A Class Divided

A Reflection on Prejudice and Learning

Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Jane Elliott, a third-grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa, conducted a daring classroom experiment that would come to be known as A Class Divided. This social exercise was Elliott’s attempt to make her all-white students understand the mechanics of discrimination and prejudice through direct experience. Over the years, the repercussions of this experiment have rippled across educational and professional landscapes, offering profound insights into the nature and nurture of prejudice.

Jane Elliott’s experiment was spawned from a need to explain the concept of racism and its implications to her young students, who were distant from the racially charged climates of the 1960s American South. She devised a two-day exercise, dividing her class based on an arbitrary characteristic: eye color. On the first day, children with blue eyes were told they were superior, smarter, neater, and better than those with brown eyes.

Dr. Elliott. Credit: janeelliott.com

Dr. Elliott. Credit: janeelliott.com

Throughout the day, blue-eyed children enjoyed privileges such as extra recess time, access to the new jungle gym, and the right to drink directly from the water fountain. Brown-eyed children had to wear collars, were relegated to the back of the class, and faced constant criticism. The roles were reversed the next day, with brown-eyed students receiving favorable treatment.

The transformation in Elliott’s classroom was both immediate and startling. Students who were typically amicable and cooperative became either arrogant and cruel or submissive and dejected, depending on their assigned group. Academic performance also shifted; those deemed “superior” showed marked improvement in tasks, while the ‘inferior’ group’s performance deteriorated.

One of the most poignant observations was the ease with which children adopted their assigned roles, suggesting how quickly humans can internalize and act upon societal constructs of superiority and inferiority. This behavior mirrored the broader societal issues of racism and discrimination, illustrating how prejudice can be learned and is not inherent.

Racism is a learned affliction and anything that is learned can be unlearned.

Jane Elliott

Elliott’s exercise gained national attention and was featured in a PBS documentary called A Class Divided. While the experiment was praised for its powerful message, it also faced criticism due to ethical concerns. Elliott, undeterred by the mixed reactions, continued to conduct the experiment annually, becoming a key figure in diversity training. The principles of the experiment have been applied in various settings, including schools and workplaces, to highlight the effects of discrimination and foster empathy and understanding.

Today, A Class Divided experiment remains a powerful reminder of the learned nature of prejudice and the profound impact of education in combating discrimination. As we move forward, the principles illuminated by this experiment can guide us in creating a more inclusive world. By understanding the mechanisms of prejudice, challenging our biases, and fostering empathy, we can work towards a society where divisions based on arbitrary characteristics are a thing of the past. In doing so, we honor the spirit of Elliott’s experiment and take a step closer to a world defined by understanding and respect.

Editors’ finds

Masterpiece spotlight

Kabuki Actor Ōtani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei by Tōshūsai Sharaku, 1794

Kabuki Actor Ōtani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei by Tōshūsai Sharaku, 1794

Words of wisdom

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” ―Viktor E. Frankl

“In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” —Abraham Lincoln

“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.” ―Sigmund Freud

“When we are happy, we are always good, but when we are good, we are not always happy.” ―Oscar Wilde


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