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Education Policy and Biological Science: Genetics, Eugenics, and the College Textbook, c. 1908-1930

by Steven Selden - 1985

A revolution in genetics is occurring, but when looking ahead, we must not romanticize the past. The social history of genetics, and American education's association with eugenics, make it necessary that we understand that both education and science are informed by social attitudes. (Source: ERIC)

In evolutionary perspective, it should not be surprising if certain behavioral traits, with their genetically conditioned physical underpinnings in the nervous system, differ among human races. If certain of our psychological measurements did not reflect such differences, they would seem quite suspect because, in principle, evolutionary behavioral differences are practically certain to exist.

Arthur R. Jensen,

Straight Talk about Mental Tests

Some topics are invested with enormous social importance but blessed with very little reliable information. When the ratio of data to social impact is so low, a history of scientific attitudes may be little more than an oblique record of social change. The history of scientific views on race, for example, serves as [just such] a mirror of social movements.

Stephen Jay Gould,

The Mismeasure of Man

It has become a commonplace today to claim that we are witnessing a revolution in genetics. Since the discovery of the genetic code and the identification of the chemical structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) slightly more than thirty years ago, academics and the public in general have been presented with an ever-increasing amount of new knowledge from the field of molecular biology.

It is a form of information that has historically had significant call on the professional educator and it is likely that it will continue to do so in the future. In his recently published history of biology, for example, Ernst Mayr has likened DNA to the software in a computer; an organisms DNA, in his view, can be seen as much like its program.1 Attention has recently been focused on the technique of combining programs from different organisms and species. The phrase most often associated with discussions of this biotechnique is that of recombinant DNA. It is a technology judged as having substantial applications in medicine, agriculture, business, and education. Whether one considers the potential of this technology for correcting inherited human blood disorders, for creating super ruminants, for producing inexpensive growth hormone or insulin, or for improving human memory, the future of the field of genetics may well prove to be even more exciting than its past.

As we look ahead, however, we want to be sure not to romanticize this past. As genetic researcher Jon Beckwith notes, I believe that genetics is one of the most important scientific fields . . . and will continue to contribute to an improvement in the quality of life and to our basic understanding of what we are and what we came from. On the other hand, I am also aware that throughout the history of this field, genetics has been used to oppress people and worse. Aware that science has, in the past, been captured by ideology, he charges that to understand the implications of current advances in genetics, it is essential to take a look at the history of the field.2 By a look at history Beckwith means that we must consider the social history of genetics, that we must look at both the agricultural applications of genetics and the recommendations for breeding the human race through a program of eugenics.

Eugenics was a blending of social attitudes and interests with the Mendelian genetic technology of the early twentieth century and Beckwith cautions of its potential resurgence. It is important to recognize that this is not a neo-Luddite rejection of molecular biology or of gene splicing. It is not a romantic plea that we return to some earlier period of biological innocence. It is rather a demand that we, as members of an acknowledged human-service profession, recognize the historical and current relationship between science and social values. The history of American educations association with the popular eugenics movement requires it. We need to increase our awareness of the ways in which both education and science are informed by social attitudes. This becomes important when we recognize that our professional common sense suggests that education legitimately reflects societys values while science is regarded as a neutral enterprise supplying only objective data for policy decisions. In the case of eugenics, however, we find a science appropriated by social attitudes.

In his analysis of the history of the movement, Daniel Kevles recently noted that how the public, or politically powerful public coalitions, will respond to the steady pressure of issues raised by the advance of genetics depends upon what reconciliation society chooses to make between the ancient antinomies-social obligations as against individual rights.3 This concern for the tension between the individual and the collective and the role of genetics in its resolution can be informed by a study of American education in the twentieth century. It is, in many ways, a study of the interplay of social attitudes, scientific knowledge, and the process of institutionalization. The cast of educators to be identified and the positions they held may well prove to be surprising in light of some recent post-revisionist historiographies of education. But whether we choose to reconceive our past is not at issue; we must, as Beckwith charges, come to understand it. For just as was the case for our professional ancestors, we are today surely representatives of a politically powerful coalition. Educators will need to be prepared to respond to the current events of genetics4 and to understand the history of eugenics. By way of a first step in that preparation let us consider a bit of the history of eugenics-specifically its popularization and its impact on the textbook.


When Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in the early 1880s, he focused British intellectuals attention on what he saw as the overarching importance of heredity in the process of human improvement; he gave scientific legitimation to breeding as the most effective route to human betterment. His ideas increased in popularity in Britain and by the first decade of the twentieth century they found advocacy in the United States in the American Breeders Association (ABA). When, in 1908, David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, delivered the ABA Committee on Eugenics report, Galtons ideas were well represented. The objective of the committee was to investigate and report on heredity in the human race; to devise methods of recording the values of the blood of individuals, families, peoples and races; to emphasize the value of superior blood and the menace to society of inferior blood; and to suggest methods of improving the heredity of the family, the people, or the race.5 The Popular Eugenics Movement in the United States was under way: it was to prove remarkably effective. Combining public veneration for science with endemic nativism, and promising progressive reform and social control, the movement realized successes in programs of human sterilization, immigration restriction, and education. Directed by a highly committed and skillful leadership, the achievements followed careful efforts at organization and popularization.

The central theme around which the achievements revolved was that of human differences, of both a qualitative and quantitative sort. In its most virulent form, when articulated by men such as C. B. Davenport and H. H. Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office and E. A. Ross of the University of Wisconsin, the themes were racist. These academics argued that individuals differed in racial worth and that social policies needed to reflect this fact. Davenport even went so far as to identify a race of chronic paupers and recommended their exclusion from society. As extreme and unwarranted as these ideas may seem today, they were accepted by many educators, members of the judiciary, and the literate public during the first three decades of this century. It was not until the collapse of the world economy in the early 1930s that this extreme hereditarian position was generally called into question and more structural interpretations of human worth were considered. International political changes and an awareness of legitimate genetics further discredited this form of racist eugenics, but for millions trapped in Europe by eugenically motivated immigration quotas these changes were too late.

This extreme form of eugenics was not the only one supported during this period. There was another eugenics, equally hereditarian, that can also be identified. It too focused on the theme of human differences, but it substituted merit for race in the equation. For academics such as E. L. Thorndike, this apparently color-blind eugenics rationalized calls for a eugenics of intellect and character. It was this latter form of eugenics that proved to be most pernicious and most enduring. Long after the racist eugenics of Davenport and Laughlin had lost its popularity, this more moderate eugenics would play a role in programs for rationalizing society in terms of hereditary merit. While the poor would no longer be considered a race, their social position would be explained in terms of their lack of inherited abilities and would be found just.

In both forms then, eugenics was to serve as an apology for the status quo. Organizations were formed that were explicitly designed to maintain the existing social hierarchy. Hoping to put physical anthropology to work for conservative political ends, Madison Grant described one such organization, the Galton Society, as an anthropological society . . . with a governing body, self elected and self perpetuating, and very limited in numbers, and also confined to native Americans, who are anthropologically, socially, and physically sound, no Bolsheviki need apply.6 While not the first organization to advocate eugenics, its message was clear; both the Galton Society and the Galtonian society it desired were to be alike. They were to be class and race biased.

Whether as proponents of, or apologists for, a racially biased or class-structured social order, the movement and its supporters were successful in educating young people to the hereditarian truths of eugenics. They saw a central role for schooling in their vision of progressive human improvement that encompassed both the content of the curriculum and the form of educational institutions. It was a vision that required popularization and curricular implementation. The history of eugenics and American education suggests that these tasks were carried on simultaneously and, in many cases, by the same cast of characters.


In the 1920s the American Eugenics Society sponsored Fitter Families contests at state fairs across the United States. Winners were presented with medals bearing the inscription, Yea, I have a goodly heritage. In the period between 1928 and 1931, the society published its own magazine, Eugenics, which displayed Francis Galtons profile and the fitter families medal on its logo; the journal sought to popularize eugenics through its monthly issues.7 Issues of the journal were often devoted to a single theme and the regularly cited link between eugenics and education was the topic of the lead article of the journals premier issue.

