I’m sure you’ve heard about Jane Eliot’s infamous Blue eyes/Brown eyes Experiment, hearkening back to a time when we were permitted as a society to conduct social experiments on students for the greater good of humanity. The Stanford Prison Experiment comes from the same period, and while its notoriety is for turning college students into vicious guards or subordinated prisoners — for which reason it needed to be cancelled midstream — Eliot’s similarly sadistic flirtation with social engineering, and on much younger students, is heralded as positive because it ostensibly taught children what it feels like to be discriminated against in regards to race. What’s left out of the picture is Eliot’s role, and the grave implications of that.
Jane Eliot has made a career out of her enlightening experiments on grade-school children, and went on to perform the same procedure on adults. Nobody mentions it, but her tone is shrill and haranguing, and it doesn’t appear to be merely a persona put on for the event at hand. She speaks the same way when answering interview questions. Her tone and manner with her schoolchildren would make a very convincing backdrop to Pink Floyd’s, Another Brick in the Wall. That the students weren’t taken aback by her personality when implementing the experiment suggests that was her typical classroom demeanor. In her corporate seminars, she could send adults out of the room, crying, when she subjected them to either being the victim of discrimination, or fingered them as necessarily the perpetrator of discrimination outside of the experiment (significantly, in the filmed seminar versions for adults, with mixed races, it’s only the white people who are subjected to her cruel tactics of enforcing discrimination). It’s a bit presumptuous to assume you can teach adults their first lesson in suffering, and that they need such instruction. Her apparent resting personality aside (maybe she’s lovely when she’s not LARPing), however we slice it, in order to conduct these various experiments, she needs to be comfortable acting the sadist.
We gloss over the fact that in the filmed version of her lesson, one boy confessed to having hit another boy in the gut during their recess. We are supposed to take away from this how quickly discrimination leads to violence; but a more shocking truth to be gleaned from the footage is how fast the person in authority was able to instigate violence. The teacher’s lesson directly and immediately resulted in a child being beaten on the playground.
In order to teach students what it’s like to be persecuted because of one’s DNA, she also taught them what it’s like to persecute others on the same grounds. Over time the presumed smaller, ancillary lesson has grown in importance relative to the primary one. While students ostensibly learned a very hard lesson about what it’s like to be racially discriminated against, we also witness how effectively an authority figure can turn subjects against each other, create prejudice, bias, and discrimination out of thin air.
Eliot stated she needed to do the lesson because “we had talked about racism since the first day of school”, and after the tragic shooting of Martin Luther King Jr., merely talking about the topic just wasn’t enough to really get the message across. But if her students were marvelous, wonderful, cooperative and thoughtful, and she’d instructed them about the evils of racism since the beginning, what ill did they possess for which her bitter medicine was the necessary cure? This wasn’t a situation in which she used a heavy-handed treatment to counter student misbehavior. The treatment alone fostered the behavior in question. Further, all of this reflects her own distorted image of America — as seen through the lens of an activist, liberal perspective — which is about half of the picture.
Her intended meaning is that in society white people are racist against non-whites, and don’t know what it’s like to be discriminated against, full stop. That was likely more true in 1968 when she first conducted the experiment. The unintended meaning is that in society, authority figures can instill arbitrary forms of discrimination, bias, and prejudice into the population.
Of course Jane Eliot’s goal was for her all white students in a small town to understand first hand what it feels like to be the victim of racism. As she put it, “And for the next day I knew that my children were going to walk in someone else’s moccasins for a day, like it or lump it, they were going to have to walk in someone else’s moccasins”. And she certainly may have intended for them to notice in themselves a tendency to discriminate, when given a fertile environment for it. But the greater, unmentioned message was that they’d easily turned against each other; and they’d accepted the faux beliefs their teacher instilled, regardless of anything they’d learned previously, such as from their own families. From the perspective of today, I can see mirrored in her classroom the societal phenomenon of authority figures (politicians, the media, celebrities, influential personalities, business leaders…] creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of discord, or at least dramatically exacerbating whatever amount of it already existed.
