My Turn: Blue eyes, brown eyes, and the lessons learned

For the Monitor
Published: 9/20/2020 7:00:02 AM

Fifty years ago, I was a young teacher in the quiet farm town of Hatfield, Massachusetts. Across the Connecticut River, the towers of UMass stood tall against the horizon. On that campus, student activism generated protests for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. But the corn, potato, and tobacco fields beyond my fifth-grade classroom remained quiet. The biggest issue for my students was a group of girls who picked on those who didn’t have the same interests or abilities.

That was when I decided to try the “Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes” experiment developed by educator Jane Elliott following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. By the time I asked permission of the principal to do this, the experiment had made it out of education journals and gone mainstream, even appearing in Reader’s Digest. Parents received a description of the what, when, and how of the experiment, but no one could have predicted what ensued.

I began the experiment at 11:40 one morning. Most of my students were blue-eyed blondes of Polish descent, but there were also a number of brown-eyed children. I told the class that brown-eyed children were inferior. The word was so unfamiliar that I had to define it. Brown-eyed students were made to move to the back of the classroom. They were not to get drinks, use the bathroom, or have special privileges during class. They would go to the back of every line. Immediately, students began checking eye color, asking what to do with hazel-eyed classmates. They knew this was an experiment, so I allowed them to decide that hazel-eyed students could sit among the blues.

The first protests that the experiment was unfair came when I asked the class to line up for lunch. The boys asked if the brown-eyed students could play dodge ball on their teams. “I dunno. You’d better watch those brown-eyed people,” I said. The boys insisted they needed the brown-eyed players to win. Others weren’t so sure.

More shocking to me was what the blue-eyed girls did. As the first in line, they had finished lunch before the brown-eyed girls were seated. The blues said they had been given sour milk, which they didn’t drink. Instead, they gave it to the browns and made them drink it. Out on the playground, a dispute among the blues resulted in a fight. Half the blues wanted to include the browns in their game, and had turned on the other blues who didn’t. I was the target of their anger because, they said, I had set them up.

After recess, I felt the hate as the class returned to the room, complaining that the browns had pushed their way ahead of the blues. Students from other classes who had heard about the experiment began checking for eye color, which exacerbated the division among the blues. I needed feedback, and an evaluation of what was happening, so I handed out paper. “You probably have something to tell me. Write what’s on your mind,” I said.

We were only an hour into the experiment, but already the browns has fallen into two groups: one was sullen and refused to write, the other scribbled furiously. One brown-eyed boy cheerfully announced that he didn’t mind sitting in back. Another girl was crying. By the time the bell rang for the students to move to their first afternoon class, they were begging me to stop what they no longer called an experiment. They now called it “punishment.”

I tried to maintain as much normalcy as possible when the class returned at 2:05 so I asked students to work on posters they had started. I was nervous, surrounded by the tension in the room. Students now hated each other, and hated me. I knew we had to talk about this, but after I told them I didn’t hate anyone in any group, they stopped listening, instead interrupting with complaints and accusations. The blues blamed the browns for incidents that had occurred in other classes. When I told them that this would be over soon and we’d all get together again, some said they wouldn’t want to after what other kids had done to them.

Meanwhile, the browns, who had not been particularly friendly with one another before, began to show solidarity. When a brown-eyed girl asked if she could go to the bathroom, I said no. She returned and said she couldn’t wait. I asked the blues if she could be allowed to go, and they said yes, showing their annoyance with my arbitrary rules. But a few minutes later, a blue walked past a brown-eyed boy and got kicked. Someone piped up, “We try to do all we can for you and all you do is fight.” So much for the blues’ charity. The browns were already talking about what they would do to the blues when it was their turn to be on top.

The afternoon went even further downhill as poster making resumed. When someone reported that a brown-eyed boy had snuck up and taken a drink, I sent him out to the hall. The room went silent. He did not move, but protested that he was thirsty. “I don’t care,” I said. The room broke into chaos. A brown-eyed girl said she had taken a drink, too, and stomped out into the hall, followed by the boy. When I stepped into the hall, the girl was crying. The boy said he didn’t know how he felt except “funny and stupid.” He had been traded to the other dodge ball team because of his eye color. He wanted to quit school.

Before the class left for the day, I brought up the fact that this might be the way groups were behaving around the nation. These 11-year-olds had a hard time drawing from our experience to that concept. They were angry. They were going to tell their parents about the punishment, which was little more than three hours old. The situation was far worse than I’d imagined, and I was very tired.

I had a prearranged conference with a blue-eyed boy to talk about his grades. As we sat together in the empty room, I asked him about the experiment. With tears in his eyes he said that when the blue-eyed children had their turn to be inferior, I should move my desk to the back of the room and not have any privileges. He said I was prejudiced to hate the browns. I had to remind him that this was an experiment. I did not hate the browns, or the blues. I told him I would move my desk, but as the teacher, I was responsible for maintaining a certain amount of authority, even if I was “inferior.” He understood.

That authority became the target for blame all around. Even when problems occurred beyond the classroom, I was seen as responsible for them, and the class looked to me as the only one who could stop this antagonism. They didn’t have the resources to work through this situation on their own. And for many, this wasn’t a short-lived experiment. It was reality.

I went home that night with the frightening realization that the discord created among 27 students was a microcosm of troubles in the greater society. We would flip roles, and then end the experiment, but planning the reunion was going to be a much bigger challenge than I’d anticipated.

Was the experiment a worthwhile lesson? Teachers never know the ultimate outcome of lessons in their classrooms. We did end the punishment, we did talk, and we did carry on our school year as one class, perhaps a little wiser than we’d been before. The website “Exploring Your Mind” tells us this experiment demonstrates “how arbitrary and subjective things can turn friends, family members, and citizens against each other.” It is what Elliott called a minimal group paradigm, when differences between sets of subjects are established in order to divide them into separate groups.

Her experiment began in her third-grade class in Riceville, Iowa, but became a topic of talk shows and articles, ultimately resulting in the documentary The Eye of the Storm in 1970. Parents and teachers in Riceville reacted to her publicity with hostility. As diversity trainers adopted her experiment, it became a subject of social research. The Angry Eye was another documentary released in 2001.

A 1990 Utah State University study reported that almost all participants regarded the experiment as stressful. It created hypersensitivity about not offending the other group, which I saw in some of the blues I taught, or anger toward the group to which they were asked to become more sensitive. That would have been the other blues. Generally, the exercise was considered meaningful, but without reliable measurement tools was regarded by trainers as only moderately effective.

Like many of us, my former students will soon vote in an election. And like many of us, they will bring to the voting booth a reaction or a response to an authority figure. When I felt the anger directed at me during an experiment that lasted roughly six hours across two days, I became aware of the dual role authority plays when groups are divided against each other. Unless group members understand their own role and responsibility in resolving inequities, they project their hope and helplessness onto a leader, often under the cloak of anger. If the privileged reach out to the underdogs but are rebuffed, they expect leaders to address the situation, preferably in support of their efforts.

But that can’t be. If the social dynamics that arose in less than a day were so complex, how do we unravel centuries-long social and psychological complexity? I am sure of one thing: As an authority, I could not solve a problem, but I created it and made it worse. That’s a lesson I won’t forget. And I won’t forget my students, although I confess I don’t remember the color of anyone’s eyes.

(Christine Hague of Weare is a retired teacher and library director.)

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