Free «The Cruel Truth of “A Class Divided”» Essay

The Cruel Truth of “A Class Divided”

Nearly half a century ago Jane Elliott has staged an experiment that eventually transformed the perception of discrimination. Her all-white class comprised nine-year olds belonging to the homogenous Christian community. There was no substantial difference between pupils that could have allowed for the discrimination to appear. However, Ms. Elliott has found a way to differentiate them by the color of their eyes. Children with blue eyes were encouraged to dominate over their brown-eyed classmates; the next day roles were swapped. An artificial and seemingly primitive approach had produced a totally unexpected result. It was known before that the discriminative prejudice is a response learned in a course of life. However, the experiment has proven that prejudice is not the reason for discrimination, but rather its result. The uniformity of pupils’ reaction suggests that all people are susceptible to the racial prejudice. Simplistic model of society built by Jane Elliott has turned a new page in the recognition of discrimination.

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The experiment has revealed a number of phenomena in racism perception, which otherwise would have remained unknown. Apparently, all forms of discrimination, such as anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and ageism have the common roots. People do not analyze critically what they are told about certain differences between social groups. The experimental class had no close encounter with a relevant community when Ms. Elliott asked them about their attitude toward the black people. "Whatever her children said, then, Jane assumed would have come from parents, relatives, and friends, from what they had learned in school – in her own class and in the grades before – and from things they had seen and heard in a rare movie or on the radio or television” (Peters, A Class Divided 15). A prejudiced society has implanted certain “knowledge” into pupils, whose reaction could not be skeptical. As Jane Elliott decided to challenge that prejudice, she voiced her doubts to the class: "I mean it would be hard to know, really, unless we actually experienced discrimination ourselves, wouldn't it?" (Peters, Frontline Episode). Consequently, the first step in prejudices’ recognition is the critical attitude toward any knowledge that was acquired without solid substantiation.

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However, there was no practical way for the children to feel like black people, as Ms. Elliott suggested. Pure imagination is insufficient in overcoming years of learned attitude. At a young age, the discrimination often happens on the individual-to-individual level. However, it is rather insignificant in comparison to the abuse based on the racial criteria or any other physical differences. The division of a class into brown-eyed and blue-eyed groups was a brilliant stroke of inspiration. Pupils were rather enthusiastic when Jane Elliott proposed the game’s rule: “Suppose that for the rest of today the blue-eyed people became the inferior group. Then, on Monday, we could reverse it so that the brown-eyed children were inferior. Wouldn't that give us a better understanding of what discrimination means?" (Peters, Frontline Episode). The results were numerous and unpredictable.

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The experiment has shown that people react uniformly when judged by their physical characteristics. If possession of these characteristics means facing the unjust and negative attitude, which is expressed firmly and explicitly, human beings become irrational, uncooperative, and confused. The defensive reaction reveals itself by overly emotional behavior or total unresponsiveness. All the children subconsciously complied with the negative expectations of them, losing the natural ability to seek recognition and success. However, once elevated to the dominating category, they immediately “forgot” how it was to be inferior and started expressing viciousness and arrogance toward the second-rate classmates. Thus, pupils were permitted to experience the racism from both parties’ perspectives. When the situation leveled up and the usual course of school life has ensued, Ms. Elliott repeated her question regarding the black people. “Now, in spite of the things they had ‘known’ about Negroes, they became sympathetic. They felt sorry for black children; they did not think it was fair for them to be treated differently” (Peters, A Class Divided 16).

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Exposure to the racist environment, however marginal it may seem in a course of the experiment, had produced rather informative side effects as well. Learning abilities of the “inferior” group subsided significantly compared to the standards of usual environment. It has proven to be extremely difficult to learn even the simplest material under stress of discriminative abuse. Consequently, racist attitude over centuries has undoubtedly wasted the number of potential geniuses. There is one more ominous effect of Ms. Elliott’s experiment. It shows that people seem to like being superior. It is different from the natural desire for success, as there is nothing wrong in the well-earned respect and recognition. On the contrary, when success comes from nowhere and is taken for granted because of the eyes’ or skin color, there is a hidden, dormant danger inside the very human nature. It is a kind of danger that can be eliminated by proper education and society standards.

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As former pupils met fourteen years later, their reflections were still deep and earnest. Young adults already had the chance to acknowledge the mythical nature of a “white supremacy” in real life. Moreover, their previous exposure to the experiment brought the notion that any prejudice should be challenged and critically assessed. Jane Elliott’s former pupils learned to recognize different forms of discrimination. Society has benefited from their example, learning that people of color suffer in the same way as do women, elderly, or national minorities.

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