Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Eugenic Ideology, Past and Present

I thank you for the invitation to join this blog and offer the following as an outline of the kinds of things I am interested in.

In America, ideology, memory, and history reflect a deeply embedded racialized scientism, the reverberations of which are visible in all kinds of social institutions from medicine and criminal justice, to labor policy and, of course, education. Meaningful debate regarding the translation of ideologies from the past, specifically eugenic ideology, into current debates concerning educational standards, disability and civil rights, ability testing, and class inequity is challenging for a number of reasons. First, positivistic proscriptions in an era that demands ‘evidence’ based research leave little room for qualitative or intuitive understandings. Second, if we consider the seductive ability of ideology to objectify moral sentiment and motivate action, along with the extent to which ideology defines the structures through which individuals understand the world, it becomes apparent that fear of our own complicity may play a role as well. Third, a Puritan inspired form of social discourse casts our participation in such a dialogue as a competitive bid to convince others that what we believe is right, rather than as a process of exploration and discovery. Discourse of the latter type provides an opportunity for reinterpretation of deeply embedded collective memory whereas the former reinforces the hidden elements of the boundaries of our thinking.

During the first half of the twentieth century, eugenic ideology provided imperatives and proscriptions which governed public conceptions of race, class, and gender, and spawned deep commitment among followers. Class, race, gender and status politics are still part of the discourse, but the argument is really about the interpretation of reality, rooted not only in past/present time dimensions, but also in inherent contradictions within social systems (Bodnar 1992). Schooling everywhere has long been a site of enactment for these interpretations, dictated by whomever holds power. Due, in part, to the function of collective memory, this insidious eugenic and social engineering discourse was advanced on a number of fronts throughout the twentieth century, resulting in a national dialogue about intelligence, ability, and degeneracy that has been largely defined by racialized scientism. Clearly then, effective rebuttal to the current climate will require an integrated effort.

Within schools, we remain mired in a rut that was laid long ago while recent initiatives from the right serve to solidify, rather than break down, ideological form and function. Sorting, testing, tracking, ‘gifted’ and vocational education, international test score comparisons, financial inequity, non-English speaking students, vouchers, privatization, ‘at risk’ students, and new forms of ‘apartheid schooling,’ characterize the national dialogue about schooling today. So, how far have we come? Bashing public education has always been something of a national pastime, but to criticize the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act positions one as a person who advocates ‘leaving children behind’ or, perhaps, one who does not wish to be ‘accountable’ to the American public. I am interested in examining the ideological roots of governmental uses of eugenically rooted ideology to impose what Nancy Ordover (2003) refers to as the ‘technofix’ on the underclass.

Examples abound of the ability of the purveyors of official culture to divert attention from meaningful correctives across a broad spectrum of social policy at the same time as they fortify the economic and political context in which inequity thrives. And so we find ourselves, fifty-two years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in a state of what Kozol (2005) has called apartheid schooling. If, as Grumet (1988) observed, school curriculum is best defined as what the older generation chooses to tell the younger, then it becomes the task of schools to dictate not only what we remember of the past, but what we believe about the present and hope for the future. Ideology is insidious, but it can also be transformative – I hope to contribute to an autobiographical national dialogue that can get us there.

Bodnar, J. (1992). Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

Grumet, M. (1988). Bitter Milk: Women and Teaching. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press.

Kozol, J. (2005). The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. New York, Crown.

Ordover, N. (2003). American eugenics: race, queer anatomy, and the science of nationalism. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

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