Predicting Eugenics and Education: Rethinking an Educational Fault Line


Nicholas D. Hartlep, M.S.Ed.
PhD Student – Urban Education and Social Foundations of Education
Advanced Opportunity Program (AOP) Fellow
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


In her 2007 study titled Eugenics and Education in America: Institutionalized Racism and the Implications of History, Ideology, and Memory, Dr. Ann Gibson Winfield objectively critiques eugenic apologetics. My analysis of this text assesses how well Winfield’s book accomplishes the following: (1) discussion of the scientism-or pseudo-nature of eugenics, (2) description of the compositional and structural eugenic-laden inequities that pervade education, (3) discussion of eugenic labels used in the past within education, and (4) discussion of eugenic labels presently used within education.

Albeit esoteric to many in education, the practice of eugenics finds itself deeply rooted in a pseudo-scientific framework/ideology. In 1904, eugenics was broadly defined by Francis Galton: “Eugenics is the science [italics added] which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage” (as qtd in Winfield, p. 5).  Eugenics, simply summarized, is a racist and antipathetical attempt to create a perfect—Nordic—race. Eugenics is propelled by a scientism-nature insofar as it is predicated upon the notion that, with selective breeding, sorting, labeling, and categorizing, the world can reach utopia. This utopia is predicated upon the creation of a superior race. While attempting to create a superior race may appear absurd and incredulous in the 21st-century, eugenic tendencies continue to permeate and pervade education.

Scientism or Pseudo-nature of Eugenics

What is more, eugenics is constructed upon a scientism, or an imitated science—a science that many times is a shape-changer, escapable, and elusive. In previous epochs, eugenics proudly defended its suppositions under the banner of better heredity—something finite and inescapable; however, this was eventually repudiated with the tardy and latent understanding that the practice of eugenics was grossly unethical, furthermore, disadvantageous. In addition, Paul (as cited in Winfield, p. 65) argues, “[…] [T]he notion of heredity as a central component of eugenic thought…was disproved by advances in genetic research.” Eugenics imitated real science during the 20th-century.

Examples of this scientific imitation are when eugenicists used phrenology and physiognomy to make assertions of individuals’ mental capacities and worth. While analyzing cranial shape and form (phrenology) may sound scientific, it was and continues to be wide of the mark. The same holds true with physiognomy, or the assessment of a person's character or personality from their outer appearance. While at this particular juncture in time, these were held as valid scientifically-based declarations, modern people would decry them as incredible and disingenuous.

Nonetheless, the varying inequities that exist in contemporary education may eventually be deemed the same (incredulous and not genuine declarations). As one may ascertain after close examination and reflection, there are many compositional inequities that continue to pervade education.

Compositional and Structural Eugenic-laden Inequities

Many of the compositional inequities that exist in education originate in large part from following eugenic practices in previous decades, as they relate to education. These eugenic practices are inclusive of, but are not limited to, the following labels and practices: (1) feebleminded (2) imbeciles, (3) morons, (4) unfit, (5) idiots, (6) mongrels, (7) utilizing phrenology and physiognomy to make assertions of one’s intelligo, (8) strictly enforced sterilization laws, and (9) the disapproval of interracial-marriages (including anti-miscegenation laws). The use of eugenic labels in education was rampant and detrimental to students in the past (early-1920s), yet continues to plague, be detrimental, and be rampantly used in schools in the current era (early-2000s). As an educator, I bear witness to these malicious eugenic practices that perpetuate the inequities that exist in education on a daily-basis, as I teach in an urban-school setting.

As Winfield clearly posits, “[…] [A]ctions in the present that preserve and promote oppression from the past are, in effect, paramount to depriving non-dominant group members from the influence, and thus the capacities therein […]” (p. 27). The compositional inequities that exist in education originate from eugenic practices of the past; however, the actions or inactions of current educators and those in the field of education have the power to either perpetuate or end the inequities therein. For this very reason, eugenic-based labels were and continue to be used in the educational arena.

Eugenic Labels Used in the Past within Education

There has been a broad array of eugenic labels used in the past within education. Historically-speaking, the American educational system operated by sorting, situating, and matching students based upon preconceived and contrived presumptions. This can be summarized by the following quotation taken from Winfield’s text:

Eugenicists believed ability was innate and that it was the job of education to successfully sort students and match them to the vocations for which they were best suited. By matching inborn ability with the appropriate path society would achieve a system of meritocracy where income and ability were directly correlated. (p. 108)

The notion that an individual is born with a threshold of intelligence is preposterous, yet it was a salient and popular belief of eugenic proponents. While history reveals the high concentration and prevalence of eugenic labels in education in the past, the expression “history repeats itself” is credible in contemporary times.

