An Equal Society Starts in the Classroom

In our previous unit about civil liberties and civil rights, we watched a classic Frontline report called “A Class Divided” that deals with racism and prejudice in America.

I think it’s safe to generalize that we’ve all experienced discrimination in some form. Some have had it worse than others and many people have damaged psyches from years of being treated with no dignity.  This documentary restored my confidence in the likeliness of a more equal society. What we can learn from this report doesn’t just affect race relations, but also our treatment of various undermined groups in this country like disabled persons, gays and lesbians, Native Americans, Muslims, etc.

About the documentary:

In the years following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, a schoolteacher named Mrs. Jane Elliott wanted her 3rd graders to understand discrimination through first-hand experience. In a two-day lesson, she’d divide her class between those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes. On the first day, the “blue eyes” were superior and the next day the “brown eyes” were considered superior. It was fascinating and horrible to see how children who were friends their entire lives suddenly turn on each other in a single day. Fed with mostly baseless ‘facts’ about how one group was better than the other by their teacher, a respected figure of authority, the students didn’t resist the inherently wrong things they were told to avoid getting in trouble.

A student comforts a fellow brown-eyed girl on the playground whose blue-eyed friends turned away from her.

By the end of these lessons, the students came out with a firm belief in their self-worth. Twenty years later, many of these students came back to say that this lesson made a profound impact on their lives and that from then on they had always rebuked discrimination. Mrs. Elliott also sent off her students’ test scores to Stanford University; they showed how on the one day a child was ‘inferior’, he didn’t do well but after the whole lesson was over he did remarkably well for the rest of the year compared to performance on tests before the lesson. There isn’t a physical barrier that prevents us from accepting others, but merely the fact that we haven’t walked in their shoes. Once we’ve come to a deeper understanding, we are freed from the negative constraints that are imposed by prejudice.

Like Mrs. Elliott said herself, I don’t think every teacher should give this lesson because there shouldn’t be a need for it. Also, I think it’d lose its effectiveness if it is overused. This kind of lesson has been taught to elementary students, employees of corrections facilities, and workers in corporations. It is a truly valuable lesson because it changes individuals’ perceptions about prejudices completely and teaches the values of kindness and tolerance. If we realize our self-worth and the fact that society can be truly equal if we decide it can be, then we will become healthier individuals that are empowered by self-initiative to work for justice and equality. If everyone could get something out of watching this documentary, I think our government would run smoother and civil rights activists from different groups would see more positive results.

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12 comments

  1. I am Kaitlin Boatman, an education major at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Al. I was assigned in my EDM 310 class to comment on your blog. I really enjoyed this post. It really made me think about how discrimination still is here today and how we need to think about others and how we treat them. The documentary that you discussed sounds very interesting, I would love to check it out! The experiment that was discussed seems like it would be a very tough thing to deal with. As a country we do need to think about not only race issues, but other issues we have towards certain groups of people. Great post!

    Kaitlin Boatman

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    • Thanks for reading, Kaitlin! Here’s the full documentary on the Frontline website: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/divided/etc/view.html . It was truly fascinating and I really didn’t want it to be over! It shows the whole 2-day lesson one of her classes went through in the late 60s and shows a reunion of that class about 20 years later. She also teaches the lesson as a workshop for people who work at a corrections facility, so you also get to see how this exercise affects adults as well. You should definitely watch it!

      Thanks,
      Elisa

      Like

  2. I read through your post on the rights of individuals and I really enjoyed seeing students still fervent about these issues. I am in agreement with your take on the documentary. It does seem silly that something as simple as physical difference could cause such a huge rift or barrier in peoples lives. When I was in high school one of my history teachers used that lesson of the blue eyed/ brown eyed people, in his introduction of Civil Rights. It is was moving then, as it is still today. When people hold on to the hate and anger in their neighborhoods and allow it to encompass their lives it effects how they treat people around them now and in the future. We as educated students need to focus on what is important in the social interactions, the person in front of us, so as to allow the hatred and anger be replaced with acceptance and toleration. I am excited that students that are up and coming in our schools have these kinds of voices. It will be interesting to see how “you” will shape our World. Thank you for taking the time and having the courage to post this highly volatile, but equally important article on Civil Rights.

    Sincerely,

    Jason Lynch
    EDM310 at The University of South Alabama

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    • Thank you Jason for reading my post! I’m confident that our society is quickly moving toward more acceptance of all types of individuals. Thirty years from now will look *so* different from what things looked like in this country thirty years ago.

      Thanks,
      Elisa

      Like

  3. In the original documentary, are the children forewarned that their next two days of class will be an experiment of sorts? Or does the teacher teach in a degrading way to the different eye-coloured students without their knowledge of why? I imagine the class reflects on the experience afterwards, which is more the point of the exercise- to understand how it feels to be discriminated against and why we shouldn’t treat others in that way. But I guess what I’m wondering is if it is/was appropriate for the teacher to treat her students in this way? I agree that the fact that the students experienced this sort of discrimination first hand was more powerful than just being told about it, but is there an issue with these students being used as human guinea pigs?

