Lesson Learned

In 1968, a third grade teacher named Jane Elliott decided to take an unconventional approach to teaching about inequality. She divided her students into brown-eyed and blue-eyed groups. Each day, she told one group they were more superior than the other. The children learned an important, enduring lesson over those two days about the injustice of discrimination, which was documented by PBS Frontline.

This approach allowed the children to learn directly from experience, a type of education our philosophers touted. Like in Emile, the teacher set up the circumstances for the children to learn. Unlike Emile, however, these children could not opt out of their lesson if they were not interested in participating. Many of our most radical philosophers on education suggested that students should be able to learn whatever they want and not be forced to learn things in which they have no interest. Many of the third graders at the time did not want to participate on the day they were in the inferior group because they did not enjoy the feelings associated with their position.

Years after the experiment, the students came together for a school reunion. They discussed the two-day experiment and all determined they were glad to have learned such an essential lesson. Had they been able to control their own educations they would not have experienced what they did. There are some things are people do not want to learn or experience, but they are important lessons that should be taught anyway.

3 responses to “Lesson Learned

  1. I feel like this answers one of my questions back in the Emile reading. I wondered why Rousseau couldn’t have just taught Emile not to flaunt his knowledge instead of embarrassing him when the magician berated him and Rousseau. Although it is an unpleasant experience, it is an experience that stands out, and it is also extremely important in the long run. This is a lesson that can’t always be taught successfully, and first hand experience of it will solidify the lesson. Even more important is this lesson in the injustice of discrimination, and I feel like it will be better understood by the students if they experience it themselves.

  2. When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher actually showed us this program and my sociology professor here at Emory also showed us a snippet of it. When I first saw the program, I was surprised that a teacher took such an extreme and potentially risky route to teach her students a valuable lesson in equality. I personally believe that Elliot’s approach of making it that the students had to participate was much more beneficial not only in the fact that the students did have a lasting experience but also that they were forced to exit their comfort zones and truly gain experience. If they were allowed to quit when they wanted they would be missing out on not only this particular experience, but many other potentially great lessons in life and in the classroom. Allowing a student to have more freedom appears good on paper but there are many other routes that require some force that may actually help young pupils progress and evolve more than mere freedom to explore.

  3. This is the first time that I have heard of such program, so I’m glad that you brought it here. Some people would argue that forced learning reduces the amount of freedom available to children. However, it is definitely necessary when children are ignorant and uninformed. Children are often unable to restrain themselves from pleasures, which is crucial in Aristotle’s philosophy. For, one doesn’t really know if one cannot restrain one’s self to commit harmful deeds to one’s well-being. Thus, although this program sounds like dictatorship, it has lots of meaningful benefits that will form good habits and foundation for later experience and knowledge that these children might encounter

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