Described as two new sciences, eugenics and education were judged as interdependent based on educations need for a scientific basis and eugenicss ability to supply it. One hears this sort of demand to this day. Whether it is the scientific management of Taylor, the sociology of Parsons, or the psychology of Skinner or Piaget, education has regularly been offered a science with the promise of an increase in power and legitimacy. So, too, it was in the case of eugenics. Education, the article charged, has long felt the need for an adequate body of scientific data to provide for it the foundation necessary to any properly established profession.8 The scientific knowledge needed by education was that of mental and physical differences whose transmission followed definite and highly predictable courses.9 In the case of a small number of genetic diseases that are transmitted in Mendelian terms, this observation was justified, but in the case of mental differences, the highly predictable course was not.

Whether dealing with individuals or with groups, the eugenics movement maintained an interest in what one might generally call population control. Locating humankind on a curve of distribution, the movement concerned itself with programs directed at the upper and lower ends of the scale, and articles dealing with both negative and positive eugenics could be found in the journal. Programs of birth control, for example, were recommended for their negative effects on those judged least fit while programs of positive eugenics were recommended for societys most gifted.

Supporting a program of positive eugenics, John H. Kellogg of the Battle Creek Race Betterment Foundation recommended creating a eugenic aristocracy. We need, he argued, an aristocracy, a group of men and women who are willing to keep themselves unspotted from the world, a nucleus from which in time may develop a new and better human race. There was little to be gained from environmental reform; there is no hope. . . except for such a plan [of eugenics].10 For those searching for a contemporary example of Kelloggs program, one need look no further than the California Repository for Germinal Choice, a frozen sperm bank of Nobel Laureate depositors. Harsh judgments were also called forth on societys least able. Preserving individuals who would otherwise succumb, warned one writer, tends to lower the general standard of efficiency and accomplishment.11 Another author recommended sterilizing undesirable types, and charged feminism with the responsibility of saving society. The feminist movement, this author suggested, may have arrived just in time to preserve this last civilization from following all its precursors once more into barbarism.12

Noted educators also gave strong support to the movement. Leta Hollingworth, a leader in education for the gifted, noted that if saving civilization from barbarism was an insufficient inducement to motherhood, then one must offer financial remuneration. If our state were scientifically Utopian instead of romantically prejudiced against the teachings of biology and psychology, warned Professor Hollingworth, this might be accomplished by paying to the parents of a child who tests . . . above a set minimum in the qualities desired, a bonus in the probable value of such a child.13 By 1921, she noted, such worth had been determined: if the child were the offspring of a scientist, its value would be $100,000. What Hollingworth is clearly presenting here is a vision of education in terms of human capital theory. It undoubtedly informed her interest in the child of exceptional ability and his or her worth to the state. On the current scene, we can find a similar concern for human capital development in the recent National Commission on Educational Excellence report,14 which casts education in terms of an international business competition. Individuals have value in this recent report primarily in terms of their contribution to national success in this corporate warfare.

Given this system of valuing human capital, the feminist movement became a problem to many eugenicists. In the best of all possible eugenic futures, womens roles would be seen primarily in terms of their procreative powers; high-quality women were to be fecund. But feminism was a popular movement that demanded more than this single definition of womanhood. The problem for Eugenics, which advertised itself as the only journal in the world devoted to a dignified popularization of the subject , was how to respond to the womens movement. Of the variety of responses presented in the journal, that of Jon Mjoen, the Norwegian eugenicist, is of particular interest. At the 1921 Congress of Eugenics, he presented a paper on the negative effects of race crossing (in this case Lapps and Norwegians) and recommended that barriers to interracial unions be maintained in order to avoid a blood mixture between these two races which we will deplore and regret when it is too late. Allan Chase characterizes Mjoens presentation as a perfect burlesque of the Nutty Professor routines so popular in American Vaudeville houses.15

When Mjoen wrote for Eugenics in 1930, his anxiety for what he perceived as misdirected social policies continued. It was now directed toward the education of women. Young women, he charged, should learn that where families are limited to one or two children, the stock in question must inevitably become extinct. Avoiding extinction required, among other things, a differentiated curriculum; Women should not have an inferior but another education he told his readers. They should also have the opportunity for employment, but with one caveat: A wise government will in the future seek to lead her paths in such directions, both for her sake and the welfare of the race and state that she will be more and more fit for her divine calling as the renewer, the nourisher and the protector of the race.16

