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The power of a teacher

Jan 14,2018 - Last updated at Jan 14,2018

On April 4, 1968, American Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King was killed for suggesting that people should be judged by the content of their hearts not the colour of their skin. 

The following day, a school teacher named Jane Elliott, from Riceville Iowa tried to explain to her class (7-8 year olds) about racism;but the children did not understand what she was talking about because they were born and raised in a largely homogenous community. So she asked them if they would accept to play a game, and explained the rules to them.  They all accepted.

The following day, she divided the class between those with blue eyes, whom she designated as the superior group, and those with brown eyes, whom she designated the inferior group.   The superior group sat in the front of the classroom, enjoyed privileges, and were encouraged to ignore the brown-eyed children who were not allowed even to drink from the same water fountain.  By the end of the week, the “superior group” became arrogant, bossy, and academically more capable than before. Meanwhile, the “inferior” group became timid, insular and subservient and their academic performance suffered.

The following week, Elliott reversed the roles, with brown-eyed children enjoying privileged status while blue eyed children were designated as “inferior”.  The behaviour of children in each group was identical to the first week.  

Elliott’s experiment stirred a national debate in the 70s because it showed people what it means for one to be persecuted not for a fault that he committed, but because of what he is. Such injustice is most dangerous because it does not teach a virtue, it does not even teach people to hate racism.  It only breeds spiralling cycles of hatred. 

It is important to recall this, as the world goes into a new cycle of crude nationalism, as distinct from patriotism.  Charles DeGaulle explained the difference as: Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.  This xenophobic nationalism is coupled with populism, both of which signal the suspension of good judgement.  

We can see the outcome in testimonies of survivors of the Hutu-Tutsi massacres in the 90s: “We were friends and neighbours.  We ate together the same food for years.  Then one day they became the enemy who was killing us.” 

Jordan has always been fortunate in that our leadership steered a rational course despite internal and external pressures to pursue the passions of populism.  This virtue needs to be cultivated among the public.  

We do not have a problem of racism in Jordan.  Our society has always been hospitable and generous to the best of our ability.  But we have tribalism; and with economic and political problems raging all around us, we must prevent the ideas that produce these maladies from infecting our society.

Jane Elliott showed the world what an impact one teacher in one classroom can make.  Our teachers should rise to this challenge. 



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