Colleagues at the University of Puget Sound (UPS) have developed a course to explore the history and legacy of eugenics in their community. This draws on an interdisciplinary team of tutors and some highly energetic students. It has produced excellent lists of resources on the history of (American) eugenics and discussions of renaming and commemorations.
One focus of attention at UPS is the commemorative naming of the Slater Museum of Natural History. James R. Slater was a widely-respected naturalist. He played a crucial role in the development and study of the zoological collection that now bears his name.
Slater also taught courses in mental hygiene and eugenics at university-level during most of the interwar period. He certainly was not alone in teaching eugenics at an American university in the decades before WW2.
One element of the immersive learning approach used at UPS is to engage questions of responsibility and change: what can students do to make a difference in this world? In this context, students have been asking why Slater is commemorated at the university, should he continue to be commemorated, and what solutions might be found to honour the targets of eugenics policies rather than the advocates of eugenics?
For many years, I’ve advocated renaming commemorative spaces at my university, University College London (UCL) associated with eugenics, such as the Galton Lecture Theatre.
History, Heritage, and Eugenics
Before the COVID-19 crisis led to lockdown, our UPS colleagues were organising a conference to develop their thinking about the history of eugenics at their institution. Recorded talks replaced most of that conference. Here is the presentation I offered to the conference. Below is a summary of the main points made.
History vs. Heritage
The overriding point I hoped to deliver for the UPS discussion is a distinction between history and heritage. Here’s the core message I tried to convey:
- Arguments about names for facilities are arguments about commemorative acts.
- Arguments about commemorative acts are proxies for arguments between competing heritage stories linked to those commemorative acts.
- Competing heritage stories co-exist in a diverse community; it’s crucial for everyone to develop a sense of empathy for all those stories. Empathy is not sympathy; empathy is respectful and it supports fairness.
- When arguing about names for facilities, the impulse is towards inclusion – that means making space for competing heritage stories to co-exist – this is “addition” or “pluralism” or “multiculturalism”. This will seem to be an easy, “go to” solution for conflict resolution.
- I’m sorry to say, the inclusive approach is going to fail in the long-run. This is because – critical studies of disability, gender, race, and other subjects tell us repeatedly – inclusion alone fails to change power relationships, privilege, and other core normative structures. Inclusion alone leads to a weak solution. (In other words, keeping a name but adding a sign describing dissatisfaction with the name keeps one heritage story in a privileged position and continues to marginalise alternative heritage stories. A place at the table is no good if that place is far off in the corner of the room where few will engage the person there and the person there has to fight to be recognised.)
- The alternative to inclusion is equity, which is the approach I favour.
- A solution to naming focusing on equity considers commemorative practices around the university as a whole. Here a sequence of steps to follow to implement this idea. First, develop a descriptive inventory of current commemorative acts and their rationale. (What do you have?) Second, develop a prescription for the heritage stories the executive wants to project, based on engagement with its communities of interest. (What do you want?) Third, compare the descriptive and prescriptive to identify gaps, overabundances, and broken linkages. (What needs to happen?) This comparison will produce a specification to guide change that preserves the principle of equity. It is a systems-wide approach.
- Some prioritisation is inevitable. In these circumstances, my own preference is to accept the analysis of critical studies about structural asymmetries and privileges. I encourage most decisions to default towards an abundance of generosity for historically underrepresented or ab-normalised heritage stories. This is a point about equity and symmetry. It is a point about the overall distribution of commemorative practices across the institution as a whole. Historically dominant representations have many opportunities for commemorative practices. Losing some or sharing some will not occasion a crisis.
- Equity also raises a basic constitutional point. The whole o our community is made from you, me, and everyone else. The sum total of heritage stories together result in heritage for us all, not mosaics of stories useful only to subgroups. Heritage stories with affirmative support for historically underrepresented or ab-normalised members of the group are meant to induce reflection not only for a person identifying in those categories but also for a person who does not so identify. Equity causes us to refine who the “our” is when we communicate the stories of our lives.
Heritage studies is a thriving area of research and career development. Want more? A free course on What is Heritage? is available from the the British Open University. The course is designed to “introduce you to the concept of heritage and its critical study, exploring the role of heritage in both past and contemporary societies”. It’s a quick, expert way to get started about heritage and critical heritage studies. As its several years old, it’s a bit dated in its critical emphasis. The training at UPS is more advanced, and you’ll quickly notice the differences. (Be proud of your ability to do that.) If you see something to read on the subject, a good starting place is David Lowenthall’s (2015) The Past is a Foreign Country. Revisited (Cambridge University Press; ISBN 978-0-521-61685-0).