The question of a womans right to the education and vocation of her choice continued to be discussed on the pages of Eugenics. When considered by a symposium on working wives and eugenics, the vote was two to one in favor of womens participation in the work force. The dissenting vote, interestingly enough, was cast by David Snedden, the leader of the social efficiency movement in education. Snedden recommended the exclusion of married women from teaching and other gainful public service employments and suggested that those concerned with womens education reexamine their . . . scales of values in light of modern insight and the principles of the greatest good for the greatest number, in the long run."17 Here then we see a common thread that bound education to eugenics- that of human or social efficiency. When answering the questions of how to efficiently achieve a eugenic future, Snedden as both educator and eugenicist focused on womens role and limited it. For Snedden social efficiency and gender equality were incompatible. Indeed, for many eugenicists social equality itself was problematic.

In early 1931, Eugenics ceased publication. Its popularizing responsibilities were transferred to the journal People, which published only one issue. By 1939 even the racist journal Eugenical News changed its tone when it was purchased by the American Eugenics Society (AES). Under a new editorial board, the News would begin a campaign of a more moderate nature. This moderation, however, should be seen as a change in degree rather than in kind. The commitment was still to the overriding importance of heredity in human affairs and to rationalizing the individuals worth in terms of a corporate reality. As AES board member A. E. Wiggam had noted, Statesmanship should quickly learn the lesson of biology. . . that wooden legs are not inherited but wooden heads are.18


At this point we may consider some of the effects the organizing and popularizing of eugenics had on education in general and on the curriculum specifically.19 In tracing the impact of eugenics on curricular offerings, Mark Haller noted that

some colleges established special courses in eugenics, but primarily eugenics entered the curriculum through courses in biology, genetics, sociology, or psychology. By 1914, Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, Wisconsin, Northwestern, [and] Clark . . . offered courses devoted in whole or in large part to eugenics. In 1912-1913 Roswell Johnson . . . began a course on eugenics at the University of Pittsburgh . . . [and] a number of texts for college courses appeared.20

Hamilton Cravens stated that the number of colleges and universities offering courses in eugenics increased from 44 in 1914 to three hundred and seventy-six in 1928, when according to one estimate, some 20,000 students were enrolled in these courses.21

When Maurice Bigelow, emeritus professor of biology at Columbia University, summarized the history of the American Eugenics Society in 1946 he listed a number of these well-used texts. The list included Charles B. Davenports Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, Edwin G. Conklins Heredity and Environment in the Development of Man, and Paul Popenoe and Roswell Johnsons Applied Eugenics.22 It is to a consideration of these texts that we now turn.

As indicated in the previous discussion, an integral part of the social vision of the supporters of eugenics was the belief in the inevitability of heredity, and it was early presented in Davenports Heredity in Relation to Eugenics. Social improvement, Davenport argued, could be achieved only through hereditarian reform. Changes in the environment, euthenical reforms as he called them, were useless. Yet this truth went unrecognized, he argued, because the medical profession was committed to just such an environmentalism: Modern medicine is responsible for the loss of appreciation of the power of heredity. Heredity acted as a constraint on individuals in society, he claimed; it not only described what individuals could do but also what they should do. Medical professionals had forgotten this. They had forgotten the fundamental fact that all men are created bound by their protoplasmic makeup and unequal in their powers and responsibilities.23

While Davenport initially allowed that eugenics was primarily concerned with investigation rather than action, he quickly recommended a social program to his student readers. Man is an animal, he instructed, and the laws of improvement of corn and race horses hold true for him also. Unless people accept this simple truth and let it influence marriage selection, human progress will cease.24 A central theme in the text was that of the classification of persons- a concern not new with Davenport. History describes the social differentiation of people into kings and serfs, aristocrats and commoners, but Davenports contribution to these schemes was to cast the question in terms of biological unit characters. The theory of independent unit characters, he instructed, has an important bearing upon our classifications of human beings.25 It was not individuals that Davenport claimed to be primarily interested in classifying, however; it was rather their traits that he wished to categorize. The full and free recognition of the theory of unit characters in its application to man opens up large social . . . questions and leads us in the interest of truth, to avoid classifying persons and to consider rather their traits.26 Davenport went on to generate long lists of heritable characteristics, which included pauperism and the predisposition to become a hoboeven though these are social not biological qualities.

One may suggest today that intelligence is a socially constructed category and that in an extreme sense its heritability is problematic. In the 192Os, however, the notion that indebtedness was heritable in a fashion analogous to that of human eye color or hair texture must be seen as having limited scientific justification. Social attitudes had captured science, and they required action. For students using Davenports text, the message was clear. Human breeding simply required the extracting of valued traits from the parent hybrid generation. Simple Mendelian inheritance became the mechanism and racial attitudes supplied the motivation. In a very real sense eugenics had captured science for ideological purposes. We now know that a decade later Davenports racial vision would influence immigration-restriction legislation. Whether he captured the minds of his students cannot be determined by this textual analysis, but it is evident that he tried.

In the context of the biology and genetics of his time, Davenport was a Mendelian. As such he rejected the notion, accepted by his biometrical counterparts, that hereditary units blended in the zygote. This belief, in what Mayr calls hard inheritance, was critical to Davenports eugenics as it permitted him to link biology and social programs. The law of segregation of traits, he instructed, the disproof of the blending hypothesis, is of the utmost importance since it shows how a strain may get completely rid of an undesirable trait. 27 And traits, both desirable and undesirable, constitute a significant portion of the text. The list of heritable family traits numbered forty-one, and included examples taken from the physical, social, and moral realms. Included in the text were both legitimate and illegitimate Mendelizing traits. The list ranged from Alkaptonuria (a condition in which urine turns black on exposure to the air, a Mendelizing trait known to be recessive)28 to shiftlessness29 and criminality.30 The case studies offered as support for the hereditary nature of social and moral traits, while not compelling as biological arguments, make fascinating reading. For example, Davenport cited the heritability of the traits of wandering and eroticism, and with the assistance of pedigree charts was able to conclude that the typical skipping of a generation, as seen in . . . [the] pedigrees of the wandering instinct, suggests that it is a recessive and that the inheritance of an extremely erotic instinct [was] also . . . a defect.31

His description of immigrants reveals social biases presented as an analysis of traits. Germans were described as having a love of art and music, including that of song birds,32 while Italians had a tendency to crimes of personal violence, counterbalanced by their capacity for hard monotonous labor.33 Davenport went on to instruct his readers in the various positive and negative traits of other immigrant groups. Jewish immigrants received special notice in his gallery of genetic offense.

The Hebrews showed the greatest proportion of crimes against chastity and in connection with prostitution, the lowest of crimes. There is no question that, taken as a whole, the hordes of Jews that are now coming to us . . . with their intense individualism and ideals of gain at the cost of any interest, represent the opposite extreme from the early English and more recent Scandinavian immigration with their ideals of community life in the open country, advancement by the sweat of the brow, and the uprearing of families in the fear of God and the love of country.34

Writing in 1946, Bigelow recalled that between 1910 and 1920 there was much interest in eugenics as a topic in biology courses in senior high schools and colleges and heading his list of volumes most commonly cited for reference was Heredity in Relation to Eugenics.35

It is important for todays reader to recognize that these were not the observations of a man at the fringes of society or the academy. Davenport was director of the prestigious Eugenics Record Office, which had the financial support of both the Carnegie Institution in Washington and Mrs. E. H. Harriman. Further, Davenport served as a judge for the National Education Associations Committee on Racial Well-Beings annual competitions, which were devoted to including the eugenics credo in the teacher training curriculum.36

When Princetons Edwin G. Conklin published the third edition of his Heredity and Environment in the Development of Man in 1923, he was easily able to choose between the sides presented in the texts title. So far as organisms below man are concerned, Conklin explained, there is general agreement that heredity is the most important factor, and this opinion is also held for man by those who have made a thorough study of heredity.37 The single example given of such a student of nature and nurture was that of Francis Galton, the father of eugenics. If civilization presented modern man with a troubling and difficult environment, if the prevalence of crime, alcoholism, depravity and insanity . . . [was] a protest and menace of weak men against high civilization, then for Conklin the answer was to manipulate the heredity of the population. We are approaching the time when one or the other must give way, either the responsibilities of life must be reduced and the march of civilization stayed, or a better race of men, with greater hereditary abilities, must be bred.38

