A Class Divided

I just watched a Frontline special, originally made almost 20 years ago, entitled “A Class Divided.” In it, a teacher in the late 1960’s taught an object lesson to her 3rd grade students about discrimination. She separated her classroom (all white students) into brown-eyed people and blue-eyed people, and for a day each group learned what it was like to be treated as the inferior group, simply based on the color of their eyes. In this remarkably simple experiment, the results of discrimination on academics, self-esteem, and how the children view their peers come into sharp focus.

The teacher, Jane Elliot, was inspired to teach the lesson for the first time the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. She went on to teach it in later years, and even later to adults. You can read about it on the PBS website here.

What came to me when I watched it was two things. It was a remarkable experiment, but it occurred to me that in today’s school atmosphere it would probably never (or rarely) go over well. It also occurred to me that it’s as necessary today as it ever was.

In reading this interview on the PBS site, I found that Jane Elliot seems to agree.

To my mind, Jane Elliot is a visionary teacher, and a hero in her own way for the civil rights movement. I think her ideas are not only great, but necessary even in our age, with children and adults. I think it’s unfortunate that the current political climate seems to prohibit this sort of values education.

So… I’m sure some of you disagree already. What do you think? Is this still necessary? Is it a good thing? Could it be pulled off in a classroom today?

What an interesting OP.

I agree. It made such an impact on me that I still remember it over 30 years later.

Times are different from what they were 30 yeas ago. For one thing, the cult of vicimology is much stronger.

I think the problem is different today. I agree that there is pervasive prejudice against blacks in education, both in the white society and in the black society. However, I disagree with Jane Elliot as to where that prejudice is and how to fix it:

Obviously blacks should be able to vote conveniently, but I have seen no evidence that lack of polling places is a pevasive problem.

I think affirmative action is based on the very type of racism that she rightly deplores. Affirmative action assumes that blacks can’t perform as well as whites and Asians in academics.

The racism in this statement is just staggering. She takes it for granted that blacks are more likely to be criminals.

I agree with Elliot about this. Stopping black drivers merely because of their race is wrong and no doubt it has a bad impact on their morale.

This may or may not be true. I’ve seen the claim and I’ve also seen purported refutations.

But why is she complaining? According to Elliot’s experiment, segregated schools ought to be superior. There are no white students around to disparage the blacks. In fact, I think black universities like Howard and women’s colleges like Wellesley do provide superior education for many attendees.

All races “flee” from the inner city, including middle class blacks.

I’d have to check the numbers; it’s not my impression that blacks are disproportionately portrayed as villains. An area where TV does discriminate IMHO is that blacks are seldom portrayed as geniuses. It’s ballot-security systems, which are used to intimidate minority voters
I guess Elliot is saying that requiring a drivers licence or ID to vote intimidates blacks. Again, the level of racisim in her comment shows that she needs to think more deeply about her own experiement. and so result in the very activities which they are supposedly designed to prevent.

I don’t see a role today for Elliot’s experiment, because I don’t think that classmates’ attitudes are that high on the list of causes for lack of educational self-confidence. I think that educational interest and self-confidence come more from within. ISTM that a more promising avenue is to fundamentally change the educational establishment, which is rife with this sort of prejudice, and which has the power to disserve black students.

Funny, I was thinking exactly the opposite as to why you couldn’t do this experiment today. Not because of “conservatives”, but because “liberals” would complain that it was damaging some kid’s self esteem, or PROMOTING racism.

I’ll freely admit that this country still has some problems with racism and prejudice. But to claim that we have gotten WORSE since the 1960 is ridiculous beyond imagination.

You should note that Jane Elliot has expanded the scope of this exercise to go much farther than black/white prejudice. From her interview:

First of all, it’s not targeted at students anymore, partially because of the changed political climate. Second, it’s targeted at a wider array of cultures and prejudices. The exercise in Germany would have been very interesting to see, I think. TO my mind, this speaks as much to prejudice against Muslims in 2003 as it did against blacks in 1968. Though I didn’t mention this in the OP, it was definitely in my mind as I watched the program.

These were separate statements you made, responding to parts of this sentence in her interview:

You called the first half of this statement racist but agreed with the second half. Why did you parse them this way? To my mind, these examples were two elements of the same statement. The “three strikes” legislation combined with racial profiling of suspects (such as DWB) is indeed horribly biased against blacks. We’re seeing more of this sort of thinking coming out against Muslims now as well.

I don’t think she would agree with this. The nature of her experiment suggests that all students would do better in integrated schools with no racist behavior present. Your statement here suggests that you think racism is inherent to humans and inevitable. Do you think this?

I would say that racism is a learned behavior, and just as it can be taught, it can also be taught out.

So, if you believe what you say in your last sentence, why not use this experiment for educators and administrators, as well as students? Jane Elliot would actually support this. In the Frontline special last night, he discussed expanding the scope of the experiment to include people at all levels of the educational system. Do you think that would help? I do.

If you take into account that the exercise can be applied to more than just black/white prejudice, that it can apply to gender prejudice and religious prejudice as well, then I think it has just as much validity now as it ever did.

One more thing… just a point of curiosity. You said “It made such an impact on me that I still remember it over 30 years later.” Did you participate in an exercise like this, december? If so, what was it like firsthand? I’m genuinely curious to know what effect it had on you, short-term and long-term if possible.

I’d actually agree with you here, in part anyway. The conservative slant towards “back to basics” education and away from values education is part of the problem, and the liberal tendency to try to whitewash tough issues like racism away both contribute. That’s why, in my own posts above, I cited the modern political climate as the problem, not one particular group. Factions on both sides of the aisle would probably have a problem with Jane Elliot’s lessons being taught in schoold today.

Is it really that simple? Sure, we’ve gotten better about some things, but I would say that some things have gotten worse as well. When you consider prejudices other than black/white racism, there are a whole lot more factors to consider. And when you include the attitudes of other cultures around the world it becomes even more important. It is widely held that Europeans share an anti-American sentiment, for example. Obviously, this is not true accross the continent, but many Americans think it is. Could this not be part of the same problem? And for those Europeans who do think that all Americans are trigger-happy cowboys, couldn’t they use this sort of exercise as well?

I suppose it depends on your definition of “we” in your sentence above. To me, as citizens of the world, “we” could be doing a hell of a lot better than we are now at eliminating ethnic prejudice, cultural prejudice, gender prejudice, andd many other sorts of unfair grouping and classifying.

Further, using a “better/worse” dichotomy is a bit too simplistic for my tastes. Some things have gotten better, while others have gotten worse. What you think of the overall picture really depends upon your perspective more than anything else, but the fact that some sort of change is still needed is undeniable, to me.