Resources for UPS
Our project to study the history and legacies of eugenics at UCL is available. This is an single academic research project that grew from involvement with my university’s Inquiry to investigate the history of eugenics locally.
The report from that 2018-2020 Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL reported in February 2020. To my mind, this process did not go well. The chair’s formal report is, in fact, a minority report as it is signed by a small number of people on the Inquiry committee. (Count those on the committee against the signatures on the report. It’s well below 50%. Don’t believe any claim that represents it as “the Inquiry’s report”. It is the chair’s opinion, supported by a few other people. The MORE group recommendations forms the only majority report from the Inquiry; don’t believe any claim that calls it “dissenting”.)
I was highly critical of chair’s final report, essentially because, to me, it hijacked a study about eugenics past and present at UCL to deliver a polemic about other subjects. It simply uses a crude analysis of eugenics for leverage in that polemic. Those other subjects are important, and they need evidence-based analysis. However, those subjects were not what we were asked to investigate, and we generated no data to support the recommendations presented. Worse, in my view, we failed to do what we were asked to do, we ignored the concerns of many people who felt targeted by eugenics, and we left the advisory process in a shambles.
A large majority of committee members withdrew their support from the chair’s final report (for many different reasons; my views were only one from that group). That majority didn’t want to leave the process empty-handed, so we developed the MORE recommendations as a lowest common denominator-style solution – whatever our views in the round, at least we collectively agreed on those recommendations to the institution. I learned a lot during the course of this Inquiry; none of what I learned was allowed into the chair’s final report.
The primary local framing about eugenics at UCL today emphasises race and decolonisation. A good example of this framing is Subhadra Das’ virtual walking tour, Bricks + Mortals. This framing treats “races” in terms of the ethnic categories used in current-day British political discussions and defined by the UK government. UCL must use specific categories to report on ethnic diversity in our community. This framing also is informed by the growing body of literature in critical race theory. These UK categories are different from categories used today on the west coast of the United States, perhaps even in administrative reporting at the University of Puget Sound (UPS). These modern categories also are different from categories used in eugenics discourse prior to World War 2. This raises important questions about comparison of different activities using the same vocabulary. Make no mistake, Karl Pearson and Francis Galton were racists. I think it’s more revealing to know they also were Saxonists, nativists, and supremacists.
In the UCL Inquiry, eugenics as it related to disability, immigration, gender, class, medicine, and education was not a focus of investigation. I believe this was due to an overemphasis on the lens of race (in its modern political categories in the UK, so the Inquiry became a study of impact on Black-British communities today) and power dynamics as articulated in decolonisation theory (so the Inquiry became a study of how eugenics policies sought means for control and subjugation of colonised populations). Though I think these are powerfully helpful lenses for understanding resurgences of eugenics discourse in 2010-2020, they did not help much for understanding eugenics at UCL, say, in the 1910s. The history of anti-immigration and pro-nativist policies is far more helpful for understanding c1910 than the racialized language of politics in Britain 2010-2020.
The UK did not have state-delivered sterilisation programmes, which were common across the United States. Legal frameworks for eugenics were different too. Nevertheless, some eugenicists moved through international networks, and these are important to study. Because British studies of the United States tend to treat the country as one homogenous whole, regional variation is poorly appreciated. Also neglected is regional variation in the networks of power working to implement eugenics policies. Tacoma is not Dallas, just as Aberdeen is not Brighton. Events at UPS were framed by local and state laws as much as by federal policies.
Another failing of the UCL Inquiry was its seemingly singular focus on the Galton-Pearson connection in London and the administrative units they developed through University College London, such as the Francis Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics, known as the Eugenics Laboratory. The Inquiry gave far too much power to Galton’s patronage for Pearson. Its focus on formal units of activity give attention of bureaucracy (labs, departments, faculties) with little regard for what was accomplished in those units. It also leaves in the shadows the research and advocacy undertaken by individuals either as part of their employment who were not connected to those units (e.g., Cyril Burt at UCL) or as part of their careers outside work (e.g., Mary Stopes employed at UCL as a paleo botanist and volunteering in eugenics societies). It misses advice given in clinical training. It misses educational testing. It misses studies of ability and assimilation. It misses demographic research. And it fails to consider why we should suppose academics are the most important actors in the social and political affairs around eugenics (compare, for example, the relative impact of the Eugenics Education Society versus the Eugenics Laboratory at UCL or the relative impact of Leonard Darwin versus Karl Pearson as advocates of eugenics policies.) So bright a spotlight in one place leaves many things in the dark.
These various failing of the UCL Inquiry can inform the study of eugenics and the developed of restorative policies at UPS, in the Tacoma community, and across the Pacific Northwest. I’m happy to discuss in more detail in other settings.