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American Eugenics in Disability Studies in Education


Aja McKee and Audri Sandoval Gomez

This module aligns with the following DSE tenets:

  • promotes social justice, equitable and inclusive educational opportunities, and full and meaningful access to all aspects of society for people labeled with disability/disabled people

  • assumes competence and reject deficit models of disability

What is Eugenics

The American Eugenics Movement is described as being “in its most extreme form… a movement devoted to the improvement of humankind through programs of selective breeding and marriage restriction” (Selden 1985, p. 222). According to Selden (1985), eugenics was rooted in England and was originally a self-conscious movement.

The term “eugenics” was coined in 1883 by Francis Galton.





Sir Francis Galton

The eugenics movement promised “progressive reform and social control” (Seldon, 1999, p. 222). Galton’s ideas became popular, and soon made their way to America. It was in America that organizations designed by Galton’s acquaintances gained support and speed to grow and infiltrate society in various ways and with devastatingly long lasting results.

Learning About Eugenics through Dr. Steven Selden’s Work

Steven Selden is a Professor in the Education Policy and Leadership Department in the College of Education, at the University of Maryland College Park. This module is based on Selden’s research in the American Eugenics Movement.

Did you know...

The American Eugenics Movement strived to rid society of anyone seen as "unfit"

Contests were held to award "Better Babies" and the "Fittest Family"

Individuals were encouraged to marry within their "class"

The message of eugenics was spread in textbooks

Teachers taught eugenics in all levels of education including elementary, middle and high school, and colleges and universities.

Essential Questions

  1. Why is it important to understand eugenics?

  2. How is the American Eugenics Movement related to Disability Studies in Education?

  3. How was the American Eugenics Movement spread throughout society?

  4. Does eugenics continue in today's society?



  • Understand what the American Eugenics Movement was and how it contributed to the segregation and sterilization of individuals with disabilities.

  • Begin to learn about how individuals with disabilities were labeled in the past and the criteria used in determining these labels.

  • Identify how individuals were determined "feeble-minded." 

  • Develop an awareness of how eugenics propaganda was disseminated and spread, with a particular focus on the education system.


The Organization of the Eugenics Movement

When analyzing the history of the American Eugenics Movement, Selden (1999) found several themes throughout the movement. One of these themes included how the American Eugenics Movement was organized. Selden discussed the formation of structured organizations as a way to promote this movement. In the early 1900’s various organizations with like-minded individuals formed and gained exposure for eugenics. Organizations such as the American Breeders Association, founded by Charles Benedict Davenport, a key figure of the movement, gathered compatible individuals to implement research committees on eugenics. Similarly, the founders of these organizations held conferences to gather and share their idea of hereditarian betterment. According to Selden (1999), hereditarian betterment is described as pursuing the best version of humankind through selective breeding.

One of the first conferences held to promote eugenics was called “The First National Conference on Race Betterment,” and exposed participants to the major theme of the conference, which was the call for hereditary improvement. The conference began with this idea being shared through John H. Kellog’s Presidential Address, “which recommended prizes for the ‘finest families and the best health and endurance records’” as well as for the creation of a ”Eugenics Registry Office…to establish a race of human thoroughbreds” (Kellogg, 1914, p. 447)” (as cited in Selden, year 1999, p. 9).

Selden (1999) described the development of other organizations, and the impact they had on the eugenics movement in America. One of these organizations was titled the American Eugenics Society (AES). The AES was organized in 1925 and one of the advisory committee members was Dr. Henry H. Goddard, who was known for his research and standardization of the Alfred Binet intelligence test. Goddard was the director of the Vineland Training School and author of The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness, which was literature aimed at promoting the sterilization of individuals deemed feeble-minded (Selden, 1999, citing Goddard, 1912). Through organizations such as the American Eugenics Society, organizers such as Goddard hoped to influence the greater public to promote the eugenics movement.

However, according to Selden (1999), not all Americans agreed with breeding the fittest families, hereditary improvement, or Kellogg’s (1914) view on human improvement. A few attendees believed this would prohibit America’s progress. According to Selden (1999), psychologist Adolphus Miller expressed it was likely to put America’s cognitive thought process back twenty years. In Miller’s (1914) paper titled: The Psychological Limits of Eugenics, he analyzed what society would look like even if the perfect eugenics system existed. He claimed that a society designed using hereditarian betterment, along with other eugenic strategies, would still portray a society where practically every social problem would continue to exist. He went on to warn that promoting eugenics propaganda would divert the attention from the real problem of society which was the push for race improvement.

 War on the Weak: Eugenics in America (YouTube Link)

  • Closed Captioning (CC) available


Eugenics as a Definer of “Normal”

Individuals who were seen as a possible complication for hereditatiran betterment may have had segregation pushed upon them in public and private during the eugenics movement (Selden, 1985, 1999). At the same time, in the public education system, those seen as possible intellects, students who scored highly on intelligent quotient testing, were segregated as well.

Selden (1985, 2000) cites scholar and psychologist Leta Stetter Hollingworth, who was recognized as a United States advocate and researcher for the education of gifted children. She was an avid believer in eugenics and argued that social justice would be realized with the promotion of eugenics. She argued that in 1924, the market society was already going in the direction of social location being based on one’s biological inheritance. She prided herself on working with an elite group who had high intelligence test scores. While she recognized there were possible variations to the data which was collected, she concluded that “the inference most favored by all subsidiary facts is that the very intelligent are those who rise in the world of competition, and who are also able to produce children like themselves” (Selden 2000, p. 2460). 

In Hollingworth’s view these young intellects needed to be provided with special classes and segregated from the rest of the students (Selden 1985, 2000). Though few educators today believe in this extreme thought of exceptionality, Selden (2000) stated that it is a unique situation, which he described as a schizoid policy, where society segregated for those who were deemed unfit, and turned around to provide the same treatment to those society felt are exceptional. Selden (1985) argued that 

Some educational policies demand the mainstreaming of individuals at one extreme of the ability range while segregating those at the other. If a child has disabilities, this policy seems to say, bring that child into classroom. On the other hand, if young persons are outliers in the upper percentiles of a standard measure, then put those students into special classes in which they will be segregated by ability. (p. 3)

The examination of eugenics propaganda in textbooks leads to the discussion of the relevance to the times. As one examines the history of eugenics in America, the question may arise if anything good came from it, or if at the very least, society can avoid the same mistakes (Selden, 1999, 2000).


  • Graef, G. (1982). Sir Francis Galton. Retrieved October 23, 2020 from

  • Miller, H. A. (1914). The psychological limits of eugenics. Popular Science Monthly, 84, 390-396.

  • Steven, S. (1985). Professionalization and the null curriculum: The case of the popular eugenics movement and American educational studies. Educational Studies, 18(7), 221–238.

  • Selden, S. (1999). Inheriting shame: The story of eugenics and racism in America. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

  • Selden, S. (2000). Eugenics and the social construction of merit, race and disability. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 32(2), 235-252. Retrieved from

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