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  • Siddharth Jasti

From Ivy League to Inequality: The Eugenics Movement in American Academia

The Greek word eugenes means “well-born” or “born from noble beginnings”. This archaic word which one would think should be left in the past reared itself into America’s society and permeated into the educational system. The start of the eugenics movement was motivated by deep-rooted racism within people’s flawed perception of genetics. Numerous 18th and 19th-century scientists and thinkers, including Carl Linnaeus, theorized that humans with varying skin colors exhibited genetic differences beyond melanin and were thus deemed unfit for reproduction.

This ideology manifested itself in historic educational institutions that we are all familiar with. In 1912, former Harvard president Charles Eliot spoke publicly about his strong opinion in support of racial purity - the idea of keeping races separate from subsequent generations so future children wouldn’t be biracial. Eliot wasn’t against the idea of immigration into the US itself but believed that the immigrants should breed within their own race to prevent race mixing. Eliot’s successor, A. Lowell, and Professor Edward East also were passionate supporters of the eugenics movements. They integrated their racist philosophies into their teachings and research, which influenced and affected generations of Harvard students.

However, the ramifications of this movement extended far beyond the confines of the classroom. Another issue with the eugenics movement at the time was the implementation of forced sterilization. Forced sterilization is the concept that the government and the medical field can sterilize patients without their consent or approval, rendering them unable to reproduce. Institutions are beginning to recognize and speak about their past involvement in this practice. In a recent speech by Yale American History Professor, Daniel HoSang spoke about Yale’s involvement with the eugenics movement. HoSang’s students researched and presented about the American Eugenics Society and how it was founded on the Yale campus. HoSang speaks on the university's contribution to the research and popularity of eugenics, and how this influence fueled the prevalence of forced sterilization of people of color.

That being said, one would be ill-advised to think that the practice of eugenics stopped at the discrimination of people of color. This belief system also manifested itself in the marginalization of those with physical and learning disabilities. In the early 1900s, Stanford Dean Elwood P. Cubberley was a passionate proponent of the eugenics movement, particularly when it related to those with disabilities. He believed that children who “have a greater ability” than their peers should have access to more resources. Cubberley aimed to artificially cultivate more abled students. This ableist philosophy indirectly led to a stigma against those with learning disabilities that exists to this day.

The effects of the eugenics movement are still in place, and efforts are being made to amend the horrific history of the movement. Many buildings and statues in universities that were named after proponents of eugenics are now in the process of being dismantled or renamed. Moreover, organizations like PAUSD speak out about these iniquities. PAUSD has spoken out about renaming schools like Terman Middle School and David Starr Jordan Middle School, both of which are named after eugenicists who were influential in the movement and supported forced sterilization and selective breeding. Although the move was controversial and met with opposition, actions like these serve to remove the legacy of historical figures who have had a prejudiced ideology. Schools like Yale, Harvard, and Princeton are also aiming to remove their affiliations with the eugenics movement by renaming residential buildings and schools that were originally named after contributors to this movement.

Although steps have been taken to reverse the eugenics movement and to dishonor those who contributed to the movement, the task at hand is far from finished. In 31 states, currently, forced sterilization or a form of it is still legal, while 17 states allow the procedure of permanent sterilization on children with disabilities given the consent of a guardian as a proxy decision on behalf of the child. These procedures violate the individual’s rights to bodily autonomy and are a reminder of the remaining action that our nation needs to take to eliminate this outlandish ideology.

The effects of the eugenics movement in academia have affected generations of students and as shown through existing legislation, are still present to this day. Although visibly prejudiced and flawed, eugenics was widely accepted at the time as an accurate ideology. The eugenics movement serves as a reminder that it is important to question accepted science, even if it is taught in institutions such as Harvard and Yale; for today’s accepted beliefs may become tomorrow’s discredited theories.


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