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“We Are Not Alone”: Legacies of Eugenics in Education and Society

Nazlin Bhimani17 October 2022

This post has been co-authored with Professor Marius Turda.

The IOE Library has on display a shortened version of the exhibition “We Are Not Alone”: Legacies of Eugenics which was first shown at the Weiner Holocaust Library in 2021 and which is now at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The exhibition was curated by Professor Turda (Oxford Brookes University) with some content from UCL Special Collections (Galton Laboratory Collection and the IOE Library’s History of Education Collection) as well as content from the LSE’s Library. Following the opening of the exhibition, the Weiner Library hosted a Roundtable Discussion where all who worked on the exhibition shared our research. Both Indy Bhullar, Curator for Economics and Social Policy at the LSE Library, and I were subsequently invited by Subhadra Das (previously Curator of Science Collections at UCL Culture and now an independent scholar) to publish this research as short stories for the Wellcome Collection. The following provides some background on eugenics and the resources that are currently on display at the IOE Library.

The title of the exhibition, “We are Not Alone” is inspired by a widely circulated Nazi eugenic poster from the mid-1930s. After the introduction of the 1933 ‘Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring’, Nazi propagandists claimed that their eugenic programme of forced sterilisation was in no way different to provisions already existing in the penal legislation of countries such as the USA and Sweden, and which was about to be introduced in other European countries such as Britain, Hungary, and Poland. ‘We are not alone’, they said, hoping to garner international support for their plans to eliminate ‘defectives’ from society and to ‘purify the race’.

Eugenics was a global movement. The exhibition highlights this aspect, providing historical examples from Britain, USA, Italy, Sweden, and Romania, whilst recognising that eugenics programmes targeting individuals with mental disabilities and ethnic minorities were not stopped after 1945. They continued during the post-World War II period in countries as diverse as the USA, Scandinavia, Japan, Czechoslovakia, and Peru. The exhibition aims, therefore, to offer a historically informed account of our eugenic past, present, and future, balancing various elements of continuity and discontinuity, of idiosyncrasy and similarity between eugenic movements across the world.

The internationalisation of eugenics reflected a general appreciation in many parts of the world that science was the sufficient and necessary foundation for the long-awaited renewal of the human race. As a self-styled scientific theory of human betterment and planned breeding, eugenics was based on the principle that people who were deemed socially and biologically ‘unworthy’ of reproduction should be excluded. In the name of future generations, eugenicists dissolved aspects of the private sphere, scrutinising, and working to curtail reproductive, individual, gender, religious and indigenous rights. The boundary between the private and public spheres was blurred by the idea of public responsibility for the nation and the race, which came to dominate both. In the twentieth century, the state and the society at large increasingly adopted a eugenic worldview, even though none of it was based on proven scientific arguments. Instead, eugenics relied on speculations about social norms, cultural, ethnic and gender differences, and racial worth. Ideas of economic and social productivity also flowed readily from eugenic arguments, and eugenicists argued that if an individual was found to be socially ‘unfit’, it was appropriate for them to be ‘weeded out’. ‘Unfit’ had become a label for those members of society who were deemed ‘pathological’, ‘criminal’, ‘asocial’, ‘foreign’ and ‘undesired’.

Eugenicists claimed to act in the name of future generations by ensuring the continuity of people who were believed to be ‘hereditarily healthy’. Some eugenicists highlighted the primacy of heredity in shaping character and behaviour, while others insisted equally on the role of education and the environment. Not surprisingly, they also disagreed over which eugenic measures were deemed practical and efficient, and which ones should be rejected on ethical, scientific and religious grounds. In Britain, for instance, the Eugenics Society set up a committee to draft a sterilisation bill in 1929, chaired by the society’s president, Bernard Mallet. Two years later Major Archibald Church (1886–1954), a Labour MP and member of the Eugenics Society, introduced a sterilisation bill in the House of Commons, but it was rejected. One of his Labour colleagues, physician Hyacinth Morgan (1885-1956) rebuked the bill sharply: ‘Some when inebriated see beetles; the eugenist intoxicated, sees defectives’. In 1932, another sterilisation committee was established under the chairman of the Board of Control, Lawrence Brock (1879-1949). But these efforts led nowhere, as no sterilisation bill was introduced in Parliament again.

The exhibition presents us with the opportunity to review how assumptions and attitudes rooted in eugenic principles became entrenched in British education. From the beginning, eugenics appealed to educationalists, school reformers and feminists who advocated teaching the nation’s children and the youth ‘sound morals’ alongside physical education and modern ideas of hygiene. These were considered prerequisites for maintaining a healthy body and mind, and in society’s advancement towards a eugenic future. Educationalists such as the co-founder of the London School of Economics, Sidney Webb (who was instrumental in the establishment of the London Day Training College –now the IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society), was a key supporter of eugenics. Other examples include heads of colleges such as Margaret Tuke, Principal of Bedford College and J. J. Findlay of Owen’s College, Manchester, the London County Council’s Schools Inspector, W. H. Winch, and the educational psychologist Cyril Burt.

