A Class Divided 1
Running head: A CLASS DIVIDED
A Class Divided
Adult Psychopathology and Treatment
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Jane Elliott's experiment of dividing an otherwise homogenous group of school kids by
their eye color. The episode features with new footage of the students, who are now adults. The
video documents Jane Elliot’s initiation of an exercise with her class to teach them about
discrimination by separating the class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed pupils and treating one
group more favorably than the other. Jane Elliot’s commitment to her cause is revealed as she
continued her work with a group of prison employees participating in the same type of exercise.
An analysis is documented in effort to explain the details of the feature and how it is beneficial to
the field of professional psychology.
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A Class Divided
When the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in April 1968, Jane Elliott
taught her third-grade class a daring lesson in discrimination. King had been the hero of the
month in February for the third grade class. Elliot, an internationally known teacher, lecturer,
diversity trainer, and recipient of the National Mental Health Association Award for Excellence
in Education, exposes prejudice and bigotry for what it is; an irrational class system based upon
purely arbitrary factors (Frontline, 2009). A quote from Jane Elliot explains the depth of
emotions and motivation for the experiment, “I thought this is the time now to teach them really
what the Sioux Indian prayer that says, oh Great Spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I
have walked in his moccasins, really means” (Frontline). The setting for the first experiment
takes place in Riceville Elementary School, Riceville Iowa which remains ninety-five percent
Caucasian Anglo-Saxon to this day. The setting for the second experiment takes place at Green
Haven Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Stormville, New York.
Jane Elliot used this method to develop her theory that discrimination is because of
nurture and not nature. The video shows how Jane Elliot’s experimental curriculum on the evils
of discrimination had a lasting effect on the lives of her students as well as a dramatic effect on a
group of prison guards and parole officers who were subjected to the experiment.. The video, A
Class Divided, looks at what this experiment taught the children and how they continue to be
affected by it years later; it also reviews a second experiment of the same nature conducted with
a group of prison guards and parole officers. She began both experiments by dividing an
otherwise homogenous group by the color of their eyes.
In the first experiment she divided third graders, and in the second experiment she
divided prison officials. She instructed the participants to treat some of her subjects far better
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than others based solely on their eye color. Jane Elliot effectively created two unequal groups in
two experiments. Each time one group was given considerable special treatment.
In the experiment with the third grade students, she instructed children with brown eyes
to wear special collars. This was one of the biggest factors that influenced changes in the
children’s thoughts, feelings, moods, and behaviors. They were wearing the collars for the
purpose of being identified as a minority, and so that people far away would know the color of
their eyes. The participants wearing collars were not allowed to drink from the water fountain
play with the “blue eyed” children on the play ground, go back for “seconds” in the lunch line,
and various other discriminating factors (Frontline, 2009).
On the first day of the experiment, it took the brown eyed kids representing the minority
five and one half minutes to get through the phonics card exercise. On the second day when they
were the majority, it only took them two and one half minutes. According to Elliot, the only
change was that “now” they are the superior people. The kids said they were slower the day
before because they had collars on (Frontline, 2009). When the “blue eyed” kids had the collars
on, they also did worse on their assignment. The “blue eyed” kids said they did worse because
they were thinking about the collars they wore during the experiment. One child said he “hated
today because I am blue eyed” (Frontline). Jane Elliott exclaimed that this particular class was
about a terrible thing called discrimination. She said, “I didn’t say it was going to be a fair day,
because it isn’t” (Frontline).
The results of the experiment with the third grade students revealed that the children
adopted their roles at a profoundly frightening level. Blue-eyed students regressed to a state of
insecurity while the brown-eyed students became, in Jane Elliott's words, "arrogant, ugly,
domineering, overbearing White Americans" (Frontline, 2009). One child told the teacher that
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she better keep the yard stick on her desk in case the brown eyed people get out of hand! An
astonishing reaction was displayed was when Jane Elliot asked two of the children why they
were fighting on the play ground. One young boy said, “Russell called me names and I hit him in
the gut”. Elliot asked, “What did he call you?” The child responded, “Brown eyes” (Frontline).
