.

Newspaper with the headline : "More than 140 die as flames sweep through three stories of factory building in Washington Place"
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: “More than 140 die as flames sweep through three stories of factory building in Washington Place”

Our first example of complex culpability was when my students and I took at looked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 during our discussion of industrialism and its effects, both positive and negative. We used this horrific work-place tragedy to examine the role of primary sources, perspective, and blame in historical study. The lesson started out with a brief clip from the documentary New York: A Documentary History, which gave us some of the basic fact s surrounding the fire. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building. Because of allegedly locked doors and inadequate fire escapes, the fire caused the deaths of 146 employees, most of whom were young women asphyxiated by smoke, burnt by fire, or crushed by desperate leaps to the pavement eight or more stories below. I stopped the video before it began to discuss the aftermath and investigation of the fire, and then we dove into sources to allow students to draw their own conclusions.

As students read through their packets of source evidence, they kept track of whom the sources blamed as well as the source backgrounds. After reading, they filled out a “Pie-Chart of Blame” to indicate who bore responsibility for the tragedy with those needing more blame receiving proportionally larger sectors of the chart and justified their thinking in writing. I required the students to draw at least three slices, because deciding the angles of the three sectors prevented them from making one, simplistic conclusion. Each pair then came to the whiteboard and drew a pie-chart. After glancing through them, I mentally grouped similar circles and then called on at least one student per group to explain their reasoning. The result was a fruitful conversation that involved intelligent, sane students drawing completely different conclusions from the same evidence. It was exactly what I wanted.

Then I read to them from a response to the Ferguson situation by Benjamin Watson, a player for the New Orleans Saints and an outspoken Christian. While his post is not perfect, from the viewpoint of a scholar, Watson does an excellent job of acknowledging the sanity of both perspectives on the Ferguson situation while admitting the impossibility of knowing the entire truth, since he was not there. I then asked my students why I read that piece to them during that class period, and they picked up on it quickly. We then proceeded to have a brief, yet powerful discussion about the Ferguson situation, acknowledging the lessons our historical investigation could bring to bear on the situation. We discussed how, just as we needed to read both the pro-labor newspapers and the pro-business newspapers regarding the event of May 25, 1911, so too different contemporary sources such as Fox News and MSNBC were not enough by themselves to draw defensible conclusions. We discussed how accounts given shortly after both events were emotionally charged and yet full of fresh memories; later accounts could be presumed to have calmer perspectives but foggier details. We discussed how personal experience affected comments made and stances taken by those who had gone through similar circumstance.

The best part was that the students got it. It was not just me, the teacher on my soapbox, preaching the wonders and applicability of history. Students spoke intelligently about evidence, corroboration, and perspective. They did so in class that day, on later investigations—such as our historical investigation on the Homestead Strike of 1892—and on their tests, where they wrote about how to evaluate sources, how to pursue truth in history, and how to apply those lessons to contemporary events.

In the end, I know most of my students will not remember with clarity the exact events of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire or similar topics from US History. But, as they emerge as Christian citizens of an increasingly polarized republic, I hope they remember and utilize some of the critical thinking skills they learned from Mr. Lagerwey’s history class “back in the day.”

Caleb Lagerwey, a 2013 history education graduate of Calvin College, is currently a high school social studies teacher at Holland Christian High School in Holland, MI where he teaches US History, AP US History, and Government courses. His current area of interest is the religious, political, and social context surrounding the Spanish-American War.

2 thoughts on “The Gilded Age and Ferguson: Teaching Students to Weigh Evidence as Apprentice Historians

  1. Pingback: Historical Horizons: 2015 in Blog Posts | Historical Horizons

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