The cases display the intelligence tests or IQ tests from the Psychology and Human Development (PHD) Collection at the IOE. These tests were adapted by Cyril Burt from the IQ tests developed in Paris by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon at the turn of the twentieth century. Burt’s ‘mental footrule’ was used to rate the intelligence of a child and his evaluation of mental deficiencies influenced the outcome of the 1924  Hadow report on psychological testing and the  1929 Wood Report of the Mental Deficiency Committee and the Board of Education. The latter recommended the reclassification of children considered to be ‘mentally defective’ . Also on display are publications by the experimental psychologist, H. R. Hamley and director T. Percy Nunn on The Education of Backward Children: and, Juvenile Delinquency in England and Wales as well as A Textbook of Hygiene for Training Colleges by Margaret Avery, Vice Principal of Warrington Teacher Training College.

Image of the title page of Margaret Avery's textbook 'Hygiene'

Besides focusing on biological hygiene, Avery devotes an entire chapter on eugenics. This chapter provides examples of how eugenic thinking persists in the present day and is consistent with recent statements made by some politicians currently in power. For example, Avery states that while there are many ‘causes of pauperism’, one of them is that the working classes simply ‘lack…”grit”‘(p. 310)–a message that is not dissimilar to the one recently expressed by the (now previous) prime minister in relation to ‘British workers being the worst idlers in the world’. In relation to immigrants, Avery states: ‘We should welcome the right type of immigrant and discourage the wrong type’ and ‘we… receive the off-scourings of other countries, and these are racially very undesirable’ (p. 320). Once again, this mirrors the views of the present government on refugees and immigrants. Avery ends her chapter by stating that Christianity is on the side of the eugenicists because it, ‘more than any other power, has given us a sense of the infinite value of human life, and the eugenicist is trying to prevent the wreckage of human life’ (p. 323). While the Church has spoken out against these messages in Britain, the story is far from different in the United States (see Witnessing Whiteness by Kristopher Norris). Avery’s book continued to be published in several editions until 1951. It was the recommended textbook for the Board of Education’s teachers’ examination in hygiene. Undoubtedly, it will have influenced the thinking of generations of teachers and their students.

Although the true impact of eugenics will never be known, its legacies continue to penetrate deeply and widely into the fabric of our society. Continuing education and engagement with eugenics, as well as its public condemnation, are essential components of our efforts to comprehend a hidden and ominous past, while also pursuing a fair and just society.

The New Curators Project Visit Tower Hamlets Archives

Vicky A Price11 July 2022

This blog was written by Arzama Hossain, a participant on this year’s New Curators Project. The project seeks to offer a cohort of 18-24 year olds from East London the chance to learn more about the cultural heritage sector, receive relevant training and to produce something for a real life heritage audience as part of Newham Heritage Month. In Arzama’s own words, it is ‘a project in which you learn and work’ at the same time. This blog is a reflection that she wrote after visiting Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives.

Visiting Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

Today I had the great pleasure to visit the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives; I really had an amazing time exploring the place and the vast collection of artefacts they have. One thing I was pleased to learn was that anyone is able to visit them and it’s not an exclusive thing, this is a good thing as it allows people interested in history to be able to research some things at the source.

One of the things I enjoyed seeing was pictures of the local area throughout the year. I think it is important to keep an archive of photos which will allow people to see the history of the place they live. Due to the vast amount of material in the place, it feels like you are able to properly get an idea of local history and how it has progressed over the years. These archives are an important part of history as they showcase the important role of minorities in the history of this country and how they have helped make Britain what it is today.

Three young adults look at an archival map.

New Curators Participants scrutinising an historical map.

Archives play an important role in our understanding of the past, as they showcase some of the hidden aspects of history that many people may not know. Throughout history, only the biggest events got the spotlight while smaller, just as significant stories aren’t told as often. A country should always acknowledge even the bad mistakes of the past as it makes sure they don’t happen again, and keeping an archive of events allows people to learn the good and bad.

I moved to England from Italy when I was 12 and started learning about British culture but not forgetting my roots, seeing my community represented in the Archive gives you some inspiration to be like the people that came before you and made this country what it is. I wanted to learn more about the history of the Bengali people in London due to being Bengali myself and seeing them represented in the archives made me proud of my roots.

Archives are important things to have as they preserve important knowledge which otherwise may have been lost. People should take a trip and visit an archive as they are open for anyone to look at.

Two young adults and an archivist look at an historical map together in grand surroundings.

