An Unethical Teacher

Rarely have I felt such outrage at another person’s behavior:

The object of my disgust is the teacher, Ms. Jane Elliot. A dedicated opponent of racism, she has devoted her life to teach people the insidious ways in which racism lurks inside our minds. This admirable effort, however, has apparently been poisoned by her anger at the injustice of racism. In this video, Ms. Elliot ferociously attacks a student for attempting to ask a question. The student’s intentions are obviously honorable, yet Ms. Elliot rounds on her with a viciousness that I have never seen in any classroom. I was appalled, disgusted, and outraged by her behavior. So I wrote her an email:


I recently viewed a short video presentation on your “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes”  exercise. In this video, a girl attempts to ask a question and you launch an ugly confrontation that reduces the girl to tears, She runs out; when she returns, you continue your verbal assault on the poor girl. 

You made many mistakes in that video. The most egregious mistake lay in your failure to understand the nature of listening in verbal interaction. You maintain that good listening requires an open body posture. At first glance, I agreed with you, but on further thought I realized that this presumes that the listener deceive the speaker by failing to communicate disagreement or confusion. A good listener interacts with the speaker, both through body language and through speech acts. A good listener communicates their emotional stance: agreement, impatience, frustration, disagreement, boredom, confusion, or whatever. This feedback helps the speaker address the listener’s concerns more accurately. 

Moreover, a good listener verbally responds to the speaker. The good listener allows the speaker to complete the speech act, and then makes a statement informing the speaker about what the listener needs to further understand the speaker’s point. That can take the form of an objection, a question, a qualification, or even a simple statement of agreement or disagreement. 

Yet when the girl attempted to ask a question, you abused her. She was carrying our her responsibility as a good listener, and you attacked her for doing that. Shame on you.

I suggest that you consider the Socratic dialogue as a teaching strategy. I consider the Socratic dialogue to be the highest and most powerful form of teaching, and I have attempted it many times with my own students, but I confess that the technique requires more cleverness than I can usually muster. 

What you did was the perfect antithesis of a Socratic dialogue. Instead of attempting to understand her thinking so as to help her understand, you attacked her for demonstrating her curiosity. That is not just bad teaching — it is “anti-teaching” in that it communicates the opposite of the truth.

I suspect that you’ll defend your behavior with the claim that your performance was something of a theatrical act meant to demonstrate points to the group as a whole. If so, I would condemn you for sacrificing the education of one student for the education of the group. 

You may also defend your ugly behavior by comparing it with the evils of racism. If so, I remind you that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Perhaps I have completely misunderstood your actions. Perhaps the video was edited to present you in an utterly false light. I would certainly appreciate it if you provided such information. I am much uncomfortable with the thought that such a dedicated advocate of good would use such evil methods, and would be greatly relieved to learn that the video misrepresents you. I would also like to hear your thoughts on my criticisms.


Ms. Elliot’s reply was a curt dismissal of my points.

I condemn Ms. Elliot’s behavior in the strongest possible terms. Hurting a student so deeply that she bursts into tears and runs out is always wrong. A comparison with sexual abuse is illuminating. Were a professor to make a pointed and demeaning reference to a student’s breasts, that professor would be immediately and strongly reprimanded. Yet the pain that Ms. Elliot inflicted upon this girl greatly exceeds the pain inflicted by the sexual abuse example. Does she not also deserve an immediate and strong reprimand?