Having resolved the nature-nurture debate on the side of nature, Conklin considered the ethical dimensions of eugenics. In answer to the question of whether human evolution can be controlled, he was quick to answer in the affirmative, recommending a program of positive and negative eugenics: The worst types of mankind may be prevented from propagating and the best types may be encouraged to increase and multiply.39 It was to be a program to develop what Conklin called the generalized type, which must include the best qualities of many types and many races. Mendelian inheritance would show how it was possible to separate the best qualities from the worst.40 While this was not explicitly presented as a racist or classist program, the qualities of races soon became racial qualities and qualities of types became better classes. Conklin decried the declining birthrate of the groups he judged best and the increasing fecundity of those he saw as least able. The descendants of the Puritans and the Cavaliers, he warned, who have raised the cry for fewer and better children are already disappearing . . . [while] in Massachusetts the birthrate of the foreign born is twice that of the native population.41 This was the very embodiment of social irresponsibility; humanitys future required a social order in which the individual would be subordinated to racial welfare. It was vision of a corporate order-a biological corporate order in which the individuals import was rationalized into the great organism of humanity.42

There is an interesting similarity between this plea for corporate form in biological improvement and the similar corporate claims being made in business, civic organizations, industry, and the schools of the period. For example, consider another volume on Bigelows list, Paul Popenoe and Roswell Johnsons popular Applied Eugenics. The authors were clear as to the texts purpose. It was, in the words of the preface, a volume that would emphasize the practical means by which society may encourage the reproduction of superior persons and discourage that of inferiors. Lacking empirical biological evidence for such a distinction, the authors let social location drive their recommendations. Where the genetic basis for an individuals achievement could not be determined, they proposed that one take the demonstrated achievement as a tentative measure of the germinal basis.43

The text then went on to quite specific recommendations for social action. In their discussion devoted to increasing marriages of the superiors, they noted the general increase in birth rates and then identified irregularities that were cause for grave concern.

One such irregularity was the late marriage of Wellsley graduates.44 Schooling was described as a process of weeding out the less able, and this population of female college graduates was judged eugenically superior but their low marriage rates represented a threat to the nations eugenic future. The implied view of the role of schooling presented here is an illuminating one. For the authors of Applied Eugenics, education, and particularly compulsory education, had a significant role to play in supporting eugenics: The educational system should be a sieve through which all children in the country are passed . . . which will enable the teacher to determine just how far it is profitable to educate each child that he may lead a life of greatest possible usefulness to the state and happiness to himself.45 At a certain level this seems a reasonable if not progressive suggestion. After all, one might ask, should not community members maximize both the communitys and their own possibilities? The proposal seems reasonable until one considers some underlying agenda items. There is a rather totalitarian tone to their charge that it is very desirable that no child escape inspection, because of the importance of discovering every individual of exceptional ability and inability. And these individuals are needed, not for their own happiness, but for an efficient state apparatus. In such a smooth-running community one might well expect to see links between schooling, the military, and procreative control, and they were links Popenoe and Johnson were quite willing to make. Testing would become a function of the school, the authors noted, owing to the great public demonstration of psychometry now being conducted at the cantonments for the mental classification of recruits. The link had been forged; the Alpha and Beta tests would have heretofore unconsidered benefits when applied to public school students. Popenoe and Johnson concluded that compulsory education, as such, is not only of service to eugenics through the selection it makes possible, but may serve in a more unsuspected way by cutting down the birth-rate of inferior families.46

The text went on to consider other social issues of interest to their student readers. As with authors in the journal Eugenics, they dealt with feminism by recommending a differentiated curriculum-one that prepared women for their distinct occupations (primarily marriage and motherhood).47 They further instructed their students on the negative consequences of both old age pensions and trade unions: in both cases the effects would be dysgenic- that is, they saw pensions and trade unions as increasing the number of inferior types in the population. Pensions were dysgenic because without them the inferior old would have to be supported by their (inferior) children who would, in turn, have fewer children of their own. Unions were dysgenic on the self-evident grounds that all employees were not equal. It made no eugenic sense, the authors suggested, to pay all laborers of a given classification the same salary since increased competence should be rewarded with both income and progeny.

