I’m embarrassed to say I had never heard of Jane Ellliott and her Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment until I stumbled across it on Reddit today, but having just watched this 14:37 clip of the 1970 Peabody Award-winning filmThe Eye of Storm (made for ABC News and later included in the 1984 documentary A Class Divided) I am overwhelmed by how simple it was to make her point about equality to this classroom of third graders.
The students are celebrating National Brotherhood Week and Mrs. Elliott uses this as an opportunity to ask the class what that term means. They have different answers but generally they they agree that everyone should be treated like your brother. Having grown up in Riceville, Iowa, the students (all presumably white) were relatively sheltered, culturally, from other races and had not been exposed to the diversity that might have been afforded them in a larger community. Mrs. Elliott took this as an opportunity to experiment with them, to see if something they could see within each other, could become a target for segregation.
She suggested that people with brown eyes are inferior to people with blue eyes, the classroom quickly turned from a friendly group of innocent children to one of bullying and segregation, with the “inferior” students feeling particularly isolated. Not only did this reflect in their attitude but in their academic performance as well. In working through a series of flash cards, the brown-eyed students took 5 1/2 minutes to get through the cars the first day. However, on day two, when Mrs. Elliott “revealed” that she had “lied” and that brown-eyed people were superior to blue-eyed people, the brown-eyed children completed the cards in 2 1/2 minutes. Feeling like they had an edge gave them an edge.
Ultimately she revealed that there was no difference between the groups and that eye color does not change how smart a person is. The children, all quite relieved, all seem to understand what this means in the larger scheme of things… that color (be it eye or skin) has no bearing on a person’s worth.
I was so excited by this that I immediately took to Google to look up Mrs. Elliott and am thrilled to see that she is continuing her work today, having received the National Mental Health Association Award for Excellence in Education.
I’d love to see Mrs. Elliott stand in front of our legislators, religious leaders and other would-be deciders of men’s fates, and conduct this same experiment on them. I dare say that many of them would have a swift change of heart in how they feel about minority groups.
Click below to watch the clip from the documentary The Eye of the Storm via Youtube and be sure to visit Mrs. Elliott’s website for more on her continued work, lectures and workshops.