Last week, I was listening to a discussion on the life and times of Helen Keller, her role in American history, and what our memory of her today is. The discussion was held on Democracy Now, and Kim Nielsen was being interviewed. Dr. Nielsen is the author of three important books on the life of Helen Keller & Anne Sullivan Macy and is professor of history and women's studies at Wisconsin University at Green.
Juan Gonzalez, the DN interviewer, enquired of Professor Nielsen whether Helen Keller had ever married. Although Keller was a very outgoing individual, the answer was no. Nielsen explained: "She did not marry. She once applied for a marriage license. She fell in love with a man named Peter Fagan in the late Teens. And this was a period of time where eugenics was very strong. Many felt that women particularly with disabilities should not marry, should not have children. And Keller became engaged to Fagan, contrary to the wishes of and the knowledge of everyone in her family and her friends. And once it became public news that she had gotten a marriage license, the paparazzi of the time got a hold of this. It hit the newspaper very big, and Peter Fagan was, in essence, chased out of Keller's life."
Nielsen added a bit more about how influential both superstitions and ideas of pseudo-science, like turn-of-the-century eugenics, was on 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s America, "Her [Keller's] family was not pleased about this [intention to marry by Helen] at all. Much of the public were questioning. This was a time of great difficulty in Anne Sullivan Macy's life, as well. And Keller left the relationship. And I think that was very hard for her. She didn't write that much about that the rest of her life. She left that topic alone and didn't leave me, as a historian, the juicy letter I wanted. But she did have that romantic relationship."
MY MEMORIESDecades later, I recall that such myths were still relevant in the America I grew up in the USA in. My own high school text books, at least through the end of the 1970s, had taken it as standard good science, i.e. concerning genetics, that the earth was made up of different "oids" with different head-shaped peoples with a lot of inbreeding to make world history as we know it. There were the Negroids, the Caucasoids, and the Mongoloids. Likewise, by the 1990s, eugenics-based intelligence and promotion tests were still being (and even increasingly being) required in schools, so as to track children—as had already been taking place for the vast majority of Americans for 5 to 6 preceding generations.
All of us Americanists recall the scenes in the classic 1990s film, Forrest Gump, in which Forrest is initially prohibited from going to school with other kids because his IQ test was considered too low. The Alabama school system of the 1950s used such a system to track its kids—and most school systems do this to some degree still, i.e. as of 2009. Similarly, high stakes testing and school tracking based on tests developed by American eugenics experts a century ago are still used in American schools today.
Many of these tests still appear to reveal more in terms of racial profiling by the test designers than they do about actual potential of those taking the exams.
Peter Sacks, in his book, STANDARDIZED MINDS , (New York: Da Capo Press, 2000), states that now: "IT'S IMPERATIVE TO REMIND OURSELVES of how mental testing got its start in the United States. Modern mental testing, and its principal prescription to allocate opportunity based on the designation of the cognitively deserving and undeserving, is hardly a recent invention." However, it has skewed the entry of students of particular races taking standardized exams for decades.
I recall my personal misfortune at the misplacement of myself on an almost annual basis while growing up in Wentzville, Missouri in the early 1970s. At the beginning of each school year, I was placed into the wrong track. I am sure that the placement of me into a particular level was the result of a standardized exam used in the school district in the spring of each year. Luckily for me, in the fifth, sixth, and seventh grades, my misplacement was noted by my homeroom teachers—and my class level was changed within a few weeks. (I am not even sure whether tracking was still legal in Missouri at the time.) However, it is also likely that if I had been Hispanic or colored, my misplacement in that particular track might have gone unnoticed by the very busy instructors.
Sacks warns us American educators, "Recall the eugenics movement
earlier this century, when state and national policymakers passed laws
to stem the flow of such intellectually and morally 'inferior breeds'
as Italians, Jews, Poles, and other foreigners who came to America
during the waves of European immigration. The nation's pioneers of
testing provided lawmakers with the scientific rationale they needed for policies
that are now roundly condemned as cruel and misguided: Tens of thousands of
army recruits, including recent immigrants, were subjected to IQ tests; bizarre
but supposedly scientific conclusions about the natural laws of intelligence were
drawn; and eugenically appropriate public policies were enacted in several states."
Sacks thus calls into question the American army's much-vaunted intelligence testing as well as the famous Stanford-Benet testing formats which have been ubiquitous for decades. Sacks links all these types of exams to eugenic-tracking schemes developed in the early half to the 20th Century in both the USA and in Europe. In short, many of America's most-profitable high-stakes testing programs, including those promoted with USA tax dollars under G.W. Bush's No-Child-Left-Behind programs are part-and-parcel of the eugenics tradition in America.
MORE MEMORY REMEMBERED
Recently, Minna Stern has published several works on the topic of Eugenics in American history: "How is the history of eugenics in America remembered, and forgotten?"
In one of Stern's articles, she looked at "the recent gubernatorial apologies for forced sterilizations, which were carried out under the authority of state eugenics laws from 1907 until the 1970s. I situate the apologies in the global context of movements for reparations and restitution, examine the discursive architecture of apologies that seek to address the contravention of medical ethics and trust, and suggest that the apologies have the potential to elide important aspects of the history of eugenics in America."