Martin Luther King Jr: One Teacher’s Lesson on Understanding

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January 20, 2015

Talking about Martin Luther King Jr. with my kids this week reminded me of a story I think every educator encounters at some point in their studies. Shortly after the civil rights leader was assassinated, a third grade teacher in Iowa, Jane Elliot, quite rightly figured her students in a small all-white town wouldn’t be able to imagine what it was like to live in the racial minority. She asked them if they’d like to experience a similar situation in order to gain more understanding.

When her students agreed, Ms. Elliot launched what she calls an “exercise” (but I’ve always seen as a social experiment). She told the kids that those with blue eyes were smarter, better behaved, and harder workers than those with brown eyes and green eyes. The majority, the blue-eyed kids,  received extra praise and rewards like seats in front of the class, longer recess, and drinking out of the drinking fountain.

For me, the scariest part of this “exercise” has always been how quickly and easily the third graders bought into the idea, even knowing that it was manufactured! The majority students came up with derogatory nicknames, made assumptions, and soon refused to play with the other students. Conversely, those placed in the minority withdrew from their previous friends and became shy and doubtful. Even those students who had been confident and outspoken faded into the background. It didn’t just affect the social arena. Children’s work started to rise or fall based on their group status, independently of their previous performances!

The next day, Ms. Elliot told the kids she had lied and that it was in fact brown-eyed people that were better. Despite having experienced it the day before, the children flipped on a dime, each group behaving similarly to the last.

Since that time, several criticisms have come up in regards to this method. Some say it traumatizes children or creates racism in order to stop it. The critics are right. The method is brutal. Curious about the effects of this lesson later in life, I went looking for information on those children now. I found a documentary which filmed third graders going through this exercise and includes an interview between Ms. Elliot and those students as adults. During their time, she asks them, “Is the learning worth the agony?” and every one of them said yes.

Here is that documentary. The lesson begins around minute 3. As the day progresses, the children’s faces really show their disbelief and their comments reveal a lot about being drunk on power. Around minute 18, Jane Elliot discusses her disappointment in the “white” reaction to Martin Luther King Jr’s death and how that lead to this lesson.

In the end, the important fact to pass on to our children is that every person, regardless of color or creed, is valuable and should be respected. If we can instill that in the next generation, we can make the world that much better.

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