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

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

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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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