Lesson of a Lifetime | History | Smithsonian

Lesson of a Lifetime

Her bold experiment to teach Iowa third graders about racial prejudice divided townspeople and thrust her onto the national stage. Decades later, Jane Elliott's students say the ordeal changed them for good

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On the morning of april 5, 1968, a Friday, Steven Armstrong stepped into Jane Elliott's third-grade classroom in Riceville, Iowa. "Hey, Mrs. Elliott," Steven yelled as he slung his books on his desk.

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"They shot that King yesterday. Why'd they shoot that King?" All 28 children found their desks, and Elliott said she had something special for them to do, to begin to understand the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the day before. "How do you think it would feel to be a Negro boy or girl?" she asked the children, who were white. "It would be hard to know, wouldn't it, unless we actually experienced discrimination ourselves. Would you like to find out?"

A chorus of "Yeahs" went up, and so began one of the most astonishing exercises ever conducted in an American classroom. Now, almost four decades later, Elliott's experiment still matters—to the grown children with whom she experimented, to the people of Riceville, population 840, who all but ran her out of town, and to thousands of people around the world who have also participated in an exercise based on the experiment. (She prefers the term "exercise.") It is sometimes cited as a landmark of social science. The textbook publisher McGraw-Hill has listed her on a timeline of key educators, along with Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Horace Mann, Booker T. Washington, Maria Montessori and 23 others. Yet what Elliott did continues to stir controversy. One scholar asserts that it is "Orwellian" and teaches whites "self-contempt." A columnist at a Denver newspaper called it "evil."

That spring morning 37 years ago, the blue-eyed children were set apart from the children with brown or green eyes. Elliott pulled out green construction paper armbands and asked each of the blue-eyed kids to wear one. "The browneyed people are the better people in this room," Elliott began. "They are cleaner and they are smarter."

She knew that the children weren't going to buy her pitch unless she came up with a reason, and the more scientific to these Space Age children of the 1960s, the better. "Eye color, hair color and skin color are caused by a chemical," Elliott went on, writing MELANIN on the blackboard. Melanin, she said, is what causes intelligence. The more melanin, the darker the person's eyes—and the smarter the person. "Brown-eyed people have more of that chemical in their eyes, so brown-eyed people are better than those with blue eyes," Elliott said. "Blue-eyed people sit around and do nothing. You give them something nice and they just wreck it." She could feel a chasm forming between the two groups of students.

"Do blue-eyed people remember what they've been taught?" Elliott asked.

"No!" the brown-eyed kids said.

Elliott rattled off the rules for the day, saying blue-eyed kids had to use paper cups if they drank from the water fountain. "Why?" one girl asked.

"Because we might catch something," a brown-eyed boy said. Everyone looked at Mrs. Elliott. She nodded. As the morning wore on, brown-eyed kids berated their blue-eyed classmates. "Well, what do you expect from him, Mrs. Elliott," a brown-eyed student said as a blue-eyed student got an arithmetic problem wrong. "He's a bluey!"

Then, the inevitable: "Hey, Mrs. Elliott, how come you're the teacher if you've got blue eyes?" a brown-eyed boy asked. Before she could answer, another boy piped up: "If she didn't have blue eyes, she'd be the principal or the superintendent."

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