Eugenics Legacies Transnational Education Working Group
Leading up to the centenary of the Second International Eugenics Congress in September 2021, the main aim of the group will be to determine what are the most appropriate and effective ways to address the legacies of eugenics within our education systems?
September 2021 marks the centennial of the Second International Eugenics Congress held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1921. The repercussions of this congress were felt across the globe and helped to usher in, normalise and, in the name of ‘Science’, justify some of the most extreme atrocities recorded in history. In less obvious forms, ideas promulgated at the Second Eugenics Congress continue to reverberate in contemporary science, medicine, politics and education. We are still grappling with the legacies of the Second International Eugenics Congress today.
As with a century ago, we find ourselves on the cusp of political, scientific, technological, social, economic and educational developments that bear evidence to a revival of eugenic theories and practices that we now know to be scientifically unfounded and often dangerous for individuals and societies. Key components of the current arguments heard in support of racism, sexism, anti-immigrant, anti-disability and anti-LGBTQ are often grounded in or supported by arguments developed and disseminated by eugenicists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Given current local and global problems, further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a critical moment to review how myriad assumptions and attitudes rooted in eugenic ideology continue to affect our world in ways that are both obvious and less so. 2021 provides an excellent opportunity to focus on how eugenics has been used and misused over the past century but still more importantly to critically assess how the intellectual inertia of eugenic habits of mind continue to influence political, social and medical ideas, in addition to practices and policies. The ‘From Small Beginnings Project therefore is facilitating a programme of international reflections across North America (California, the South, New England, Mid-West, Canada and Mexico) and Europe (Romania, France, Poland) and transnational discussions, to mark this occasion. The programme will bring together a global group of scholars, educators, activists and community representatives for shared meaning making in hopes of addressing eugenic legacies of the past and interrupting the future promulgation of this malignant ideology.
The second congress devoted considerable time in its 'Business Session' to laying the foundations for the internationally influential American Eugenics Society. Amongst other things it was agreed that scientific papers from the Congress would be disseminated universally, including to ALL colleges and higher education institutions. Eugenic ideas, were not only use to buttress prejudicial attitudes and xenophobic antipathy already present in many societies, eugenicists were also determined that their beliefs should be translated into and transacted through political, social and economic policies. They were also committed to the broad dissemination of these ideas through robust public relations efforts and other forms of advocacy to ensure these ideas permeated all levels of society.
Targeting educational institutions was at the heart of this campaign. Eugenic assumptions of intellectual ability being fixed and ascribed along lines of race, class and gender are foundational to the educational systems we inhabit. Essentialist notions of difference rooted in eugenic preoccupations shape educational practices, policies and procedures. Educational practices as fundamental to the system as grading echo eugenicists’ preoccupation with identification, quantification and stratification. The disparate outcomes for minoritized populations are not an aberration or a failure of the system, indeed they are central to the system’s intent of slotting people into their assumed societal position or role.
The repercussions and impact of these ideas upon schools and colleges is globally still very prevalent today, directly and implicitly. It is felt wherever educational provision works to perpetrate, aggravate or produce inequalities, such as through the imposition of standardized tests, many of which are norm referenced. It is, for example, illustrated by current debates around Donald Trump's revisionist call for a more patriotic turn-a-blind-eye education, or in UK the COVID exams fiasco where an algorithm used to award grades in the absence of traditional examinations, favoured students from well-to-do areas and elite establishments. The relevance of addressing inequalities in education, is needed now more than ever, especially in societies undergoing demographic transformation. A failure to address eugenic legacies in such cases continues a pattern of limiting the development of and access to resources for vast swaths of emergent majority populations. The current global COVID 19 pandemic is exposing and exacerbating inequalities already prevalent in our educational systems. We are likely to find ourselves at the beginning of the greatest educational gap in generations, one that is global in scale. Behind these asymmetrical consequences lurks the eugenic notion (whether conscious or not) that some categories of young people are “unfit” and disposable while others, deemed to be more “fit,” are entitled to a quality education.
This project will bring together a transnational group of educators for a series of discussions around these issues. The group will meet monthly over ZOOM, from October 2020 through to September 2021. We strongly believe that, as well as looking to address the overarching global ideas of eugenics in education, it is important also to observe and address the legacies of eugenics within particular regional or national contexts. The international character of the group will reflect this, with representatives from numerous countries and each continent.
Each meeting will consist of a discussion led by a different member of the group from a different country/region. The lead of that particular discussion may give a little background to how the legacies of eugenics are prevalent within their particular context, how this may compare and contrast to other regional/national contexts, what the priorities are within their particular context, before opening up the discussion to the group around the key topic questions of their choosing. These topic questions will be located within the particular regional context but relevant to all. Collectively the discussions will explore the overarching question of what is the most appropriate and effective way to address the legacies of eugenics within our education systems? What are the continuities and distinctions that mark educational practices within and across the national contexts we work in? Over the course of the different discussions, the group will develop a global perspective on how to address the international legacies of eugenics in education, and will come to identify shared transnational goals to take forward, alongside awareness of what regional/national differentiations will be needed.
As well as discussion around addressing the systematic legacies of eugenics in education, we are keen to explore different pedagogical approaches to teaching about eugenics, and where these efforts can be most strategically and effectively integrated into curriculum. It is our intention these meetings will become a place of collaboration, one in which we can share and explore opportunities for course development, engage with courses already being taught, and think together as to how best to teach the history of eugenics within and across our given contexts. Also key to these discussions will be consideration of how we go about educating and empowering students to engage in the international movement to confront the legacies of eugenics.
Participants will also consider how to showcase what has been learnt from these discussions at the congress centenary conference at UCL, London in September 2021, and hopefully other events marking this moment in history as part of From Small Beginnings... How we showcase this is to be determined collectively through discussion, but will be centred around a shared statement of intent for how we go about addressing the legacies of eugenics in education in the coming years, agreed by the group.
Time will also be spent planning a proposal for putting these discussions into practice from September 2021 and creating a funding proposal to attract potential interested funders behind the longer term aims of this endeavour. Ultimately this discussion group will serve as an important stepping stone, a think tank if you will to address the legacies of eugenics locally and internationally. By leveraging the strength of our collective knowledge, we hope to engage and empower subsequent generations of students across the globe to collectively tackle and confront the prejudicial and discriminatory legacies of eugenics in hopes of preventing a eugenic resurrection in the future.
Group curated by Milton Reynolds and Benedict Ipgrave
Link to recording of the discussion from a British perspective was held on the 11th March to follow shortly.
The next discussion will be held on the 19th April, and will be from a Mexican perspective.
We are always welcoming new members to the group. If you are interested in joining, please email Benedict Ipgrave at and we look forward to welcoming you.