Archivist Richard Wiltshire shows participants archival maps and plans.

Remember 2012?

Vicky A Price24 May 2022

The New Curators Project is run by UCL Special Collections, in collaboration with Newham Heritage Month.  It is an annual programme for young adults (aged 18-24) who are interested in working in the cultural heritage sector, whether that be the arts, libraries, museums or heritage sites.  It aims to provide the training and experience required for these new professionals to take their first steps on their chosen career path, and to create an opportunity for the group to create work for a real audience as they take their first steps into this field of work.

Each year the cohort create something for Newham Heritage Month’s programme, based on the given theme.  2022’s theme is ‘What London 2012 Means to Us’, and so participants set about collecting oral histories, film footage and photography of the Olympic Park and surrounding area.  This is their first short film, created in response to the theme.

Get to know 2022’s cohort and revisit this page for addition short films in the month of June 2022!

New Summer School at UCL: What does it mean to be a journalist in turbulent times?

Vicky A Price25 April 2022

University College London (UCL) Special Collections and the Orwell Youth Prize team up to offer one-of-a-kind Summer School!

Applications are now open for a very special Summer School at UCL in July 2022. Year 12s based in London are invited to join Special Collections and The Orwell Youth Prize to develop their investigative writing skills, encounter first hand stories of journalism from the past and present and meet present-day journalists who are at the forefront of their profession.

Up to 25 participants will attend a range of seminars, study sessions, writing workshops and trips that will shed light on the life of professional journalists. They will develop their own writing with support from professional journalists, who will offer advice and share their experiences. They will also learn how the work of one of the UK’s most famous journalists, George Orwell, has influenced modern day writing and thought. During the Summer School, participants will have access to Orwell’s original notes, letters and diaries in the UNESCO listed George Orwell Archive held at UCL Special Collections.

A group of seven Year 12 pupils stand in the UCL main quad holding placards with their backs to the camera.

Year 12 participants at a previous UCL Special Collections Summer School.

The Summer School will take place for one week, from Monday 25 July to Friday 29 July, 10.00am – 4.00pm, and participants will be expected to attend every day.

Apply now to:
• Learn from the best; meet current day journalists who will share tips, techniques and stories from today’s real life news desks.
• Write your own journalistic piece, which will be published online by UCL Special Collections.
• Get hands-on experiences with original archive items from UCL Special Collections, including the UNESCO registered Orwell Archive.

This Summer School is suitable for a wide variety of students who are currently in Year 12 at a London state-funded school, particularly those interested in English, History, Politics, Language, Culture and Anthropology. Anyone applying should currently be studying at least one of these subjects at A level: English Literature, English Language, Politics, History.

This is a non-residential Summer School, meaning that participants will need to commute to and from UCL’s campus each day.  Applications close at midnight on Sunday 12 June 2022.

If you have any queries about the Summer School or would like support with completing your application please email us at library.spec.coll.ed@ucl.ac.uk or call 07741671329.

Who are We?

The Orwell Youth Prize is an independent charity that sits under the auspices of the Orwell Foundation. It is a social justice-based writing programme rooted in Orwell’s values of integrity and fairness that introduces young people to the power of language and provokes them to think critically and creatively about the world in which they are living. The prize is driven by an understanding of social and educational disadvantage in the UK and works closely with schools and individuals to deliver an annual educational programme.

University College London’s Special Collections manages an outstanding collection of rare books, archives and manuscripts, dating from the 4th century to the present day. Together, the team preserve and conserve the collection and facilitate access through a reader service, academic teaching, digitisation and outreach. The Outreach programme aims to create inspiring educational activities for audiences who would not otherwise access the university’s special collections in UCL’s neighbouring and home boroughs; Camden, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Waltham Forest.

Students Duke and Eric Reflect on their BA Education Studies Placement with the Outreach Team

Vicky A Price23 March 2022

We have been fortunate to host two students on a 50 hour placement from the IOE’s BA in Education Studies, and as their time comes to a close with us, they have written a blog to share their experiences.  Both students spent time learning about the Special Collections department before immersing themselves in the delivery of an Outreach project at UCL Academy – an after school club called Illustrate! which explores the use of illustration in our collection of rare books, archives and manuscripts.

Eric Xu

As part of the IOE’s Education Studies Placement Module, my course mate Duke and I have been working with Vicky Price as part of UCL Special Collections’ outreach team on the after-school workshop: Illustrate. I had a keen interest not only in working with students in a visual art focused workshop, but also in the collection itself after seeing items from the Orwell Collection around UCL’s campus. Our placement began in early January when we met with Vicky for the first time online. As the weeks went by, Duke and I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with the people and places of Special collections, and learning about the processes of archiving, cataloguing, digitisation and of course the outreach of the collection.

