Everybody knows that old saw attributed to several philosophers that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.
Wait a minute–you mean everybody doesn’t? uh oh. Well here’s a reminder brought back to mind by the French indie movie, “A Bag of Marbles which I recommend.”
In the state of Iowa, in an elementary school, an incident happened in class the day after Dr. King was shot. It led the teacher, Mrs. Jane Elliott to think long and hard about racism and a way to show her children how close to the surface it is in all of us, and how quickly it can come roaring out. She devised the now famous experiment known as “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes.”
The premise was simple. She divided her class into two. Students with blue or light eyes were on one side, children with brown or dark eyes on the other. She told the students that the blue-eyed children were special, brighter, smarter, came from better families with better values than the dark-eyed children. Because of that from then on, they would have more privileges than their dark-eyed classmates. They would have a longer lunch period, they could go outside for lunch, the best places in the playground would be reserved for them and them only. Brown-eyed children would have to wait to enter the class until all blue-eyed children had done so and been seated. The same would go for exiting.
There was a list of rules and during the course of the first day Mrs. Elliott enforced them to cries of “Not fair!” “This isn’t right!” By the end of the day, even the brown-eyed children who had protested the unfairness of it all stopped protesting. At the bell, there was a noticeable difference in the posture of the two groups and the looks on their faces. The brown-eyed children looked worried and slouched, the blue-eyed children were straight-shouldered, smiling and seemed to have an air of well…superiority.
The second day was harsher than the first. But there was more. Now some of the brown-eyed children were becoming the enforcers and by the third-day physical bullying and name-calling had begun. By the end of the week, some children with light eyes were conflicted because one or more parents whom they loved dearly had dark eyes. Some children with dark-eyes came to school crying or cried easily and often in school. Clinical signs of depression set in while the light-eyed children adjusted quickly and easily to reigning supreme.
Remember this is 4th grade in a small town where everyone pretty much knew everyone else and all these children by and large had known one another from before the start of their entrance into school. It was a town of church-goers, 4-H-ers, and people who celebrated Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Flag Day because it was the right thing to do. Their children were washed and scrubbed and addressed their elders as ma’am and sir. The only thing missing was Norman Rockwell. But as “The Shadow” used to ask us, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Well, Mrs. Elliott did and her experiment, with some variations, has been used in schools all over this country. for the past half-century.
And yet here we are. Political positions are blue-eyed positions or brown-eyed positions. People with blue-eyed positions are emboldened to speak disrespectfully to others that they have known for years and formally liked and respected. The United States Senate long know as a “club” where differing positions got worked out in cloakrooms is now a Senate divided with most often empty cloakrooms. The House of Representatives, always a more cantankerous group of people, has become a political pot about to boil over. And to top it off, the President of the United States has taken a page from Mrs. Elliott’s experiment and just anointed his supporters as a group of super-elitists with better boats and more brains than those who oppose him.
Satchel Paige, the venerable Negro Leagues pitcher who didn’t make it to the majors until his 40’s and is alleged to have pitched his last game in his 50’s, used to say, “Don’t look back–they may be gainin’ on ya.” We are at a place in history where we must look back. Why? On the National Archives in the nation’s capital, the building that holds our national political treasures, the building where the constitution of the United States is hermetically sealed in bomb-proof glass and can in seconds be sunken into a bomb-proof shelter many stories below the ground so that when the apocalypse is over we will still have it to guide in our rebuilding, has etched above it’s entry, “Past is Prologue.”
That’s why we must look back, not only to see the mess that’s coming but to see the mess that awaits us. How often have you said of an obnoxious adult, “He/She is acting like a child?” Often, I’ll bet. Our leaders are acting like Mrs. Elliott’s 4th graders and frighteningly enough, there’s no Mrs. Elliott to undo what she did and put them back on the right path. Our leaders are acting like children and children often break the toys that are most precious to them.
We’re going to need a big broom and extra large garbage can to sweep up the pieces of America that are going to be broken–at least from my perspective.
BREAKING NEWS: Bill Gralnick’s new website is “free and open to the public.” You can find information about Bill, his books, his writings, and his life all at “www.atleastfrommyperspective.net” You’ll will also note a slight change in the endings of his pieces. He has readopted using the format ending of his former column of the same name.
On the website, as well as the blog, there is a place for comments. Please let me hear from you. As Barbara Walters used to say, “We’re in touch, so you be in touch.”
And remember–Read! It’s good for both of us.