Lesson of a Lifetime- page 7 | History | Smithsonian
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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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Steve Harnack, 62, served as the elementary school principal beginning in 1977. "I don't think this community was ready for what she did," he said. "Maybe the way to sell the exercise would have been to invite the parents in, to talk about what she'd be doing. You must get the parents first."

Dean Weaver, 70, superintendent of Riceville schools from 1972 to 1979, said, "She'd just go ahead and do things. She was a local girl and the other teachers were intimidated by her success. Jane would get invited to go to Timbuktu to give a speech. That got the other teachers angry."

For years scholars have evaluated Elliott's exercise, seeking to determine if it reduces racial prejudice in participants or poses a psychological risk to them. The results are mixed. Two education professors in England, Ivor F. Goodson and Pat Sikes, suggest that Elliott's experiment was unethical because the participants weren't informed of its real purpose beforehand. Alan Charles Kors, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, says Elliott's diversity training is "Orwellian" and singled her out as "the Torquemada of thought reform." Kors writes that Elliott's exercise taught "blood-guilt and self-contempt to whites," adding that "in her view, nothing has changed in America since the collapse of Reconstruction." In a similar vein, Linda Seebach, a conservative columnist for the Rocky Mountain News, wrote in 2004 that Elliott was a "disgrace" and described her exercise as "sadistic," adding, "You would think that any normal person would realize that she had done an evil thing. But not Elliott. She repeated the abuse with subsequent classes, and finally turned it into a fully commercial enterprise."

Others have praised Elliott's exercise. In Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Things, educational psychologist Michele Borda says it "teaches our children to counter stereotypes before they become full-fledged, lasting prejudices and to recognize that every human being has the right to be treated with respect." Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist at George WashingtonUniversity, says the exercise helps develop character and empathy. And StanfordUniversity psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo writes in his 1979 textbook, Psychology and Life, that Elliott's "remarkable" experiment tried to show "how easily prejudiced attitudes may be formed and how arbitrary and illogical they can be." Zimbardo—creator of the also controversial 1971 Stanford Prisoner Experiment, which was stopped after college student volunteers acting as "guards" humiliated students acting as "prisoners"—says Elliott's exercise is "more compelling than many done by professional psychologists."

Elliott defends her work as a mother defends her child. "You have to put the exercise in the context of the rest of the year. Yes, that day was tough. Yes, the children felt angry, hurt, betrayed. But they returned to a better place—unlike a child of color, who gets abused every day, and never has the ability to find him or herself in a nurturing classroom environment." As for the criticism that the exercise encourages children to distrust authority figures—the teacher lies, then recants the lies and maintains they were justified because of a greater good—she says she worked hard to rebuild her students' trust. The exercise is "an inoculation against racism," she says. "We give our children shots to inoculate them against polio and smallpox, to protect them against the realities in the future. There are risks to those inoculations, too, but we determine that those risks are worth taking."

Elliott says the role of a teacher is to enhance students' moral development. "That's what I tried to teach, and that's what drove the other teachers crazy. School ought to be about developing character, but most teachers won't touch that with a ten-foot pole."

Elliott and I were sitting at her dining room table. The smell of the crops and loam and topsoil and manure wafted though the open door. Outside, rows of corn stretched to the horizon. "There's a sense of renewal here that I've never seen anywhere else," Elliott says.

It occurs to me that for a teacher, the arrival of new students at the start of each school year has a lot in common with the return of crops each summer.

Elliott continues, "Just when you think that the fertile soil can sprout no more, another season comes round, and you see another year of bountiful crops, tall and straight. It makes you proud."

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