Our work on Illustrate began promptly in the first weeks, reviewing the past workshop deliveries, and taking inspiration from curated catalogues of the collection. Trying to come up with original ideas of how to integrate collection items into fun and fruitful activities for the students was definitely a challenge, but Duke and I were able to come up with and produce resources for sessions which we were keen to deliver ourselves. Creating these lesson plans and resources was a much more multifaceted task than I had anticipated, the considerations of how students react to your information and questions greatly influences and informs the direction of the class, and having Vicky help us with leading the direction of these disseminations was very helpful and eye-opening. Similarly with the resources and activities, I found that oftentimes I had to give the activity a go myself to determine the difficulty and viability of it for the class, which meant a lot of the times that I had to adjust or even change the resource entirely. Ultimately, the final product of the workshops we delivered were much different and more refined than the initial plans that Duke and I had drawn up.

Working with the students at UCL Academy was also an experience that has reshaped my perspective on professionalism in schools. There were many hurdles we had to hop, both expected and unexpected, including uncertainty with the number of students coming into the workshop. The students that did consistently come every week were lovely to work with, not only were they respectful and interested to learn, but they were also amazing at drawing. Trying to keep every student up to pace with one another and engaging all of them in the content was another struggle that Duke and I faced, and we realised that sometimes it’s impossible to have everyone interested or fully committed in participating, but again with Vicky’s assistance, the workshops still ran successfully.

Overall, the experience for me was an amazing and insightful experience into the organisational operation of UCL Special Collections, the preparation of workshops and resources as well as the teaching of students. I would highly recommend anyone interested to get involved, and I’m very grateful to have worked with Vicky and UCL Special Collections as part of my placement.

 

A piece of grid lined paper featuring a number by number drawing task to outline an never-ending staircase like those of Escher's work.

Drawing activity designed by Eric and Duke based on the sketch from the Penrose Papers (below).

Grid lined paper with hand drawn illustration of a set of never ending stairs that continue in a loop, similar to Escher's work.

A sketch of a ‘continuous staircase’, much like the work of Escher, taken from the Penrose Papers at UCL Special Collections.

Duke Li

This term, the placement module from BA Education Studies offered us an opportunity to be involved in the outreach team of UCL Special Collections and the project “Illustrate”. To be specific, the aim of the project was to give the knowledge of special collections items to an audience with a non-academic background. It was really great to bring out activities to the after-school club and have interactions with students on the topic of special collections.

Our experiences started with the introduction of the UCL Special Collections team. Before that, I didn’t know that the UCL Special Collection team involved so many departments. For instance, we took several visits to the UCL Science Library and “hidden rooms” in the IOE building in order to see parts of the collection. It is always exciting to see those rare collection items – archives, rare books, and manuscripts – especially in a storage space that adds a mystery to it. As the placement went by, we got to know how to search items in the Special Collections catalogue, learn about the digitalization of the special collections items, and the process of getting access to items in the reading room. We also had a chance to take a look at an exhibition of the collection. From my perspective, those activities helped me to get a better idea of how the UCL Special Collections team work and cooperates with each other, and the experiences that I got turned out to be helpful when conducting the “Illustrate” project in the later weeks.

As well as intaking this knowledge, we also managed to bring out two sessions to the students on topics related to the collection items. The “Illustrate” project was an after-school class for the students, but the participants all engaged and learned from the discussion and the drawing activities in their own ways. Most of them were really active and willing to interact with us. It’s really delightful when giving out sessions and making students involved in the class. Though the teaching experience was wonderful, we do have several aspects to reflect on.

1. The teaching experiences
In the first session, we designed the whole activity on the work of Escher and his impossible world. We also set questions to ask the students. However, since we didn’t notice the difficulty and the linkage between questions, some of the students may have felt it hard to follow these ideas. From this, we concluded that the questions should be more carefully designed to express less in-depth, but easy-to-follow ideas, or else the knowledge of the collection items can not be promoted. Luckily, the final outcomes of the drawing activities turned out to be a big success, due to the creativity of the students. They have their own designs and thoughts.

2. The external factors
We also encounter some problems with the project as a whole. Since the project was an afterschool class in the school, schools may pay less attention to our project than the school’s wider teaching and learning activity. This may be the reason that most of the time, we did not have a lot of participants for our sessions. Also, we experienced once that the school was closed due to a problem with their water supply, but we only find out that when we arrived there, so these factors may have affected the teaching quality as well as the experience of teaching and learning.

To conclude, the whole placement experience is really great, we got the chance to know the UCL Special Collection team and how a team like this operates. The teaching experience with students was always nice since they were all really engaged. Also, we were really interested by the idea of the outreach team’s work when we were trying to make linkage between the non-academic audience and the special collection items that deserve to be noticed by more people. It was a really nice experience and I learned and reflected a lot.