Persecuting for sensitivity

“Sensitivity” isn’t the word for exercises that humiliate children, writes columnist Linda Seebach. She blasts “Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes,” which tries to fight discrimination by enacting it. Employees — or students — are divided into groups based on eye color, with the blue-eyed designated as inferior and subject to discrimination. (The leader can decide whether those with green and hazel eyes are in the superior or inferior group.)

Seebach heard from a woman whose son’s ninth grade English class, which was studying Othello, was subjected to the exercise.

“The teacher made my son wear a blue card on a string around his neck. He was required to smile ingratiatingly, bow his head, and beg people to tie his shoes for him,” she wrote. “The teacher wore a yellow card, that of the superior race, and she petted and made much of the other yellow-card students.”

In a particularly nasty wrinkle, the teacher told the students chosen for the subordinate group that they would all receive Fs for their work that day and that the failing grades would be on their final transcript. And she sent them home still believing that lie.

. . . “Teaching children about abuse should never include abusing them,” the mother wrote. “Committing a hate crime should not be the way we teach our youngsters about hate crimes.”

I think it’s very easy for children and adults to understand and condemn blatant discrimination. It’s a no brainer. But it’s much harder to understand how prejudices influence human interactions in the real world. Why does Iago hate Othello so much? Why is Othello so vulnerable to jealousy? If Shakespeare hadn’t made Othello a Moor, how would that change the play?

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Comments

  1. Two good points, one made by Seebach, one made by Joanne Jacobs:

    Seebach made the comment about the “F’s on permanent transcript” lie that “Perfectionist that I was, I would have gone home and killed myself.” Now, granted, she was probably using hyperbole. But I could see something similar happening to a too-tightly-wound, already-persecuted student in the schools subjected to this. (I wonder if it will take a dead child and a lawsuit to stop this?)

    Second point: There’s a world of difference between blatant discrimination – as the brown eye/blue eye exercise encourages – and the subtler, more nuanced, more “inborn” forms that are what really act in the world today. (As Joanne pointed out). I don’t know how useful “Brown eyes/Blue eyes” is for dealing with the subtler forms of racism that come up in literature or that most people who bump up against discrimination finds. It seems like a bad fit for the lesson…

    I was subjected to a version of the exercise when I was in 7th grade. I still remember how painful that day as a “second class citizen” were. Back then, teachers even permitted some mild kicking and pushing in the hall of the students selected to be the second-classers. Thank God they didn’t tell us we were getting F’s and they were going on our transcripts; I probably would have burst out crying in class. It was a horrible experience. I got the feeling that certain kids – unpopular kids, or the poor kids, or the few minorities in my school – were specifically singled out on the days they were the discriminated-against ones, and were treated with especial cruelty by the “dominant” students. Almost like, “hey, we have the teacher’s sanction to say rude things to this person and knock them down in the hall”

    and when I was a “dominant” student, I couldn’t bring myself to go along; it just seemed so stupid and so cruel. (I suppose that was the point; but then again I would have considered taunting a student who was Black or Jewish or disabled to be stupid and cruel before the exercise took place)

  2. Steve LaBonne says:

    Those who want the public schools to engage in “moral” education of kids- in the naive belief that the lessons and teaching methods would always be ones of which they happen to approve- should ponder stories like this. I say the schools should teach academic skills (and by the way, do it better than most public schools are doing now, please!) and leave the rest to parents.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Stanislavsky, my extremely random access memory pulls up from decades ago, insisted the Othello be played as a sophisticated, educated, intelligent man, not a tigerish warrior, because that was how Moors were in those days, or at least their upper classes and that would have included the generals-for-hire.
    It is unlikely we’d get the correct answer to the question of how would things turn out if Othello was not Moorish if we consider it in today’s lights. Of course, today, one might ask why a bunch of white folks hired a Moor at all. Or it would not be addressing the question Shakespeare posed by making the guy a Moor.
    Presuming Shakespeare wasn’t just hauling in some exoticism.

