Friday, September 01, 2006


Eugenics and Education

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 entirely
true. 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
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.