Teaching Blog #5: “How Come We Never Learned This in High School?”

Amy Carney Blog Post

“How Come We Never Learned This in High School?”
Teaching the History of American Eugenics to College Students

Tina A. Irvine

American eugenics is not something most people know about, and it is certainly not something taught in American high schools. When you say the word “eugenics” to most folks, images of the Nazi regime and Hitler’s final solution are often brought to mind – and reasonably so. But this is an incomplete conjuring, and one that elides early twentieth century Americans’ role in developing eugenics into what was then-considered a respectable and cutting-edge science.

It was my distinct privilege to be able to begin to fill this lacuna with a 19-person seminar on the history of American Eugenics this past semester. As an upper-level writing-intensive seminar taught exclusively online thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I knew that this course would have to be held synchronously to develop a rapport between students that would encourage them to speak and discuss a difficult topic like eugenics, and that certain ground rules about respectful communication would have to be set. I made sure to delineate those expectations in the first meeting, and then got to know each of my students through a short writing intellectual autobiography assignment. I left the length of this writing assignment open-ended and appreciated the variety of responses it produced. This was the first time I used such an assignment, and I will use it in every class going forward – it was a fascinating way to get to know my students as individuals – to get a sense of what motivated them, what scared them, and what their hopes were.

This assignment taught me that I had students with interests in medicine, nursing, animal behavior, social work, the law, and racial justice. When those issues came up in class – as all of them are relevant to the history of American eugenics – I made sure to connect the material explicitly to their interests.

We began with the basics: learning from respected scholars of eugenics like Daniel Kevles, Garland Allan, and Leila Zenderland, while also reading the work of early eugenicists themselves. Students read Gertrude Davenport’s 1907 Hereditary Crime to see eugenic family studies themselves – and were shocked by the report’s frankness as much as the strategic work movement leaders did to position themselves as progressive and forward-thinking scientists. When we discussed the rise of intelligence testing in the post-WWI moment and read excerpts from Louis Terman’s 1916 The Measurement of Intelligence, several students expressed their surprise at the movement’s legacy for American schools and ideas about intelligence and human growth.

We then shifted our discussion to eugenicists’ role in restricting the immigration of persons whom they considered “unfit” and a “threat” to Anglo-Saxon America in the 1920s. Here, Douglas Baynton’s work taught students to think about the intersection of disability and eugenics, and excerpts from the period’s most vocal eugenicists – Madison Grant, Lothrop Stoddard, and Harry Laughlin – stunned students in their overt racism, xenophobia, confidence, and manipulation of data. From there, we explored the way eugenics and its perennial fear of the “feeble-minded” became enmeshed in questions of motherhood, appropriate sexuality, and race. Here, Wendy Kline, Laura Lovett, Alexandra Mina Stern, and Molly Ladd-Taylor’s works were invaluable in laying the groundwork for these ideas, and a series of letters by the notoriously cruel and ruthless Walter Plecker, Virginia’s first state registrar of vital statistics, revealed the racial vitriol motivating some of the movement’s most prominent actors.

Finally, we discussed how American eugenics adapted and morphed in the 1930s and beyond. Students were blown away by ordinary American families’ willingness to partake in “Fitter Family Contests” and were struck by the tactical maneuvers men like Paul Popenoe took to bring eugenics principles to the masses through marriage counseling and other forms of “pro-family” outreach. Some were shocked to read excerpts from the 1973 congressional hearings – revealing federally-funded family planning clinics’ role in the involuntary sterilization of hundreds of African Americans – and others were not. They shook their heads with a knowing silence, until one piped up and said, in a voice of righteous anger: “How come we never learned this in high school?”

I wish I had a good answer for them. There is no reason why a history of American eugenics cannot be integrated into high school curriculums. There is no reason why we cannot or should not talk about the history of a now-discredited science while thinking about its continuing and pervasive legacies for women, for people with disabilities, for people of color, and for the imagined idea of what constitutes an ideal American. As the writer James Baldwin said in 1965, “the great force of history comes through the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” [1]

Students know this truth. And they want to learn a nuanced story of the past, and they want to understand how the past shapes them. Many of my students chose topics for their final research papers that reflected their life experiences and hoped-for pursuits; a future medical student wrote about the role of physicians in entrenching eugenics in the medical community, a future law student wrote about the way eugenics became entwined with legislation and public policy, and a student of color wrote about the forced sterilization of African American women in the 1960s and 1970s. Each of the papers showed incredible investment on the part of the students to the topic – to the pursuit of finding a better frame of reference for their own identities and aspirations.

We do ourselves a disservice if we ignore America’s darker pasts or “save” its presentation for students in college. They are ready for it, but high school students are, too.

[1] James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” Ebony, August 1965, 47-48.

Tina Irvine is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University and an Assistant Editor at The Journal of American History. She is currently working on a book about race, race-making, and nationalism as it pertains to early-twentieth century reform in the Southern Appalachian mountains.