  4. Steve –

    You’ve got a point saying that morals should be left to the parents, but guess what? Parents many times don’t teach their kids ANYTHING – they expect the schools to do it all. If we don’t teach a little bit of morality, some of these kids will have absolutely no clue about the difference between right and wrong. Besides, when we set up rules and consequences in the classroom, we’re teaching morality. It’s gonna get taught one way or the other.

  5. Steve LaBonne says:

    Not every problem has a government solution. Besides, placing such non-academic responsibilities on schools may well create what actuaries call a “moral hazard” (no pun intended!), actually encouraging parents to abdicate their proper roles.

  6. stolypin says:

    “I say the schools should teach academic skills (and by the way, do it better than most public schools are doing now, please!) and leave the rest to parents.”

    Steve, agreed.

    I have a theory that is purely speculative and without any empirical support (which makes it appropriate for the blogsophere I suppose!), to wit
    – – – the willingness of a school to undertake these programs is inversely proportional to its success in teaching its children basic academic skills. – – –

    Perhaps the teachers out there could fill me in.

    Jill, you make a very good point. I see a bit of a chicken/egg thing going on though – and wonder how much of that parental abdication is the result (or partly the outcome) of increasing usurpation by the school of those functions.

    Last, the idea of making an intentional F part of one’s permanent record (if that is in fact the case) is the rankest act of stupidity I have seen in quite some time. Talk about ruining someone’s life (what would an F do to my college application?) simply to make a political/social point is astonishing.

  7. Wow. I’m an advocate of gutsy, over the top lessons. They are fun and make the classroom exciting. That said, this blue eye brown eye thing is ‘nine kinds of a bad idea’ as we used to say. You just can’t know the histories of all the kids and how this might really put them in meltdown.

    atlas

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    I recall a gutsy, over-the-top lesson in 1968. It was in a classroom for freshmen at a black college in Mississippi. The instructors–white, from Michigan–faked up a report that the president had just declared martial law and the Constitution was no longer in force.
    The black kids, who depended on the rule of law, were devastated, some, even guys, crying.
    A really stupid idea.
    Sometimes the fun of effing with kids’ minds just has to be displaced to torturing pets.

  9. The insane people who run these experiments: DO they have kids of their own? And if they do, how f**ked up are they?

    Just curious.

  10. Mitchell says:

    Why didn’t some parent who looks out for their children’s well-being go and make the educator in question feel inferior by way of an ass whipping? The best way to fight child abuse is to abuse whoever is doing it. Sheesh.

  11. Boring Visitor says:

    Richard Aubrey – which school was that? (I live in MS.)

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    Rust College in Holly Springs. I was part of a group doing a combination of education and civil rights. Our primary job was prepping incoming frosh for their first year with heavy math and English comp. But some of the more radical types, (civil rights had the ambience of the counterculture minus–mostly–the pot) decided to go over-the-top. The thing is, it wouldn’t have worked if the kids hadn’t ALREADY known the importance of the constitution and the rule of law. So it was egregious, not to mention redundant, repetitive and unnecessary. Also sadistic.
    I have to say my teaching partner I and stuck to teaching communication skills, from sentence to essay plus critical reading.
    None of that crap.
    The program was known at Michigan State as Student Educational Program (STEP) and Summer Study Skills Institute at Rust.

  13. Rita C. says:

    I think the last time Joanne blogged about this particular lesson plan, it was pointed out that it is based on somebody’s book, but that it seems to get done poorly a lot. Personally, that’s why I stick to my own lesson plans. At least if I screw them up, it’s all my fault.

    As for teaching morals in school, well, it’s always been done. It was the reason the first public schools were set up (see The Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647). And then there’s those McGuffy Readers. You should read some of the teacher contracts from that era. Downright frightening. Not teaching morals in school is a radical departure in public education, and I would argue the current lack of moral cohesion in our society is one of the things tearing our schools and communities apart — for better or for worse.