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    • Hey hchev!
      I don’t feel that the purpose of the lesson was an experiment per se, but rather an important lesson to the kids about how racism is perpetuated by baseless/insignificant “facts” that are touted as the whole truth. She wanted her kids to understand that although she said such facts as “blue-eyed people are smarter” with the conviction of an authority figure, whatever she said was obviously stupid. The teacher had a really great way of saying things without damaging any child’s self-esteem. She was firm and kind in her lessons and had the kids know that what they learned absolutely needed to be applied outside of her classroom. There is definitely a risk to just any teacher trying to teach this kind of lesson at the expense of damaging a student’s esteem, but this particular teacher had a wonderful way about her. You should definitely watch the documentary!

      Thanks,
      Elisa

      Like

  4. After reading your post I found each of your remarks to be true. When you described your facinsation with how easily friends can turn on one another and how the kids couldn’t resist the inherently wrong things they were told to do by a person in authority, I immediatley thought of the Hallocaust. During this time of immense discrimination towards jew, gays, etc, people were “fed with baseless facts” by a person in a high position (dictator). This resulted in mass discrimination, chaos, and enormous destruction. I think that in order to prevent a reoccurence of this massive event or any form of discrimination we must educate our children while they are still young. This experiment that was preformed in the 3rd Grade classroom is an effective and healthy way of getting the point across that me must learn to be kind and tolerant of poeple of all different creeds.

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    • Hi Emily,
      I definitely agree with you that educating our children about discrimination at a young age is very important. I often hear in the news about teachers who give their students racist homework problems or encourage bullying in the classroom. I think school administrators need to take more advantage of surprise visits to classrooms to evaluate instructors and see how the kids are interacting. I think teachers are more likely than parents to effectively instill these important lessons because they also have an influence on the kids’ peers. As a classroom community, kids can and should learn that each person they meet is worthy of much dignity and respect.

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  5. I think the lesson taught by Mrs. Jane Elliott is teaches elementary school student an extremely valuable lesson that can help towards the betterment of society. The main factor that contributes to this importance is the emphasis on forcing people to walk in others shoes. Once these children have walked in the shoes of the discriminated upon, this gives them a point of view that will never leave their mind. I think that the institution of this lesson among young people is extremely necessary if it is to truly impact children. If given to teenagers, this activity could be easily turned into a joke and would be useless. When given to young children though, the lesson can be truly taken seriously and impact the children partaking in it. The young age, children are able to put themselves in the situation of being discriminated on and feel the strong effects of this position. At a young age, this lesson is a necessary building block to growing children’s understanding of the harmful nature of discrimination.

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    • Hey Nick,
      I definitely agree that if this lesson must be given at any point in a person’s life, it should be given at a younger age. However in the documentary, Mrs. Elliott also gave the lesson as a workshop to adults who work at a corrections facility to teach them how to NOT treat their mostly black prison population. Surprisingly, the adults took it as seriously as the kids and were just as flustered when Mrs. Elliott kept insisting a certain eye color was better than the other. I didn’t feel though that some of these adult’s varying racist attitudes had changed much, but they definitely all came to understand how helpless one can feel when he/she is made to feel absolutely inferior. It’s a very interesting documentary to watch, so I recommend you watch it on the Frontline website when you can.

      Thanks for reading,
      Elisa

      Like

  6. Reading your blog, I agree that one should know their self-worth, however I do not agree that it starts in the classroom. Public schools are frequently being bombarded with new students who have been used to the cruelty of racism and even have teachers who are racist with other children. Sadly, schools are being a certain race. I like the idea you stated in your blog, however one must consider how one acts after school. About 8 hours are spent in school each school day but the rest is spent in our neightborhood, among friends and social networks. An equal society will be very difficult in the United States given it is a melting pot, I can’t really say where it starts since it is a situtation of what came first, the chicken or the egg. Great blog!

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    • Thanks for reading my post, Daniela! Yes, there’s no doubt that kids are ostracized by their peers and even adults in school settings for factors like race, sexual orientation, physical appearance, etc. There’s no doubt in my mind that teachers, especially for very young students, play a profound impact on our social development. Parents should be responsible for our character development, but in our society (kind of a generalization) we’re seeing “parenting” being thrust more and more on what the kids can learn on from classrooms and on the streets. In the documentary, a class of students who went through Mrs. Elliot’s lesson came back for a reunion with her about twenty years later. Their consensus was that that one lesson had a profound, positive impact on their social interactions through childhood and adult lives. It’s an intriguing documentary to watch; I highly recommend it!

      Thanks,
      Elisa

      Like

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