Tuesday, March 1, 2016

black mark on Harvard

As a Harvard alumnus, I take pride in the institution that admitted a public school kid from Colorado, exposed him to mind-shattering ideas, and gave him degrees that look noteworthy. [I'm also grateful that Harvard gave me money for my first car. But that's another story.]

I appreciate the fact that Harvard owned up to its discrimination against Jews especially in the interwar years, and is wrestling with its admissions policy for Asian-Americans.

This month the alumni publication, Harvard Magazine, has a shocking but true story of Harvard's connections with, indeed leadership of, the disgraceful eugenics movement in the early 20th century.

Two of Harvard's presidents were leading figures advocating eugenics policies, including forced sterilization of the "feeble-minded" and severe restrictions on immigration.

[Former president Charles William Eliot] was an outspoken supporter of another major eugenic cause of his time: forced sterilization of people declared to be “feebleminded,” physically disabled, “criminalistic,” or otherwise flawed. In 1907, Indiana had enacted the nation’s first eugenic sterilization law. Four years later, in a paper on “The Suppression of Moral Defectives,” Eliot declared that Indiana’s law “blazed the trail which all free states must follow, if they would protect themselves from moral degeneracy.”

He also lent his considerable prestige to the campaign to build a global eugenics movement. He was a vice president of the First International Eugenics Congress, which met in London in 1912 to hear papers on “racial suicide” among Northern Europeans and similar topics. Two years later, Eliot helped organize the First National Conference on Race Betterment in Battle Creek, Michigan.

None of these actions created problems for Eliot at Harvard, for a simple reason: they were well within the intellectual mainstream at the University. Harvard administrators, faculty members, and alumni were at the forefront of American eugenics—founding eugenics organizations, writing academic and popular eugenics articles, and lobbying government to enact eugenics laws. And for many years, scarcely any significant Harvard voices, if any at all, were raised against it.
Other leading academics also embraced eugenics.
Eugenics attracted considerable support from progressives, reformers, and educated elites as a way of using science to make a better world. Harvard was hardly the only university that was home to prominent eugenicists. Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, and Yale’s most acclaimed economist, Irving Fisher, were leaders in the movement. The University of Virginia was a center of scientific racism, with professors like Robert Bennett Bean, author of such works of pseudo-science as the 1906 American Journal of Anatomy article, “Some Racial Peculiarities of the Negro Brain.”
It's better to expose these dangerous errors of the past than to ignore them. Thanks to Harvard Magazine!

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