After watching Frontline’s episode, A Class Divided (original air date March 26, 1985) about Jane Elliott’s 3rd grade lesson in discrimination beginning in the late 1960’s following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, many questions and thoughts raced through my head – more regarding the morality of this lesson and lasting impact on the students (or even short-term impact on the students and their relationships with each other)
Being the parent of a kindergarten student, my first reaction to A Class Divided, and the entire experiment (initially I had a very hard time calling this a lesson), was outrage. Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly understand the sentiment behind the lesson and agree with the underlying spirit of what Ms. Elliott was trying to prove. However, having someone conduct such a study on one of my kids wouldn’t sit easy with me. For starters, children (at least my children and most kids I’ve had experience with) are very sensitive to the world around them and often are insecure in their relationships with others. Almost daily I hear the playground recap after school and have to reassure my little guy that all will be just fine in the morning – over small things so trivial as John didn’t feel like playing soccer today. I can’t imagine his heartbreak should his teacher, whom he adores, would tell him that he and a handful of other students were inferior to another group of students and allow them to act this out for a full day. My biggest issue was that Ms. Elliott herself made her students believe they were inferior by making comments throughout her lessons reminding the kids how inferior they were.
While at first I really gave Ms. Elliott the evil eye, after seeing the adult reactions of her pupils, I relaxed – just a bit. I have to commend Ms. Elliott for her amazing creativity and truly being able to apply a concept as difficult as discrimination in such a way that every single student in her class could grasp it more firmly within a 48-hour period than most adults can in a lifetime. What really settled me down was seeing how well-adjusted the kids turned out as adults. The helicopter mom got the best of me and truly assumed that after 48 hours these kids were scarred for life and their self esteem and childhood relationships had been flushed down the proverbial toilet. As adults, when each of Ms. Elliott’s students were faced with a situation with persons from other cultures if any inkling of racism or discrimination crossed his/her mind, they were immediately taken back to how they felt as the inferior group in 3rd grade. Can you think of any other lesson in school that would stick with you that way for that long? (Certainly not multiplying fractions or reciting the Constitution).
This may be the most effective way to truly teach kids how it feels to be on the other side of any type of discrimination – and even bullying for that matter. Not a single student forgot the lesson, nor did anyone forget how they felt when being discriminated against.
Why I still have a hard time calling this purely a lesson, is how data was gathered and collected, albeit informally, from the years of teaching this to her 3rd graders. The experiment showed some very interesting data, however, with regards to academic performance of students who feel inferior to their peers. Within a 24 hour period, students’ academic performance would drop by as much as 100% while experiencing discrimination. In the video, Jane Elliot notices that kids who could complete their phonics cards in just over 2 minutes while feeling superior took over 4 minutes to complete while inferior. Stereotype vulnerability only took a few hours to set in with her students, imagine the effect it has on those who experience an entire lifetime of discrimination. This data could prove extremely useful when trying to improve scores of minority or low-income students in the school systems. Perhaps more than extending tutoring sessions, kids could use some counseling or more positive reinforcement not only from their teachers, but from peers, to improve academic scores. One brown eyed student in Ms. Elliott’s course even said he didn’t feel like doing anything while he was categorized as inferior.
The biggest surprise, to me, in the kids reactions were how quickly they turned against one another. The blue-eyed child who suggested that Ms. Elliott keep the yardstick handy in case any brown-eyed kids get out of line took me aback. The other incidence that most surprised me was the fight between John and Russell. John was clearly upset by the situation enough to punch Russell in the gut, but openly admitted that it didn’t solve anything and didn’t make him feel better. While Russell admitted that calling John “brown eyed” didn’t make him feel any better, he also didn’t seem to be nearly as bothered by the situation as John.
What’s even more surprising in this lesson is how quickly a term can become derogatory with very negative connotations. A day before the lesson, Russell calling John “brown eyed” likely wouldn’t have started a playground brawl. However, because that morning Ms. Elliott deemed the brown eyed kids inferior, brown eyed became a nasty phrase defining someone not as someone with brown eyes, but someone who was stupid, lazy, and not to be respected. The sudden changes in both attitudes and connotations are so drastic and so rapid that it shows just how easily perceptions can be changed.
Ms. Elliott’s lesson shows the power of social barriers on groups of people. During her lesson, not one of her students had a change to his or her own personal barriers (lack of self-discipline, ignorance, etc.), however, their social barriers changed and this affected how they behaved and performed within the world around them. Ms. Elliott is a master at selective perception. She truly was able to get her students (both 3rd grade and adult) to only focus on the behaviors that further supported the beliefs that she was promoting. This was very evident when she taught the class of Corrections employees and singled out the blue eyed folks who acted out, turned toward her brown-eyed students, and confirmed her beliefs by citing specific behaviors of the few who spoke out. Not once were the well-behaved students in the inferior groups praised or pointed out.
While controversial, there may be no better way to teach such an important life-lesson than Ms. Elliott’s way. It is pure genius.
Bucher, Richard D. (2015). Diversity Consciousness: Opening Our Minds to People, Cultures, and Opportunities (4th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.
Peters, P. & Cobb, C. (Writers) & Peters, W. (Director). (26 Mar 1985). A Class Divided [Television series episode]. In W. Peters (Producer), Frontline. New Haven, CT: Yale University Films.