In 1968, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Racism across the United States was rampant. Instead of ignoring the problem that was plaguing the country, one teacher in an all-white Iowa town, Jane Elliot, decided to rise to the challenge and become part of the solution. As a teacher she felt that she had the responsibility to make a difference.
In this thought-provoking film, “A Class Divided,” we join Jane Elliot as she performs a controversial social experiment in her grade-three classroom, giving her students a life lesson on racism that rocked them to the core. One they would never forget. Jane Elliot split up the classroom into two groups. One group of students with blue eyes and one group of students with brown eyes. Then, arbitrarily, the teacher arbitrarily assigned privileges to one of the groups that were unavailable to the “lesser” students. Within fifteen minutes into the experiment, wonderful and sweet children turned into cruel little monsters and ganged up against the students without the privileges leading to outbursts and even violence from both sides. Academic performance was effected too. All this based on something as meaningless as eye color.
The film follows up with the same students fourteen years later to discuss the unique experience they shared. As they watch themselves on film, they are still moved by the lesson learned. Their reactions back then were dictated by the innocence of childhood and the mental blueprint engrained by their culture. Then the experiment is taken out of the classroom and into the workplace and the results are the same; mature adults are also unable to cope with the frustration brought on by discrimination. Just like the third-grade students, they lash out in pain and anger. Can everyone learn from being part of an experiment like this? Should Jane Elliot’s lesson be standard curriculum in every classroom and office?