While processing the lesson with the children, they described how they felt and what they
learned. One child said, “They don’t get anything in this world because they are a different
color” (Frontline). In one day, Jane Elliot proved that racism is a learned trait. According to
Carl Horowitz (2007), the experiment not only had an impact on the children’s individual
behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and moods but also the townsfolk of Riceville displayed
displeasure. When Elliott walked into the teachers' lounge the following week, several
colleagues got up and walked out (Horowitz, 2007). When she went downtown to do errands,
she heard whispers. Her children were taunted or assaulted by their fellow students; more than
once, they were called "nigger lover." (Horowitz).
Replicating her exercise would become her life's mission. Therefore, she orchestrated
the second experiment with a group of prison guards who were told to report to the facility for a
work shop. The participants were not initially aware of the exercise. She divided the employees
by eye color. In this experiment the blue eyed people were understood to be the minority. The
"majority" group was giving things like being allowed into the conference room early, given
seats and a more comfortable environment, and treated with respect (Frontline, 2009). The
advantages were even more distinguishable for the "minority" group who were subjected to sub
par conditions, forced to wear bands of shame, and faced humiliating circumstances (ProQuest
News Stand, 2007).
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The second experiment showed that in just a few hours under Elliott's withering regime, a
group of grown professionals became despondent and distracted, stumbling over the simplest
commands (ProQuest News Stand, 2007).
“Whether the trainees are children or childlike adults, the premise is the same: all white
individuals must be emotionally rewired to overcome their racism” (U.S. State News, 2009).
Nobody wins unless everybody wins. The participants stated that they felt a sense of
hopelessness. The guards reflected that they now understood what it must be like to be a
minority and demonstrated a motivation for change (U.S. State News).
These experiments point to the predictability of evil; that process by which ordinary
individuals can do wicked things so long as they have the proper framework in which to
rationalize them. The most important message that the experiment reveals is that the children
believed and trusted what their teacher told them in much the same manner in which they believe
and trust what their parents teach them. Changing the racist attitudes and behaviors in the world
must start with parental guidance. The belief of how other people perceived them led the
participants to believe it about themselves. The kids said they felt like a “dog on a leash”. A
most astounding comment from one child was that when wearing the collar, he felt like he was
shut up in a prison, and some one threw away the key (Frontline, 2009). These factors
“naturally” occur within society on a daily basis. For example, millions of African American and
Latino young people in the United States do not get an education equal to that of most whites; a
contributing factor to this is because urban schools they go to do not have the financial backing
as do the schools in the white suburbs (Lee & Dean, 2004). It is unimaginable how many people
have had to live entire lives under these circumstances!
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Showing this video should be used to train future counselors and psychologists because
not only all people but especially psychology professionals should be diversity specialists. Elliot
stated “the necessity of this program is a crime” (Frontline, 2009). Through watching A Class
Divided, role playing activities, case studies, discussions, group projects, readings, and personal
reflection the therapist will develop an awareness of their own individual cultural backgrounds,
the foundation of their values, and how those values influence thinking, behavior, and their
therapeutic approaches. Life is richer and more interesting if you have friends and acquaintances
from many racial backgrounds. Cultural competency should be a requirement of all educational
training programs in order to receive a degree in behavioral sciences.
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American Psychiatric Association (2003). Is schizophrenia a down side of urban life? Retrieved
Horowitz, C. F. (2007). Jane Elliot and her blue-eyed devil children. FRONTPAGEMAG.COM.
Retrieved from http://22.214.171.124readArticle.aspx?ARTID=1019
Lee, R. M., & Dean, B. L. (2004). Middle-class mythology in an age of immigration and
segmented assimilation: Implication for counseling psychology. Journal of Counseling
Psychology, 51(1), 19-24. doi:10.1037/0022-0126.96.36.199
Thirteen (Producer). (2008, July 15). Birth of a Surgeon: Arron Brown Interview: Dr. Margaret
Chan [Motion picture]. In (Producer), WideAngle. Podcast retrieved from http: http
Jane Elliot to Speak at Washburn. 30. (2009, April 10). US Fed News Service, Including US
State News, from Research Library. (Document ID: 1676943891).
Eye-catching course to tackle prejudice. (2007, May 12). Hull Daily Mail, p. 4. Retrieved from
ProQuest Newsstand. (Document ID: 1269877841).
Frontline. (2009). PBS Presents: A Class Divided [Video file]. Retrieved from: