Eugenics and Education by Ann Winfeild

As finite beings in an infinite and expanding universe, our understanding of the world is necessarily contingent, partial, and incomplete, and yet we live for the most part as if our everyday assumptions, biases, myths, and common sense are simply and entirelytrue. To say that we are—each and all of us—blind to our own blind-spots is a tautology. To take that tautology as a provocation, as a point of departure toward upending our own orthodoxy requires curiosity and courage. Ann Winfield has an abundance of both—a lively and exquisite mind combined with a willingness to relentlessly poke around in the dark. The result is a work of power and importance—breath-taking in its reach and surprising on almost every page. Here she interrogates—through the lens of a movement and an ideology that dominated our culture for much of the twentieth century—the story of democracy, freedom, and exalted forward progress that we Americans love to tell ourselves. Written out of the official story as quackery and the handiwork of a few nut-cases, Winfield demonstrates beyond doubt that eugenics was not only respectable, mainstream science but also that its major tenets were well-springs in the formation of American public schools with echoes in the every day practices of today. Formed in the crucible of white supremacy and rigid hierarchies of human value, American schools have never adequately faced that living heritage.

We no longer talk of “miscegenation” or “imbeciles,” of course, and we are likely to look upon forced sterilization and race-based marriage laws as archaic. But Winfield undermines any sense of smug superiority we might grant ourselves by drawing a direct line from those repulsive labels and practices to our own obsessions with “standards” and “accountability,” test scores and grades. White supremacy surely changes its spots but it remains durable and dominant.

Education, of course, is never entirely neutral—it always has a value, a position, a politics. Education—teaching and schooling—either reinforces or challenges the existing social order. For humanists and democratic educators, the largest, most generous purpose of education is always human enlightenment and human liberation, and the driving principle is the unity of all humanity. We embrace the conviction that every human being is of incalculable value, entitled to decent standards concerning freedom and justice and education, and that any violations, deliberate or inadvertent, must be fought against, testified to, and resisted.

The unity of human beings is based both upon a recognition of differences as well as a consciousness of our interdependence. People are different—distinct capacities, unique needs—and we are, at the same time, entirely connected. In today’s world, where we seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing, the knowledge we lack includes an acknowledgment of the reality of our wild diversity—something that just is—and at the same time an acceptance of our deep connectedness. The knowledge we desperately need now is a knowledge based upon recognition, upon unity and solidarity.

The relationship between education and freedom is deep, intrinsic, and profound—they are essentially the same thing. Both concern themselves with the fullest expression of human development. To the extent that people reflect upon their lives and become more conscious of themselves as actors in the world, they insert themselves as subjects in history, constructors of the human world, and they enact and express themselves, then, as free human beings.

The aim of humanistic educators is to organize schools in such a way that every member can develop and use all of his or her capacities and powers without infringing upon the basic conditions or rights of others. The classroom becomes an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

To be a good teacher in this context means above all to have an abiding faith in all students, to believe in the possibility that every person can create things and is capable of both individual and social transformation. Education becomes a form of reinventing, re-creating, and rewriting, and this is a task that can be accomplished only by free subjects, never by inert objects. Education, then, is a dialogical process in which everyone participates actively as equals—a turbulent, raucous, unpredictable and participatory affair. The goal of dialogue in this context is critical thinking and action—knowledge emerges from the continual interaction of reflection and action.

In democratic schools, an emphasis on the needs and interests of the student is co-primary with faith in a kind of robust public that can be created in classrooms, as well as in the larger society. To be exclusively child-centered, to the extent that the needs of the group are ignored or erased, is to develop a kind of fatalistic narcissism; to honor the group while ignoring the needs of the individual is to destroy any possibility of freedom. This is the meaning of community, the creation of places where people are held together because they are working along common lines in a common spirit with common aims. These are places of energy and excitement, unlike the sites of coercion and containment that are all-too-familiar in schools: the difference is motive, spirit, and atmosphere. These qualities are found when people move from being passive recipients to choosing themselves as authors, actors, builders, and makers within a social surround.

When the aim of education is the absorption of facts, learning becomes exclusively and exhaustively selfish, and there is no obvious social motive for learning. The measure of success is always a competitive one—it is about comparing results and sorting people into winners and losers. People are turned against one another, and every difference becomes a potential deficit. Getting ahead of others is the primary goal in such places, and mutual assistance, which can be so natural, is severely restricted or banned. On the other hand, where active work is the order of the day, helping others is not a form of charity, something that impoverishes both recipient and benefactor. Rather a spirit of open communication, interchange and analysis becomes a commonplace. Of course in these places there is a certain natural disorder, a certain amount of anarchy and chaos as there is in any busy workshop. But there is a deeper discipline, the discipline of getting things done and learning through life, and there is an appreciation of knowledge as an inherently public good—something that can be reproduced at little or no cost, and (unlike commodities), when it’s given away, no one has any less of it. In a rational society, knowledge would be shared without any reservation or restriction whatsoever.

Schools serve societies—in many ways all schools are microcosms of the societies in which they’re embedded—and they are both mirror and window onto the social reality. If one understands the schools, one can see the whole of society; if one fully grasps the intricacies of society, one will know something true about the schools. In a totalitarian society, for example, schools would be built for obedience and conformity; in a kingdom, the schools would teach fealty. But in an authentic democracy we would expect to find schools defined by a spirit of cooperation, inclusion, and full participation, places that honor diversity while building unity. Schools in a democracy would resist the over-specialization of human activity—the separation of the intellectual from the manual, the head from the hand, the heart and the head, the creative and the functional—as a distortion. The goal of democratic schools would be the fluidity of function, the variation of work and capacity, the mobilization of intelligence and creativity and initiative and work in all directions.

The education we are used to is only a caricature—it is not authentically or primarily about full human development. Why, for example, is education thought of as only kindergarten through 12th grade, or kindergarten through university? Why does education occur only early in life? Why is there a point in our lives when we feel we no longer need education? Why again, is there a hierarchy of teacher over student? Why are there grades and grade levels? Why is there attendance? Why is being on time so valuable? Why indeed do we think of a productive and a service sector in our society, with education designated a service activity? Why is education separate from production?

Eugenics and Education will change the way you think about curriculum and teaching, school reform, educational policy and practice, and even the current debates concerning immigration and marriage. This is essential reading for anyone who hopes to understand the sorry state of our schools today, and the deep changes we must undertake to improve them. After seeing the world through Ann Winfield’s eyes, when you hear the terms “gifted and talented” or “at risk” you’re likely to wince. Good.


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