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  • Dewey's Dilemma:Eugenics, Education, and the Art of Living
  • Timothy McCune


It is no accident that in his Ethics textbook, John Dewey discussed marriage and family, population growth, and managing the social sphere together, albeit briefly. In early- and mid-twentieth century intellectual circles, especially in the United States, the issue of maintaining a healthy "family stock" was not without its controversy. To some theorists, the notion of "social control" alluded to various forms of "population control," and beyond more "traditional" state laws restricting interracial marriage, social policies emerged advocating various forms of eugenics. Some of these policies manifested in state laws. Indiana passed the first eugenic sterilization law in 1907, followed by California in 1909. By the early 1930s thirty additional states had passed eugenics-based sterilization laws (Cullen 163).

If eugenics programs were so ubiquitous, and US education curricula so steeped in eugenic thinking, why did Dewey rarely ever mention it directly? What did he think about the subject? While I can only speculate about the first question, I argue here that Dewey strongly disagreed with its premises and promises, and his vision of creative education provided the pragmatic corrective.

An outgrowth of the misapplied biological theories that marked the intellectual history of its age, "eugenics" meant different things to different people—from race improvement to simply proper nutrition and healthful living (Rury 104). Positive eugenics programs attempted to pair through careful selection those judged as society's best, while supporters of negative eugenics tried to restrict procreation by those deemed to be socially inferior (Selden 68). Most eugenicists were committed to limiting the transmission of [End Page 96] "undesirable" heritable qualities. Lists of these qualities varied, but eugenicists commonly believed that all desirable and undesirable mental and physical human traits were transmitted as independent, irreducible Mendelian unit characters in the germ plasm (Cravens 46).

One such list is found in Charles C. Peters's 1930 work, Foundations of Educational Sociology. Peters had complained that democracy makes a "fetish" of equal opportunity, and the "handicapped" pulled society down since "they come into life with a drag." The "handicapped" were those who inherited "insanity, feeble-mindedness, nervousness, criminality, moral delinquency, physical malformations, weakness of personality, susceptibility to disease" (Peters 274). Viewed in terms of the nature-nurture debate, as was often the case at the time, eugenicists clearly fell on the nature side of the spectrum, sometimes completely dismissing social factors in individual development.

Eugenics policies, negative and positive, repeatedly found their way into high school and college textbooks. Let me highlight just two out of the scores of examples in order to illustrate their span and application. Paul Popenoe and Roswell Johnson, in their blatantly eugenicist 1918 college textbook, Applied Eugenics, supported a national education system that would work as "a sieve through which all children in the country are passed" and "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." Teachers should inspect children for ability and inability, for compulsory education should be utilized for both positive and negative eugenics programs (Popenoe and Johnson 370, 371).

Decades later, John Woodside Ritchie, in his 1941 high school biology textbook, Biology in Human Affairs, argued that the study of biology included learning how to "bow to nature's authority, learn her laws, and live in harmony with her decrees" (Ritchie 31). Thus, any social policy that did not directly influence an individual's biological makeup was either useless or a threat to society (Selden 90). The biologist magnifies differences in humans, aiding society in determining the proper place of people of varying intelligence, health, and ability. Without proper constraints, the country would suffer from a dangerous leveling of its members, where, as Ritchie argued, "the more efficient must be shackled that they do not outrun the less efficient" (Ritchie 40). Ritchie's view of human differences and social relations mixed ethics and social justice with biology: "The positive part of the program is the arranging of a social order that will allow and encourage those of high abilities and desirable character to...