Teaching Eugenics in a Disability Studies Class
I integrate the history of eugenics as part of a Disability Studies class at the Institut d’Études Politiques of Paris. This course is intended to introduce students to the theoretical and methodological approaches to the expanding interdisciplinary field of Disability Studies. Its sessions focus on conceptual models used in studying disability, the history of legislative and social policy for impaired persons, the representation of disability in literature, the arts, and new media. This is a class that addresses 3rd-year undergraduate students enrolling in the English-speaking curriculum of the Institut. About 50% of my class is composed of French students and the other half are students coming from different European countries, North and South America, and East Asia. The course does not have more than 25 students, which allows to easily engage in class discussions.
Eugenics is a theme I usually develop at the beginning of the course to illustrate the concept of “Normal,” as referred to as a human being’s physical and mental characteristics. “Normal” is a key concept in the domain of Disability Studies. The notion of disability is defined in contrast to what is acknowledged as the regular, natural, average characteristics of a human body and mind. The history of eugenics allows bringing into discussion several ideas that are crucial for understanding the social and cultural dimensions of the norm.
I introduce my students to the concept of the “average men” (homme moyen) formulated by the Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet in his work Sur l’homme et le développement de ses facultés, ou Essai de physique sociale, published in 1835 (in English translation, it is titled Treatise on Man). Quetelet gathered an extensive collection of data pertaining to the physical and behavioral characteristics of human beings. He then submitted it to statistical analysis to identify the more frequent features, those of the “average man.” The characteristics of the average man were hence identified as what Nature meant human beings to have. The “average man” represents a shift from a quantitative to a qualitative appreciation of the men’s physical characteristics corresponding to the statistical average. Finally, it leads to the identification of the average man with the “right” one.
I also introduce Francis Galton’s Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development. This work contains the theorization of a human being’s specific qualities and characteristics (strength, intelligence, height, longevity) as positive even though not corresponding to the average. Being stronger, taller, or more intelligent that the average population were desirable characteristics. They had to be perpetuated throughout the generations to foster a “better” population. As for the 20th century, rather than detailing the policies adopted in the 1930s-1940s by Nazi Germany – about which students usually have good knowledge – I focus more on the laws on compulsory sterilization in the United States, Canada, or Scandinavian countries that are less detailed in history textbooks. This overview helps students to detach from a somehow stereotypical and limited vision of eugenics.
A survey of the history of eugenics is useful to illustrate the social and cultural construction of the “normal” (and conversely of the abnormal) as linked to the idea of the human body as measurable and quantifiable, and as related to the trust in historically defined values that have been portrayed as universal and eternal, an idea of medicine and science (statistics) as well as philosophical concepts (the right-in-the-middle). Students understand how the reasons for the success of eugenic ideologies resonate with some common sense ideas and how they can be perceived as “reasonable.” Students acquire conceptual tools that allow them to critically analyze the concept of disability and evaluate it from a historical perspective.
Later in my class, I like to engage my students in the debates surrounding the so-called New Eugenics and take on topics that are part of the contemporary debate, not just within academia, but also in mainstream media regularly. We discuss to which extent the development and the use of genetic manipulation technologies such as CRISPR overlaps with eugenics in its most negative meaning by analyzing case studies, such as the research for the prevention of congenital deafness or trisomy.
Students are aware of the complexity of the subject matter. They are particularly interested in discussing the contradictions that characterize current legislation – that protects physical and mental diversity – and medical research – that is oriented to get rid of human “defects” at their very source.
Corinne Doria is a Professor at the School of Advanced Studies of the University of Tyumen and an instructor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris. Her work focuses on the social history of medicine and disability. Her book, Pierre Paul Royer-Collard (1763-1845): Un philosophe entre deux revolutions, was published in 2018.