A Class Divided: A [Controversial] Crash Course in Discrimination and Social Barriers

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.

Being American: Now and in 2050

What Does it Mean to be an American?

What is an American?  Often we hear citizens of the US proudly declare “I’m an American!” but isn’t someone from South America or Canada also an American?  What about a new citizen of the US, someone who has just come over to seek refuge from Afghanistan or a recent college grad from India moving here to seek a better future?  Are they Americans, too?

The word American is so much harder to define than EnglishmanIraqi, or Chinese.  In part because the United States is such a new country that we don’t have the thousands of years of history and culture defining our people as Italians or Japanese do.  This is also in part that the United States was founded on diversity and freedom – even if at the time it was diversity of several Western European Countries and a handful of Christian or Puritan religions.  There is no definitive cultural set of an American and who has been the “poster child” American over the years has changed as demographics have changed.

The cultural landscape in the United States is still in the midst of rapid change with no sign of slowing (Bucher, 2015, p. 2).  The American language is changing daily with new slang words being added (i.e. Selfie) and words from other languages being added into our vocabulary as a result of Spanish and Asian languages on the rise.  American languages such as those spoken by the Oklahoman Native Americans are quickly diminishing, taking with them a part of the American culture (Bucher, 2015, p. 2).  Even if these are separately defined as “Native American” culture, they are nonetheless part of the American culture as a whole and the disappearance of such languages changes the cultural landscape of America.

The most recent list of the top 15 surnames by the US Census Bureau immediately demonstrates the changing cultural landscape of Americans to include cultural dimensions of our Hispanic neighbors to the South with Hernandez, Martinez, Rodriguez, and Garcia making the top surnames… with all but Hernandez outranking more “traditionally American-Anglo” names such as Taylor, Thomas, and Anderson (Bucher, 2015, p. 3).

Being an American today simply means being a part of the ever-changing demographic of the United States.  There can’t possibly be any specific definition of an American other than “one that lives in the Americas.”  Even being a US Citizen can only mean that you are a legal US Citizen with no definition to culture, race, gender, or religion.  This is part of what makes being American so great and so difficult at the same time.  Because of the constant changes of culture, views, and demographics within the country there will continue to be debates, policy changes, and differing views within politics and the cultural landscape.  We may live in the most undefined country on planet Earth.

Is Miss America Representative of Today’s Americans?

2015’s Miss America, Kira Kazantsev, culturally represents Americans.  She’s a first-generation American of Russian immigrants, living in New York.  Isn’t that the storybook example of an American?  She’s lived in several states such as California, Texas, and New York and experienced a wide array of American sub-cultures as a result.  (Wikipedia)  She doesn’t have a traditionally Anglo name and hasn’t had a long-standing lineage within the United States.  Her heritage represents that of many of today’s Americans – one that doesn’t necessarily being in the United States, but has ended up here.

A Snapshot of Rural Maryland

I live in a fairly rural part of Maryland, yet close enough to major cities that we can be considered part of their metropolitan area.  We always compare our small town to Mayberry: there’s very little crime, friendly neighbors raising young children, and a few little Mom-and-Pop shops along Main Street with the convenience of a couple strip malls on either side of our 2-mile long town.

Demographically, our town is very similar to that of the Mayberry depiction, with a slightly more varied demographic.  According to Zipskinny.com, our small town (population 13,166) is comprised of 97.2% whites, 0.8% Hispanics, 0.6% African-Americans, and 0.5% Asians with 0.5% of the population defining themselves as multiracial.  Just over half (66%) are married, and the majority (87.4%) hold a High School Diploma, with 22.9% of the population holding a Bachelor’s degree or higher.

Most households in our town earn between $50,000 – $74,999 per year, with another large percentage reaching beyond that. Professional, management, sales and office jobs are the most common occupations.  Unemployment in our town is 1.4% (compared with the current national average of 5.9%). (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014)

A Snapshot of Suburban Maryland

I compared our “Mayberry” Maryland town to Rosedale, MD, a more suburban area just outside Baltimore City to see how we compared demographically.  Rosedale’s racial breakdown is 76.7% White, 16.2% African-American, 2.1% Hispanic, and 3.3% Asian with 1.3% of the population defined as multiracial.  Rosedale shows a much more diverse demographic than our town.

Income breakdown is very close to the same as our town, with the majority of residents earning between $50,000 per year and $74,999 per year.  The same types of jobs are the most common occupations: Management/Professional and Sales/Office.  The unemployment rate is slightly higher at 2%, yet still significantly lower than the national average.  (ZipSkinny, 2014).

Comparison of Suburban & Rural Maryland

While this is a very broad-based report, Rosedale and small-town Maryland aside from racial breakdowns show very little differences in economic demographics.  Earnings and jobs held are very similar even while the education rates are just a little lower in the Rosedale area.  With a more diverse culture in Rosedale, no significant economic differences are noted.  (ZipSkinny, 2014).

The Future Demographic of America

Many predictions are exist for the United States’ cultural landscape in 2050.  We can expect a continued rate of diversity and an increase in those individuals defining themselves as multiracial (Bucher, 2015, p. 6).  According to Bucher, women will comprise just about half of the US Labor force and the number of retirees will decrease (Bucher, 2015, p. 8).  Pew Research Center, Social Trends Data states that 1 in 5 Americans will be an immigrant in 2015, furthering my definition above that to be an American one must simply live in the United States (or any of the Americas, really). (Pew Research Center, 2014).

Due to the ever-increasing quality of healthcare, the population as a whole will get older and the number of elderly Americans is expected to increase by 2050 (Pew Research Center, 2014).

Work Cited:

Bucher, Richard D. (2015).  Diversity Consciousness: Opening Our Minds to People, Cultures, and Opportunities (4th ed.).  New York, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.

Databases, Tables, & Calculators by Subject. (2014) Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Retrieved from http://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNS14000000.

Kira Kazantsev. (2014). In Wikipedia.  Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kira_Kazantsev.

US Population Projections: 2005-2050. (2014) In Pew Research Center.  Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2008/02/11/us-population-projections-2005-2050/.