Creating Little Elementary School Beasties: Brown Eyes Versus Blue Eyes
The power of authorities is demonstrated not only in the extent to which they can command obedience from
followers, but also in the extent to which they can define reality and alter habitual ways of thinking and
acting. Case in point: Jane EIliott, a popular third-grade schoolteacher in the small rural town of
Riceville, Iowa. Her challenge: how to teach white children from a small farm town with few minorities
about the meaning of "brotherhood" and "tolerance". She decided to have them experience personally what
it feels like to be an underdog and also the top dog, either the victim or the perpetrator of prejudice.
This teacher arbitrarily designated one part of her class as superior to the other part, which was
inferior-based only on their eye color. She began by informing her students that people with blue eyes were
superior to those with brown eyes and gave a variety of supporting "evidence" to illustrate this truth,
such as George Washington's having blue eyes and, closer to home, a student's father (who, the student
had complained, had hit him) having brown eyes.
Starting immediately, said Ms. Elliott, the children with blue eyes would be the special "superior" ones and
the brown-eyed ones would be the "inferior" group. The allegedly more intelligent blue-eyes were given
special privileges, while the inferior brown-eyes had to obey rules that enforced their second-class
status, including wearing a collar that enabled others to recognize their lowly status from a distance.
The previously friendly blue-eyed kids refused to play with the bad "brown-eyes," and they suggested that
school officials should be notified that the brown-eyes might steal things. Soon fistfights erupted
during recess, and one boy admitted hitting another "in the gut" because, "He called me brown-eyes,
like being a black person, like a Negro." Within one day, the brown-eyed children began to do more
poorly in their schoolwork and became depressed, sullen, and angry. They described themselves as
"sad," "bad," "stupid," and "mean."
The next day was turnabout time, Mrs. Elliott told the class that she had been wrong - it was really
the brown-eyed children who were superior and the blue-eyed ones who were inferior, and she provided
specious new evidence to support this chromatic theory of good and evil. The blue-eyes now switched
from their previously "happy," "good," "sweet," and "nice" self-labels to derogatory labels similar
to those adopted the day before by the brown-eyes. Old friendship patterns between children temporarily
dissolved and were replaced by hostility until this experiential project was ended and the children were
carefully and fully debriefed and returned to their joy-filled classroom.
The teacher was amazed at the swift and total transformation of so many of her students whom she thought
she knew so well. Mrs. Elliott concluded, "What had been marvelously cooperative, thoughtful children
became nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders.... It was ghastly!"
1. Summarize Mrs. Elliott's experiment in your own words in no more than 150 words.
2. What did Mrs. Elliott want to teach her children?
3. Do you think the experiment would have born similar results if it had been carried out
with older students?