Because her students were all white, Eliot’s experiment didn’t involve race at all until it was over, at which point she retroactively hammered home the analogy (brown eyes are like black skin, etc.). She used eye color, but she could have used left-handed or right-handed, or whether their names started with a vowel or consonant. Any criteria by which the children could be divided into apparent opposites would have worked, in which case, inadvertently, her experiment shows that anyone can be turned against anyone else if instructed to do so, regardless of race.
The discrimination in her classroom was a self-fulfilling prophecy orchestrated by Eliot, and to the degree it was a microcosm of the greater society, it showed not that her white subjects were inherently prone to discrimination against others — and needed to learn what it feels like to be on the other side — but that discrimination and discord going in any direction could be orchestrated out of thin air from above. While racial discrimination was the heavy-handed metaphor, what she actually achieved in the classroom was to divide same race children against each other using a completely arbitrary factor.
Undoubtedly, her point was that you can’t judge people by superficial physical characteristics ( even if throughout her career she always assumes only one group of people, based on superficial physical characteristics, need to be subjected to this punishing lesson). Her students performed worse on timed phonics tests when they were in the target, discriminated-against group. This seemingly illustrated that how well people succeed, how they perceive themselves, and the interrelation between the two, is the consequence of overriding external factors. I gather nobody has checked how her students performed academically relative to other classes in the same school. Ironically enough, her pupils had been subjected to an experiment that instilled in them the belief that, because of their race, they needed to be taught not to be bad. By her own logic, if one pans back, the presumption that the students shared a serious moral flaw could potentially adversely affect their performance. And some may ask how, as a white person, she can assume she has the moral purity to teach punishing moral experiments to other white people — in the classroom or corporate seminars — who are automatically guilty by virtue of race of a sin which she is somehow miraculously exempt. If she doesn’t need to undergo the treatment, how can she assume that they do?
At the end of the period, what we’ve really learned is not just what it feels like to persecute or to be persecuted unjustly, but that we can easily be manipulated into doing so by people with ulterior motives in positions of power, influence, and authority. And if a mini-race war among children of the same race within the classroom can be instigated within minutes, how easy might it be to artificially foment racial conflict among different races in the general populace? This could be orchestrated incidentally, just by cherry-picking the most sensationalist news events that outrage, and thus are guaranteed to get the most hits and go viral, or by promulgating, as Eliot did, notions that certain groups are bad for this or that reason.
I know Jane Eliot meant well, and is highly regarded, but I can’t escape the feeling that in her classroom it wasn’t the students that possessed a latent sinister quality that needed to be exorcised, but that Eliot herself was the sinister force, creating discrimination and even physical violence out of the blue for the alleged greater good, and presuming her students needed to go through this treatment in the first place simply because of their biology. In order to teach the children to be good, according to her terms and her peculiar world view, she forced them to behave badly, and used that as evidence that they needed to undergo the treatment.
I can give her the benefit of the doubt, and assume she was taking most of that into consideration, and it was part of the lesson. Maybe her students learned a lesson that they never forgot, and which helped them to become better people. But I remain ambivalent. Among other things, she created discriminating behavior where wasn’t any, and in her presumption that her students needed this therapeutic experience on the basis of their race, she unwittingly discriminated against them based on race, and punished them, all in a visibly sadistic fashion. I see a very thin line between torturing people with prejudice in order to teach them not to be prejudiced, and potentially just plain torturing them out of prejudice against them.
The searing sociological lesson I take away from Eliot’s experiment is the unintended one: conflict, and racial conflict in particular, can easily be inflicted on a populace out of the blue, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, and for ostensibly benevolent reasons. A conflagration is made with a gallon of lighter fluid out of a few smoldering ashes.
One may be able to think of historical precedents and contemporary examples. OK, if it’s not obvious enough, the current racial conflict in the US — the roughly 90 days of “mostly peaceful protests”, rioting, looting, and violence — were virtually created by various authorities through the media out of thin air, just as Jane Eliot turned her students against each other by imposing and magnifying difference and conflict, all in the name of the good and fighting injustice.
Jane Eliot said that in her class she’d created a microcosm of society. What we are seeing today in the west is society inadvertently becoming a macrocosm of her classroom experiment of artificially imposing, exaggerating, and reinforcing difference and conflict.
You can watch a mini-documentary on her experiment here: