Magazine Feature

American Gothic

A new curriculum explores a disturbing side of the Progressive Era.

In a better world, someone might be able to stop crimes before they begin. There would be fewer victims, fewer outlaws and fewer lapses of justice.

Or so it appears during the first reel of Minority Report, last summer’s futuristic thriller directed by Stephen Spielberg. The film, set in the year 2054, stars Tom Cruise as a "pre-crime" agent trained to arrest would-be murderers before they strike. The mood turns menacing, though, when the agent himself is accused of a crime he has yet to commit.

Spielberg shot a work of science fiction, but the desire expressed in its premise would also make for a chilling documentary. Consider this majority opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision, upholding a Virginia sterilization law:

It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.

Indeed, Minority Report calls to mind one of the grimmer chapters in U.S. history: a time in the early 20th century when tens of thousands of American citizens were locked up or sterilized as a precaution against crime, disease and other social ills.

Millions of prospective immigrants were barred from entering the country on the presumption that they, too, might impede the common good. These cruel and coercive policies invariably targeted the poor, the unschooled and the non-White. Yet, in the name of science and the public welfare, they were ardently embraced by leading scholars, physicians, lawmakers and social reformers — including many who identified themselves as Progressives.

If these injustices have since faded from the collective memory, eclipsed by greater atrocities abroad, they remain lucid windows into the American past.

"This material is truly central to the narrative of U.S. history," says Karen Murphy, an American studies scholar who has taught courses on race and nationalism at the University of Minnesota.

"You can’t teach students about immigration without knowing it. You can’t teach the Progressive Era without knowing it — or imperialism, or the settlement house movement, or the history of education."

Six years ago Murphy left the academy to join the national education program Facing History and Ourselves, a 25-year-old organization best known for its trenchant examination of the Holocaust and other genocide campaigns. Facing History discovered in the course of that work that many of the Nazis’ ideas about superior and inferior human worth had origins outside Nazi Germany.

Against Their Will

For 40 years, up until 1974, five members of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina met quietly to assess sterilization petitions. Sterilization was ordered in more than 90 percent of cases.


By the 1960s, most of the cases involved young black women whom social workers and psychologists often summarily labeled "feebleminded."


In a series of articles in 2002, the Winston-Salem Journal revealed "how North Carolina sterilized more than 7,600 people, often against their will and on the flimsiest of pretexts," and raised important questions. The December 12, 2002 editorial asks:


Could something like this happen here, today?


The eugenics movement and its failed attempt at social engineering have been discredited. But how does our society today deal with the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled, the misfits, the poor, the elderly, the neglected and abused children?


Do we treat those who are different from us because of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation as we should, or do we still harbor prejudices?


Are we paying as much attention as we should to the decisions that are being made about such issues as cloning, genetic engineering, stem-cell research — or do we just leave all that to somebody else?


Read the entire series of Against Their Will: North Carolina's Sterilization Program.

To explore that development, the program has recently launched a new initiative focusing on the eugenics movement, an attempt in the early 20th century to solve social problems by "eliminating inferior racial traits." The project’s centerpiece is the resource book Race and Membership in American History: the Eugenics Movement, compiled by Phyliss Goldstein and Alan Stoskopf, with assistance from Murphy.

An online instructional module and hands-on training workshops help middle and high school teachers weave the eugenics theme into existing history, literature and science curriculum.

Last summer at Bard College, which overlooks the Hudson River 90 miles north of Manhattan, Facing History conducted a five-day institute to discuss the movement’s impact on immigration laws and educational testing in the U.S. and Nazi racial policies in Germany.

Sandy Simpson drove in from Boston, where she teaches social studies at Dorchester High School. Christina Peterson flew in from Cleveland, where she teaches English at Euclid High School. Sarah Goodman rode the train up from Manhattan, where she teaches biology at the New York City Museum School.

A total of 23 teachers made the trip, eager to resume the challenging dialogues they had shared at some of Facing History’s introductory institutes on the Holocaust and human behavior.

At Bard they spent the better part of a week familiarizing themselves with the eugenics movement and exploring ways to discuss it with their students. As Murphy explained at one of the first sessions, the term "eugenics" (from the Greek for "good in birth") was coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, an English mathematician and a cousin of Charles Darwin.

Galton hoped to redeem the theory of Social Darwinism, an appropriation of Darwin’s work that had mistakenly predicted that the peasant class, lacking the wealth and intelligence to survive, would dwindle over time.

Noting instead the rapid population growth among the poor, Galton saw measures to promote "breeding the best with the best" — in the manner of animal husbandry — as a civic duty.

He wrote:

Eugenics cooperates with the workings of nature by ensuring that humanity shall be represented by the fittest races. What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly.

Galton’s notions were slow to catch on in most of Europe. In the United States, however, the onset of the Progressive Era in 1890 created a more receptive climate, as leading activists and intellectuals introduced a broad range of ideas about human betterment.

Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, Walter Lippmann and many others resisted the eugenics argument in their work to end lynching, improve urban housing, eliminate sweatshops, curb child labor and promote women’s suffrage. But some — including Alexander Graham Bell, Theodore Roosevelt and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger — embraced various aspects of the movement.

Mark Swaim-Fox, who led the Facing History institute on eugenics with Murphy, evoked the spirit of the times with a modest representation of the 1904 World’s Fair, which drew 20 million visitors to St. Louis in seven months.

Wearing a boater hat trimmed in red, white and blue, he beckoned the 23 curious teachers into a classroom festooned with images of the event. Photocopies taped to one wall showed the Great Corn Palace and the Palace of Machinery, monuments to the nation’s agricultural and industrial prowess.

Another wall held images contrasting "primitive" Igorot people with other Filipinos who had come under the "civilizing" influence of the American military after U.S. occupation of the Philippines in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.

Punishment for Marriage

Anti-miscegenation laws [laws against interracial marriage] date back to colonial times. The first such statute was passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 1691.


Other colonies followed suit. These laws were an American invention. There was no ban on interracial marriage in England at the time. By the late 1800s, 38 states had anti-miscegenation statutes. ...


A number of states updated their anti-miscegenation laws in the 1920s. The Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924 is a good example.


The law remained on the books until 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it in Loving v. Virginia. The law stated in part:


Section 20-54 of the Virginia Code:

Intermarriage prohibited; ... It shall hereafter be unlawful for any white person in this State to marry any save a white person, or a person with no other admixture of blood than white and American Indian. ...


Section 20-59 of the Virginia Code:

Punishment for marriage. — If any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years.


— Adapted by permission from Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement ($29.95)
Facing History
16 Hurd Road
Brookline, MA 02445

Still more images showed scenes from the Pike, a mile-long carnival where visitors could buy a new-fangled ice cream cone, watch a belly dancer or witness a reenactment of the Boer War. (Swaim-Fox, a former social studies teacher who works in Facing History’s Cleveland office, found most of the images at a Web site about the history of imperialism.)

The festive atmosphere of the display extended to real popcorn and lemonade. When the teachers sat down to critique the images, many noted that the event, while billed as a World’s Fair, plainly celebrated American culture at the expense of all others.

And they marveled at how readily people in the United States and Europe took up the "White man’s burden," the self-serving notion that it was their moral duty to conquer and "civilize" people with darker skin.

These notions of cultural hierarchy, Murphy said, were legitimized by the dubious science of eugenics. In America, she noted, Galton’s ideas about regulating human reproduction were taken up by Charles Davenport, a Harvard-trained biologist who founded the Eugenics Record Office in 1910.

He and his staff compiled hundreds of pedigree charts in an effort to prove that alcoholism, criminality, insanity, poverty and prostitution were inherited tendencies. To eliminate these traits, he called on immigration officials to screen newcomers at the nation’s ports and proposed that "agents in Europe" study the family histories of each applicant for naturalization.

Despite its flawed assumptions, Davenport’s work struck many as common sense. It became standard fare in high school and college textbooks and inspired a series of tests to measure intelligence and identify "the unfit," who were often institutionalized and sometimes sterilized.

Meanwhile, at state fairs, households competed against one another in "Fitter Family Contests," with prizes going to those who came closest to the popular, northern European ideal. In many states, anti-miscegenation laws still barred Blacks and Whites from marrying one another.

And placards urged, as late as 1930, that "Only healthy seed must be sown!" The federal government did little to temper the mood of superiority and exclusion.

In fact, with the Immigration Act of 1924, Congress set quotas for each country of origin based on population figures from 1890 — just before a wave of newcomers, including many Jews, began arriving from Eastern Europe. (The Chinese had it worse; between 1882 and 1943 they were barred altogether from entering the United States.)

President Coolidge set further restrictions the following year. Even the Supreme Court bought into the idea of weeding out the unfit in its 8-1 Buck v. Bell decision of 1927, which upheld a Virginia law allowing the sterilization of individuals thought to be genetically defective.

The court did not reverse its decision until 1972, after the sterilization of more than 65,000 people nationwide. Even then, U.S. policymakers continued to promote the practice through population control programs in India, China and many other countries, as well as in some American territories.

At Bard, Murphy showed La Operación, a 1982 documentary about how these policies led to the sterilization of one of every three women — all of them American citizens — in Puerto Rico. Now it is China, with its coercive one-child policy, that most clearly manifests the legacy of the early eugenicists.

Catastrophically, the American eugenics movement helped pave the way to the Holocaust by conferring scientific legitimacy on claims of racial superiority and thereby vindicating the rise of the Nazi Party. As Murphy and Swaim-Fox explained, German scientists and policymakers paid close attention to the work of Charles Davenport and his colleagues at the Eugenics Record Office.

After Germany’s defeat in World War I, German scholars such as Fritz Lenz, Eugen Fischer and Erwin Bauer became increasingly intent on putting their theory of "racial hygiene" into practice by building a "racial state."

To that end, they and their like-minded peers translated books by American eugenicists into German, engaged in joint research with their American counterparts, and awarded honorary degrees to Americans like Harry Laughlin, one of Davenport’s colleagues.

Moreover, Lenz, Fischer and Bauer drew heavily from their American peers in writing their Outline of Human Genetics and Racial Hygiene, a 1921 tract that in turn shaped many aspects of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

All of these events and more are covered in Race and Membership in American History, which includes excerpts from personal letters, public speeches, newspaper articles, court rulings and other sources, with commentary and discussion questions. The book also quotes from biology textbooks, showing what high school students learned about eugenics in the first half of the 20th century.

Alan Stoskopf’s foreword urges teachers to approach these readings with a critical eye. "While barely remembered today, the eugenics movement represents a moral fault line in our history," he writes.

"It was a movement that defined differences in terms of racially superior and inferior human traits. Because these ideas were promoted in the name of science and education, they had a dramatic impact on public policies and the lives of ordinary people at the time and, in turn, created legacies that are still with us today.

"The eugenics movement is not a historical footnote. It is a fundamental chapter in our history that ought to be examined in our classrooms."

Facing History’s Web site offers many practical ways to explore this material. Teachers and students can view timelines of the eugenics movement in America and its influence in Nazi Germany.

They can read about key players and even take the "Beta test," a series of images shown to Army recruits who could not read or write English in an attempt to measure intelligence. The site also directs users to helpful print, video and Web resources.

For instance, a link to the Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement opens a trove of primary texts and images about Davenport’s research, marriage laws, immigration restrictions and the popularization of the eugenics movement.

Eugenics cooperates with the workings of nature by ensuring that humanity shall be represented by the fittest races. What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly.

At Bard, the teachers periodically broke into small groups to devise classroom projects. On one occasion Christina Peterson, who teaches at Euclid High School just east of Cleveland, teamed up with Christine Gonet, who teaches social studies at Magnificat High School, a Catholic school for girls in a leafy suburb just west of the city.

They began batting around different ways to ask students to envision an ideal community, a topic that was on the minds of many people during the Progressive Era — and led some to espouse eugenics.

Soon the conversation turned to the differences between Euclid, a large public school where students pass through metal detectors each morning to ensure safety, and Magnificat, where the girls wear uniforms to keep the focus on schoolwork.

Then Peterson and Gonet hit upon the idea of a student exchange. After having their students review the rules governing each school, Peterson son would bring her class to Magnificat and Gonet would bring hers to Euclid. Together the students could discuss the different visions their schools aspire to.

By posing a historical question — what is the ideal community? — in a contemporary context, the teachers hope to forge a dialogue that might span racial and socioeconomic divides.

"I want our students to ask whether Cleveland is the ideal community," said Peterson. "I want them to ask how it’s divided racially, and how we can make it better."

While the Cleveland contingent was busy hatching its plan, Sarah Goodman, the Manhattan biology teacher, paired off with Javier Bastos, who teaches science at New Mission High School in Boston. Together they sketched out a timeline showing how definitions of race have shifted over time.

They began in 1758 with Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish naturalist who divided humans into four distinct groups: Africans, American Indians, Asians and Europeans.

They added any entry for Petrus Camper, the German artist-turned-anatomist who argued that beauty (which he defined according to the facial angles found in classical Greek statues) went hand in hand with moral and intellectual worth.

They penciled in Johann Blumenbach, the German anthropologist who classified people as Caucasians or members of one of four "degenerate" groups: Negro, Mongolian, Malay and American Indian.

And they entered the names of Samuel Morton, the Philadelphia physician who tried to correlate skull size and intelligence; Franz Boas, the German-born anthropologist who tried to separate race from notions of inferiority and superiority; and Francis Galton.

Moving on through the 20th century, they finally came to the Human Genome Project, which recently found that all people share 99.9 percent of the same DNA and that genetic differences are greater within each race than between races.

Then Goodman did something quite clever, extending the timeline a few inches to the right and marking a point at the year 2020.

Bastos fleshed out the idea: "We ask our kids, ‘If we define race today as a purely social construct with no grounding in science, how will we define it in 2020? Will it continue to hold such social significance, long after its scientific value has been disproved?’"

Goodman, who teaches a genetics unit with her 6th and 7th grade biology classes, smiled with satisfaction. "I’m definitely going to use this," she said. "I’ll have the kids fill in the definitions. I could ask them to show how much scientific evidence it was based on and what arguments these people made. I could even say, ‘If you were alive at that time and had to debate someone like Linnaeus or Galton, what counter-arguments would you make?’"

When she and Bastos presented their timeline to the entire group, Goodman spoke about the use and misuse of science. "This material can help students see the difference between what science is supposed to be and what it became," she said.

"It’s supposed to be about theories that are based on evidence. We can challenge them, and they change over time as we learn more about them. But in the eugenics movement, you see science becoming dogma."

It was not an idle thought for Goodman, whose students spent 14 days last year exploring an exhibit on "The Genomic Revolution" at the American Museum of Natural History. Indeed, despite the scant attention it receives in most schools, the eugenics movement grows more topical each day.

Recent developments in genetic research already make it possible for many couples to take steps to ensure that they have healthy babies, and who can blame them? But before long, affluent families may be able to select individual genes and produce a class of "designer babies" born for success.

What’s more, like the dystopian society in Minority Report, we may soon wrestle with the power to eliminate people who, although innocent, appear to be genetically predisposed to crime, disease and other social ills.

That’s where Facing History might help. By encouraging students to explore the moral dilemmas of the past, the program underscores the need for civic participation and responsible decision-making.

"Our goal with this curriculum is not just for students to learn history," says Karen Murphy. "It’s to give them a way to connect it to themselves and the choices we make today."

Fit in Every Way

In the early decades of the 20th century, eugenics found its way into the curriculum of U.S. schools. The following passage is excerpted from a 1914 high school textbook, The New Civic Biology, by George William Hunter:

Since our knowledge of heredity has been increased, the demand has become more urgent that we do something to prevent the race from handing down diseases and other defects, and that we apply to man some of the methods we employ in breeding plants and animals.

This is not a new idea; the Greeks in Sparta had it, Sir Thomas More wrote of it in his Utopia, and today it has been brought to us in the science of eugenics. The word comes from the Greek word eugenes, which means well born.

Eugenics is the science of being well born, or born well, healthy, fit in every way. A tendency to cancer, or tuberculosis, or chorea, or feeblemindedness is a handicap which it is not merely unfair, but criminal, to hand down to posterity.

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