After the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, a Third-grade teacher in a small town of Iowa named Iowa Jane Elliott did one of the most path-breaking experiments with her students to teach them the curse of discrimination and what hate does to people. An experiment that was shared in an iconic documentary called “A Class Divided.”
But for that, she had to break them up into two groups. Where one group would be superior to the other. Not because of any other reason except that the teacher said so.
A Class Divided – Start of the experiment
Ms Elliott announced to the students on the first day that she knows extremely well that the Blue-eyed people are better, more intelligent, and sharper than the Brown-eyed kids. In fact, she herself was blue-eyed, so she knew.
She then picked on a few anecdotes from what the brown-eyed kids had shared earlier with her separately – like how the Dad of a brown-eyed kid had kicked him – to drive home the point that brown-eyed people are bad and inferior.
To reinforce the differences, she set some rules – the blue-eyed kids will get extra time for recess, get first access to water fountain, will get access to the swings and playground equipment more. And, the worse of all – the brown-eyed kids had to wear a scarf so everyone knew what eye-color they were.
That day she did a puzzle with the two groups. The brown-eyed finished in 5 minutes and the blue-eyed finished in 3 minutes. Further reinforcing the belief that blue-eyed people were indeed smarter. In fact, one blue-eyed kid called another kid “brown-eyed” – and the latter complained that his classmate was calling him “nasty names”.
When she asked him what was he saying – he said he is calling me “brown-eyed” which was a very mean thing to say! When she asked the kid who had said that, he replied that his classmate was indeed brown-eyed! When she asked but did he call him “brown-eyed” because he was that or because he wanted to say something mean.
The blue-eyed kid had a mischievous smile and kept quiet.
The answer was obvious.
What he said was not as important as why he had said that. He knew about his meanness and nastiness and so did his victim!
An important lesson was – sometimes one can do very nasty things while hiding under the cloak of “facts”.
Reversing the pecking order
The next day, she reversed the experiment. She said, that she had lied the day before and actually brown-eyed people were better. She again picked on a few anecdotes from kids’ lives to drive home the point. These were facts but they were cherry-picked to create a narrative that she wanted to float. And the kids believed.
Of course, all the privilege-giving rules of the fountain and the playground access were now reversed and the blue-eyed kids were wearing the scarves!
The roles were now reversed. The nastiness was now coming from the opposite direction. The same puzzle was done again. And, this time the blue-eyed kids did it in 4 minutes and some seconds, while the brown-eyed kids did it in two and a half minutes. When the brown-eyed kids were asked why did they take so long the day before?
They unanimously said that “we were thinking of our collars.” The collars had become a mental barrier they could not cross.
Life Lessons of a class ‘divided’
Then she asked the kids if they had learned something about how people of different eye color or skin color are unfairly treated even when they are the same inside? She asked them to throw away their collars. The kids just didn’t throw away the collars, they tore them apart and then threw them away.
They had become a symbol of hatred and discrimination for all of them!
The same students of that class again met in 1985. Some with their spouses. With their Ms. Elliott. Even in 1985, the small rural farming town with a population of mere 1000 was small, white, and all Christian. But the kids had learned an important life lesson they never forgot. It had been ingrained in them. This documentary starts from that reunion.
A Class Divided shows an experiment by Jane Elliott which was powerful and could have proven dangerous in those volatile times in US. But Ms Elliott had her conviction and she went ahead. What she inculcated in her students is something, one hopes had been taught by many others. For fissures remain deep and wide.
And, the lessons of “A Class Divided” seem to be lost on every generation of Americans. Sadly.