After MLK’s Assassination, a Schoolteacher Conducted a Famous Experiment–“Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes”–to Teach Kids About Discrimination

Getting history across to young students is challenging enough, but what should a teacher do when actual history-making events happen on their watch? They have to be acknowledged, but to what extent do they have to be explained, even “taught”? Of the teachers who have turned history-in-the-making into a lesson, perhaps the most famous is Jane Elliott of Riceville, Iowa. On April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, she divided her classroom of third-graders along color lines: blue-eyed and brown-eyed. On the first day she granted the brown-eyed students such special privileges as desks in the front rows, second helpings at lunch, and five extra minutes of recess. The next day she reversed the situation, and the blue-eyed kids had the perks.

What brought serious attention to Elliott’s small-town classroom experiment was the resulting article in the Riceville Recorder, which reported some of what her students wrote in their assignments responding to the experience. The Associated Press picked up the article and soon Elliott received a call from The Tonight Show inviting her to come chat with Johnny Carson about her “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise on national television.

“I didn’t know how this exercise would work,” Elliott tells Jimmy Fallon on the clip from the current Tonight Show at the top of the post. “If I had known how it would work, I probably wouldn’t have done it. If I had known that, after I did that exercise, I lost all my friends, no teacher would speak to me where they could be seen speaking to me, because it wasn’t good politics to be seen talking to the town’s only ‘N-word lover.'”

Elliott’s family also experienced severe blowback from her sudden fame, but it didn’t stop her from furthering the clearly resonant idea she had devised. She continued to perform Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes in class: the third time, it was filmed and became the 1970 television documentary The Eye of the Storm. (Some of the language used by her students surely wouldn’t make it to the air today.) Fifteen years later, PBS’ Frontline reunited Elliott’s third-grade class of 1970 for its Emmy Award-winning episode A Class Divided, and a decade thereafter German filmmaker Bertram Verhaag would again film Elliott performing her signature exercise for the documentary Blue Eyed. In a variety of settings across America and the world, Elliott continues, in her late eighties, to make her point. It isn’t always well received, as she reveals in this Frontline follow-up interview, and at times has even drawn threats of violence. “I can be scared, but I won’t be scared to death,” she says. “Or, at my age, of death.”

via Boing Boing

Related Content:

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Handwritten Syllabus & Final Exam for the Philosophy Course He Taught at Morehouse College (1962)

How Martin Luther King, Jr. Used Nietzsche, Hegel & Kant to Overturn Segregation in America

Read Martin Luther King and The Montgomery Story: The Influential 1957 Civil Rights Comic Book

How a Virus Spreads, and How to Avoid It: A Former NASA Engineer Demonstrates with a Blacklight in a Classroom

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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  • EB says:

    I have seen this going around the Internet and I am concerned by how uncritically people have accepted this form of learning. It is important for children to learn about the evils of prejudice and racism. But I do not think education should ever require that students be humiliated, no matter the guise and no matter the cause. Much as the teacher is well-intentioned, this is an exercise in teacher-mandated bullying. I have seen an example of this method used more recently on college kids, in which the professor enlists the students themselves to jeer at blue-eyed students (in this case I do not think the exercise was reversed). When one blue-eyed student wants to leave, the professor says she may only do so only on the condition that she personally apologize to every brown-eyed student in the room. This is degrading. The medievals believed in the purification of the soul through the cleansing flames of fire. I’d like to think that in the 21st century we do not still subscribe to the notion that our guilt may only be expurgated through the suffering of the guilty.

    This is a matter of principle, but it also has concrete consequences. I cannot help but think that one of the myriad lessons learned in this classroom environment is that there are times and places when it is okay for the teacher or the other students to treat each other unfairly, as long as it is properly “justified.” Children learn that rationalization is the means by which any behavior is sanctioned. It also instills in students precisely the opposite message that we want to telegraph: that the way they look is of absolutely paramount importance everywhere and always, even in the classroom. Realists might say that this is true of real life — but should it be encouraged? Sought after? Instituted by teacher? The classroom should be a place where a child’s appearance — and particularly judgments about whether that appearance is good or bad — is never part of the curriculum for any reason.

    Bringing people together, encouraging empathy, reducing alienation, promoting equality, destroying prejudice is the goal. This is not accomplished by mimicking the outside world and dividing students up into separate teacher-mandated castes. I would not be surprised if after this experiment the private relationships between the blue-eyed and brown-eyed students remained less mixed than ever.

  • Bill W. says:

    Interesting experiment; however, when real racism can’t be found, invent it! It’s why “micro-aggression” even exists. Public schools shouldn’t be laboratories for social engineering, that’s what college is for. Schools today will teach, or indoctrinate, young students on the woke-beliefs of-the-day, but they won’t teach those same kids how to balance their checkbook, or write neat cursive, etc. Useful life-skills. It’s uncomfortable, but a fact. If anything, wait till they hit puberty, so their now-abstract minds can decide for themselves about the said-issue discussed in the classroom.

  • Thomas Stark says:

    While I consider myself a conservative in most contexts such as limited role for government, fiscal restraint, personal responsibility, and faith in God, I found myself wondering why this is not used in every classroom in the U.S. The leftists that have become so much a part of education claim that conservatives are the ones perpetuating racism, but the reality is that the party of the left, Democrat Party, has been responsible for segregation, discrimination, Jim Crow,and the welfare state that has kept the black community down for over a century. Perhaps that is exactly why this is not a standard part of the curriculum in our schools. That is both sad and maddening. I was serving in Vietnam when these events took place. Nobody thought anything about race in the military at that time. We were all there to do the same jobs. The experiment in this video – most importantly – provides the perfect body of evidence for why the black community feels the way they do. Telling someone they are less human, less intelligent, or just different and inferior quickly produces a belief that those things are true. This is what welfare and government dependency does to the human spirit. Policies that encourage personal responsibility and opportunity for everyone are the means of lifting all people to be the best that they can be. There is no way for any person to know what discrimination does to you unless it is experienced and this teacher hit the nail on the head when it comes to the perfect means to do that while kids are young and impressionable. Kudos to the teacher.

  • Thomas Stark says:

    You have no idea how wrong you are. Destroying prejudice can truly only be done by having the offender experience what it is like to be discriminated against. In order to do that, the seeds must be planted through an experiment such as this one when their minds are impressionable and they have not been hardened by exposure to a society that has institutionalized a mindset. Our country has come a long way toward the goal of equality and there is likely no way to eliminate individual cases of discrimination or racism, but it would have taken a lot less time to achieve has all of my generation had been exposed to this exercise. Sitting around in a circle singing Kum-by-yah has little lasting effect. There has to be a personal impact to make it sink in.

  • Lynda P says:

    I grew up in southwestern Michigan during the ‘70s. My fifth grade teacher did this exercise with our class. While we weren’t allowed to scapegoat our fellow classmates, the experience of being part of the non-privileged group had a profound impact on how I learned to treat others.

    We also had a junior high teacher who had us do the bunker exercise where there’s supplies for fewer people than were there, and as a group, we had to decide who deserved to
    Live and defend our choices.

    In my experience, this resulted in me looking past someone unlike me as “other” and to find where we were more alike.

  • Brooklynn Thomas says:

    I don’t get why people hate blue eyes, we are humans too… I’m crying by the fact that they think we are evil. Not all blue eyes should be considered evil. Now i feel unsafe about this world how all these people are going like “Cancel blue eyes!! We hate blue eyes!” please just please we don’t want this to happen… I don’t. X’O

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