    I work very hard at not imposing certain aspects of my moral system upon my students, but I absolutely teach about morals. How can you teach literature without talking about the moral decisions that drive the plots of most canonized works? And my students certainly know that I have a moral code that I try to live by — because I’m a moral being. I don’t leave my moral self at the door, and neither should they (although some do). To say that there can be no morals inside the classroom is impossible. Why can’t they cheat? Why can’t they plagiarize? Why can’t they call the girl next to them a bitch and a ho? Because I say this is the moral code of my classroom that you may not violate without consequence. These things go to the heart of what we are as a class and how we choose to be; these are moral issues in my classroom (not simply “rules” — things like when they can go to the bathroom). They can certainly chuck these ideas once step outside my door, but this whole idea of not teaching morals in school is much more complex than it sounds.

  14. Tim from Texas says:

    The crazier and over the top society becomes, all the more crazy and over the top teachers it begets. So the existance of some really “over the top” teachers with some really “over the top” lessons, and approaches shouldn’t be a surprise.

    Many of those teachers are really good teachers, and of course, some aren’t. I think we can all think back very fondly of such a teacher who was a good one.

    Education and society cannot be separated, and we should be thankful for the good teachers we do have, and there are many.

  15. If you really want to get Othello,. rent “o”, the teen version. It’s a terrific movie and O is a cool, popular studly guy, who’s undone by a real snake.
    I hate these enforced exercises, led all too often by teachers who have no actual knowledge of discrimination.

  16. I remember being forced to watch a film about the original experiment and how it had expanded to a variety of adult settings, about 20 years ago in my “multicultural education” class. My professor loved the whole idea, and actually encouraged using it — especially with elementary kids. When my reaction paper laid out a case for teh utter immorality of the entire practice, I got an F on it and was accused of “lacking raacial sensitivity” and “unwillinglness to confront the lingering effects of the white supremacy that undelies American culture.”

    Glad to see that more reasonable people than him exist.

  17. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Horsewhipping is no longer authorized but it would be the appropriate response.

  18. ThatBastard says:

    Being a blue eyed person, I would have led riots and demanded preferential treatment for the rest of high school. Just to make sure I got the whole experience.

  19. Eric Jablow says:

    What would the teacher have done if a student did the moral thing and refused to participate, perhaps by walking out of the classroom?

  20. Mark Odell says:

    Richard Aubrey wrote: The instructors–white, from Michigan–faked up a report that the president had just declared martial law and the Constitution was no longer in force.

    Actually, except for the word “just”, that report is not far from the truth; it merely arrived some 103 years late.

    The black kids, who depended on the rule of law,

    . . . as distinct from some other unnamed people who didn’t depend on the rule of law? Don’t we all?

    The thing is, it wouldn’t have worked if the kids hadn’t ALREADY known the importance of the constitution and the rule of law.

    I rather think it only worked because the kids DIDN’T know these things.

    Walter E. Wallis wrote: Horsewhipping is no longer authorized but it would be the appropriate response.

    Equine Anti-Defamation League holding for you on line 1….

  21. Bob Diethrich says:

    The nice thing is that older kids have a much higher B**L S**T detector than we give them credit for, and would never fall for something so transperant.

    When I was in middle school I used actual lessons from history about the importance of cross-cultural understanding, rather than this complete BS.

  22. Richard Aubrey says:

    Mark, if they hadn’t had some idea of what was going on, the faked report would have been meaningless to them.
    And the rule of law I mentioned referred to Federal civil rights laws, as opposed to the expectation of normal treatment by others and to local laws.
    Without that, their circumstances would have reverted to something which, being contemplated, upset them tremendously.
    If they hadn’t been aware of this–thus needing no lesson–they wouldn’t have reacted as they did.

  23. I see a bit of a chicken/egg thing going on though – and wonder how much of that parental abdication is the result (or partly the outcome) of increasing usurpation by the school of those functions.

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