Eugenic ideology was an important part of educational programs and practices in many countries during the first decades of the twentieth century. The connection between education and eugenics stems from Sir Francis Galton’s work (1822-1911) on heredity. Galton believed that heredity was not only responsible for physical characteristics but also for intelligence, talent, and ability. Galton, along with other prominent individuals, believed that these inherited characteristics should be measured in order to differentiate between “superior” and “inferior” individuals. Many believed that those with favourable traits should be encouraged to reproduce, while those without should be discouraged. The connection between eugenics and education took many forms. For instance, eugenicists often engaged in mass educational campaigns spreading the eugenic message and encouraging individuals to lead a healthy lifestyle and, more importantly, to make responsible reproductive choices. In 1907, the Eugenics Educational Society (later Eugenics Society) was founded in Britain. The society was instrumental in educating the general public about eugenics. It produced eugenics related films and distributed eugenics literature in libraries and schools. The American Eugenics Society (AES) (founded in 1922) and the Eugenics Society of Canada (1930) engaged in similar activities. It is important to note, however, that eugenic education was aimed at those with “good” heredity, and was not seen as beneficial to those with “bad” genetic make-up.
Eugenics and Education Scholars studying the history of education have shown that eugenics also penetrated the school curriculum. Individuals such as Edward L. Thorndike (1874-1949) and G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) were prominent eugenicists as well as experts in curriculum theory. Both helped popularize eugenic ideology to prospective teachers and helped incorporate eugenic ideology into education programs in the United States. Education historian Steven Selden has shown that many high school texts published between 1914 and 1948 presented eugenics as a science, adding that “these texts embraced Galton's concept of differential birthrates between the biological 'fit' and 'unfit,' training high school students that immigration restriction, segregation, and sterilization were worthy policies to maintain in American culture” (Selden, “Eugenics Popularization”). Similar material was also being taught to Canadian students and even became an integral part of Biological Sciences curriculum at the university level. In addition, American universities and colleges offered over 300 separate courses that included the study of eugenics.
Both American and Canadian academics played an important role in the dissemination of eugenic ideology. American psychologist and director of the Training School for Feebleminded Boys and Girls, Henry H. Goddard (1866-1957) manipulated the Binet-Simon scale to identify feeblemindedness in order to support his theories about race degeneration. Goddard also promoted the Binet-Simon test in the press and at public gatherings. He believed that the feebleminded were a great threat to American society because some could often “pass” for “normal” even though they were unfit to reproduce. The mental tests, then, were promoted by Goddard and psychologist Robert Yerkes (1876-1956) as a scientific way of identifying feebleminded students and separating them from “normal” ones. In Canada, it was McGill professor, Carrie Derrick, among others, who informed the Canadian public about problems posed by heredity and encouraged the use of psychometry in schools. These messages certainly impacted the Canadian educational system. As education became more centralized, children were subjected to school medical inspections that distinguished between “normal” and “abnormal” children, and these inspections often included mental testing. Children who scored low on IQ tests were often removed from the classroom and sent to training schools such as the Provincial Training School in Red Deer or the Portage la Prairie School for Mental Defectives. This type of testing was widely accepted by the general public because it supported the eugenic claim that mental ability was inherited, and eventually helped set the stage for forced sterilization, immigration restrictions, marriage laws, etc.
Eugenics and Educational Campaigns Eugenics and education were connected in another way. Eugenicists often engaged in mass educational campaigns spreading the eugenic message and encouraging individuals to lead a healthy lifestyle and, more importantly, to make responsible reproductive choices. One of the most notable ways that the AES promoted eugenics was through state fairs. The Better Babies Contest, established by a former teacher Mrs. Mary DeGarmo, connected the discourse of child development and welfare with eugenics at a time when infant mortality was a serious issue. While these contests offered free health exams for the babies and offered health advice to the mother, the examination was also a way to identify mental and physical “defects” and correct them. The Better Babies Contest led to the creation of the Fitter Families contest which added a hereditary aspect in explaining human difference. The first Fitter Families contest, was held in Kansas in 1920. The purpose of the contest was to compare families and determine who was the most “eugenically fit.” With support from the American Eugenics Society's Committee on Popular Education, these contests were featured in several state fairs across the United States during the 1920s. All participants had to prove that they were indeed healthy. The eugenic message was also spread through travelling exhibits that often coincided with eugenics related political events. This way, the eugenicists hoped to educate a wider audience and achieve maximum political impact.
Conclusion There were two primary ways that eugenics and education were connected. First, eugenics was an important part of educational programs in schools, as it made its way into school curriculum and textbooks. Many educators in United States and Canada were involved in spreading the eugenic message either through their lectures or public gatherings. Many of their ideas about Nordic superiority and race betterment were also influential outside of the United States, in interwar Germany, for instance, and especially during the Nazi period. Second, eugenicists used educational campaigns to encourage individuals to make responsibly reproductive choices, to avoid social ills such as alcohol and criminality, and also to inform the public of the dangers that the feebleminded posed to society.
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