When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, Jane Elliott, a third grade teacher in Iowa, decided to implement an exercise in her classroom to help her students understand racism and discrimination. She divided the class into students with brown eyes and students with blue eyes, and spent one day discriminating against the brown-eyed students and the next discriminating against the blue-eyed students. In 1970, when she did this exercise for the third year, it was filmed by PBS. In the film A Class Divided, the students in the 1970 film reunite 14 years later to watch the film and discuss the effect of the exercise on their lives.
Watching the exercise unfold in the third grade class in 1970, it is striking how quickly the students who are labeled as the “superior group” for the day take to discriminating against their peers. In a very short time, Jane Elliott created an enormous gulf in her class. The exercise powerfully demonstrates the effect of the “us and them” mentality on a community.
This week is the first class in the “Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust” unit in which the community volunteers who have been recruited and trained for this unit participate. The film is always compelling for the students. After viewing it, we break up into nine small groups, each with 4 or 5 students and an adult , and spend about a half hour discussing the features of the film that surprised the students, whether it is natural for human beings to discriminate and when that is acceptable and when it isn’t, and the nature of community. Then the whole group comes back together and we talk for another 20 minutes or so about the film and the students’ reactions to it.
The students generally are surprised by how quickly the third graders start to discriminate, even against children who had been their closest friends the previous hour. One student said that she thought that we should do this exercise in their grade. When I asked the group what they thought about the idea, some thought it would be less effective with older students because, one student contended, “the older you get the less influenced you are by what your teachers tell you.” Many of the students, though, thought that this could be very successful in the 8th grade. Several students suggested that the biggest challenge would be getting some of the students’ parents to permit this to take place.
“Yeah, I was really surprised that this teacher could do this exercise year after year and no parent objected!” remarked one student. “I don’t think that would happen today.”
We talked for a little while about the differences in the way parents interact with the school system today, as opposed to almost forty years ago. Then one of the students commented, “I don’t think there’s really any racism in our school. I’m not sure we would need this exercise.”
“I disagree. I think there’s plenty of racism here. All you need to do is go out in the hall and listen,” responded another student.
“I think that there are all kinds of discrimination,” reflected a student. “People get into groups here and judge each other. Like in the lunchroom, where you sit and who you sit with makes a difference.”
Reflecting about what constitutes discrimination and whether it is always wrong, whether communities are necessarily exclusive, and how easily people can accept a situation that puts them into a position of superiority over others, starts the students thinking about how an event like the Holocaust could happen. As part of this unit, the students are reading Daniel’s Story by Carol Matas, a novel about a Jewish family in Nazi Germany. Next week we will examine further questions about the forces the influence people’s moral choices, looking at the nature of conformity and obedience to authority.