It was perhaps in the discussion of war that the categories of social efficiency, biological determinism, and racism came most clearly together. In discussing how the effects of the war can be either a loss or a gain, the authors made the following observations:

In the United States are millions of negroes who are of less value than white men in organized industry but almost as valuable as the white, when properly led, at the front. It would appear to be sound statesmanship to enlist as many negroes as possible in the active forces, in the case of war, thus releasing a corresponding number of more skilled white workers for the industrial machine on whose efficiency success in modern warfare largely rests.48

Here is an example of blatant racism presented in what is acknowledged as one of the most popular eugenic texts of the period. It recommended a policy for the elimination of one race by another using as its rationale arguments seemingly based on genetics. It is a policy that would not find adherents in the genetics community today-and that observation is worthy of note. Does this change mean that we have learned from genetics in the intervening years that Popenoe and Johnson were incorrect in their science? Or does it perhaps mean that genetics has matured in the intervening years and we are now closer to a truth of which these early academics were unaware? Interesting as these hypotheses are, at least one historian of science suggests that the historical record will not support them.

William Provine has made an analysis of geneticists changing policy prescriptions in one area of the eugenics movement: that of race crossing. He argues that, while geneticists early supported positions similar to those of Popenoe and Johnson, they clearly reversed their public remarks on race crossing between 1930 and 1950. Of greatest importance to those of us studying the empirical warrant for policy prescriptions, he notes that the entire reversal occurred in the light of little new compelling data from studies of actual human race crosses.49 If the information base had not significantly altered, then how does Provine explain the change in attitude on the part of these scientists? He explains it as just a change in attitude; lacking a strong empirical warrant, they mirrored the attitudes of society in general. I am not, Provine concludes, condemning geneticists because social and political factors have influenced their scientific conclusions about race crossing and race differences. It is necessary and natural that changing social attitudes will influence areas of biology where little is known and the conclusions are possibly socially explosive.50

One needs to be careful in interpreting these comments; certainly genetics has undergone a revolution since 1930. For example, there has been a synthesis between the biometrician and Mendelian interpretations of the field but this is not synonymous with new evidence on race crossing. It is true that we can now name and locate on individual chromosomes scores of hereditary diseases transmitted in Mendelian terms, but we know little more about significant human genetic differences by race then we knew five decades ago. I am not suggesting that we uncouple policy prescriptions from empirical data. On the contrary, we must be highly critical of and pay special attention to studies that appear to link genetics and race. For as Stephen Gould has so eloquently noted, some topics are invested with enormous social importance but blessed with little reliable information. When the ratio of data to social impact is so low, a history of scientific attitudes may be little more than an oblique record of social change. Referring to Provines work, he concludes that the history of scientific views on race, for example, serves as [just such] a mirror of social movements.51 These comments can be most helpful in our thinking about the eugenics movement, its influence on education in the early twentieth century, and Kevless observations on the social impact of the current revolution in genetics.

If indeed the early educational supporters of eugenics allowed their conservative and hereditarian social attitudes to masquerade as science, then we will have to carefully study the science of that period as well as the continuation of those social attitudes in the present. The purpose here would be to prevent the choice of a political position from standing as a proxy for scientific data on race and the transmission of social traits. As Leon Kamin, Richard Lewontin, and others have shown, even today the evidence on issues such as the heritability of IQ and race differences is at best problematic, political affiliations aside.52

It does not seem likely that advances in genetics in the foreseeable future will radically alter this data. If current educators agree with Kevles that the ancient tensions between the individual and the collective are still those that strain society, then any social policy resolution based on ethical principles should precede and inform genetics. But what if biology could present a future generation with the promise of a form of biological perfection? How should educators then respond? Kevles again has supplied an answer. Social justice does not flow from the natural sciences. He quotes Lionel Penrose in this matter: It is ultimately a matter of opinion, but for myself, I would rather live in a genetically imperfect society which preserves human standards of life than in one in which technological standards were paramount and heredity perfect.53 For educators, considering our professional past and the current promise of genetics, it seems evident that hereditary perfection is neither likely nor desirable. This leaves us with the task of striving for standards of life that are particularly human. Caught in the crossroads of human knowledge and human value as we are, it appears a social task with which we are destined to deal.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 87 Number 1, 1985, p. 35-51
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 663, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 8:28:46 PM

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