Above photo by City of Boston Archives
By: Kyle Palmer and Matt Hodapp
In a career spanning nearly six decades, Jane Elliott has enjoyed a level of notoriety rare among public school teachers. Her fame can be traced back to one lesson she taught in April 1968 to her third-grade class in Riceville, Iowa. Distraught over the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Elliott says she wanted to impress upon her all-white students the power of prejudice faced by African-Americans and other minority groups.
So, in what the PBS documentary series ‘Frontline’ later called a “bold experiment”, she divided her students into two groups, those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes. Elliott gave the blue-eyed students privileges, like being able to drink from the water fountain, and constantly praised and encouraged them. But for the brown-eyed students, she took away classroom rights, and went out of her way to put them down as a group, and sometimes publicly disparage individual brown-eyed students.
Elliott says the results were nearly immediate. The blue-eyed students were confident, eager to participate, and excelled at the tasks Elliott gave them. The brown-eyed students--even students who were normally good students--struggled.
For decades afterwards, Elliott traveled around the world workshopping versions of what became known as the ‘blue eyes/brown eyes’ lesson to school children and adults. She now gives lectures that cover many of the same themes as the lesson and workshop. She happened to be in Kansas City, Missouri recently where No Wrong Answers is taped, to give one of these lectures. And we got a chance to talk with her. We wanted to ask her if she thought the recent presidential campaign, which at times featured intense debates over racism and prejudice, had changed the meaning of ‘blue eyes/brown eyes.’ And if she were teaching today, how she would teach about the sometimes chaotic political events of the past few months.