Eugenic Labels Presently Used Within Education

The eugenic labels presently used in education vary in offensiveness. Albeit tacit at times, the following are a few eugenic-laden labels/practices widely used within the educational arena: (1) “at-risk” student; (2) “special needs” student; (3) No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, previously Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965; and (4) the ability tracking of students.

The term “at-risk” undermines objectivity and inaccurately labels children in education. What does “at-risk” mean? Furthermore, what is the purpose for its use in the educational arena? The same holds true for the term, “special needs” student. In terms of exceptionality and uniqueness, I would argue that all students are special in some form or fashion.

NCLB is eugenically contrived insofar as it causes division and a separation of races as it relates to the achievement gap and the acknowledgement that certain non-white students perform subordinately well when compared to white students. NCLB serves as an apparatus that assuages underrepresented, non-white populations of students’ academic growth/achievement.

The tracking of students is a eugenic-laden practice that is founded exclusively upon perceived ability level (see e.g., Oakes, 2005, 1995, 1987, 1985; Gamoran, 1992a, 1992b, 1989) and, therefore, is not inclusive. Minority students are disserved when educators predetermine their abilities directly or indirectly. Tracking discriminates against minorities because lower tracks are disproportionately comprised of minorities and do not lead to college (Rachlin, 1989, p. 52). As Winfield testifies:

The fact that subsequent generations of educational policy makers have so enthusiastically embraced mechanisms of measurement (testing and dependence on IQ), techniques of tracking and sorting [italics added] (high school tracks, gifted and talented programs), and forms of content presentation (curriculum) that have their conceptual roots in eugenic ideology suggests that the aim of passing the imperative on to the younger generation was successful. (p. 132)

Non-whites are harmed and disserved through tracking. The continued use of ability tracking jeopardizes many non-white students and is a eugenic practice presently entertained in the educational corpus. Losen (1999) states the following in a Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review:

Without successful legal action, the silent segregation caused by tracking will continue to subject many minority students in purportedly integrated school systems to a segregated and inferior education (p. 517)

Clearly, tracking is an American educational tradition that needs to be rethought. Its continued use by schools comforts the majority—the status quo—and primarily wounds minorities. It is time for American schools to defend the disadvantaged and disserved, and equally educate our students, regardless of their race or social class.

Many of the compositional inequities that exist in education originate in large part from following eugenic practices in previous decades as they relate to education. The notion that an individual is born with a threshold of intelligence is preposterous, yet was a leading and popular belief of eugenic proponents. Eugenic labels presently used in education vary in offensiveness. Until eugenic-laden labels/practices that are widely used within the educational arena are eliminated, there will be little change in underlying levels of bigotry, racism, and xenophobia. With the election of U.S. President Barack Hussein Obama, I am hopeful there will come a day when eugenic practices and labels within education will be torn down, just as the racial-divide was so beautifully destructed on November 4, 2008. Time will only tell when this magical moment will be.


Gamoran, A. (1992a). "Is Ability Grouping Equitable?" Educational Leadership 50 (2).

----- (1992b). "The Variable Effects of High School Tracking.” American Sociological Review 57 (6): 812–828.

----- (1989). "Rank, Performance, and Mobility in Elementary School Grouping." Sociological Quarterly, 30, 109-123.

Losen, D. J. (1999). Silent Segregation in Our Nation's Schools. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review Summer99, Vol. 34 Issue 2, p517-546

Oakes, J. (2005). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality (2nd ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University.

----- (1995). “Matchmaking: The Dynamics of High School Tracking Decisions.” American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1 pp. 3-33
----- (1987). Tracking in Secondary Schools: A Contextual Perspective. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation

----- (1985). "Distribution of Knowledge.” Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. Yale University Press

Rachlin, J. (1989). “The Label That Sticks.” U.S. News & World Report v. 107 (July 3 1989) p. 51-52
Winfield, A. G. (2007). Eugenics and Education in America: Institutionalized Racism and the Implications of History, Ideology, and Memory: Vol. 18. A Book Series of Curriculum Studies (W. F. Pinar, Ed.). New York: Peter Lang.


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