Judging by a representative sample of textbooks, Americas high-school students get little exposure to the history of eugenics and scientific racism. One reason might be that the relationship of these movements to Progressivism is too close for comfort.
Eugenics and scientific racism in the United States emerged in the second half of
the nineteenth century and lasted through the 1930s. It claimed that heredity
was the fundamental determinant of an individuals ability to contribute to
society. Eugenics claimed the scientific ability to classify individuals and groups as fit
or unfit. The unfit were defined by race, mental and physical disabilities, country of
origin, and poverty. Eugenics was widely accepted by academics, politicians,
intellectuals, government, the U.S. Supreme Court, and especially progressives, who
supported eugenics-inspired policies as policy instruments to be utilized by an interventionist
administrative state to establish a healthy and productive society. Those who questioned the
settled science of eugenics were dismissed as deniers, much like those who question the
settled science of climate change are today dismissed as deniers.
Eugenics and slavery share much common ground in their inherent racist view of
blacks; however, the inherent racist perspective of eugenics was broader in that the set of
those considered unfit included individuals and groups beyond those who were black.
Eugenics provided the scientific foundation for involuntary sterilization policies in
thirty-two states, supported the racist immigration policies in the first part of the
twentieth century, and supported a variety of de jure and de facto policies designed to
limit those defined as unfit to less than full-citizenship status. More troubling, eugenics and eugenics-inspired policies in the United States were admired by Adolf
Hitler. American and German eugenicists interacted and exchanged views up to the late
1930s, and sterilization laws, immigration restrictions based on race or ethnicity, and
efforts to prevent full citizenship to the unfit in the United States became the model for
the Nuremburg Laws of 1935. Stefan Kühl (1994) was the first to document in detail
the AmericanGerman eugenics connection. In Hitlers American Model (2017), James
Whitman extended this research to illustrate how U.S. policies influenced Nazi race law
in the 1930s and the Nuremberg Laws in particular. The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi
Roots of the American Left (2017) by Dinesh DSouza is the most recent effort to bring
public attention to eugenics and the AmericanGerman connection.
The widespread acceptance of eugenics in the United States, especially by progressives,
is a troubling part of U.S. history unknown to many Americans, and the role
model America provided for Nazi race law is even more troubling. The conventional
wisdom in the United States places blame for scientific racism on Germany, but the
opposite is an inconvenient truth that continues to receive little public attention. The
fall of the Third Reich revealed the logical outcome of eugenics. Eugenics disappeared
almost overnight from public discourse and became an embarrassment to many who
had supported it and its policy implications.
I have covered eugenics and related topics in my lectures on the history of
economic ideas for many years and have been surprised at two reactions from students:
first, many students find eugenics and related topics the most interesting part of the
course, and, second, with only a few exceptions the students have never heard of
eugenics in the United States and, especially, its relationship to Nazi Germany. This lack
of awareness suggests a question and the catalyst for this paper: To what degree are high
school students exposed to the history of eugenics?
One would expect that with the current political focus on discrimination and
racism, eugenics would be an important topic in U.S. history and related courses at the
high school level. Unfortunately, this is not the case. As I show in this paper, high school
history textbooks essentially ignore the topic. Although our high school textbooks are
impressive in presentation, length, and number of topics covered, eugenics and its
influence on public policy in the United States and its relationship to Nazi Germany are
ignored and when mentioned are presented as an incidental part of U.S. history.
I first discuss how eugenics emerged from a combination of the political economy
of population growth initiated by Thomas Malthus (1798) and subsequent developments
in human biology in the second half of the nineteenth century. Next I
discuss how the United States became the center of eugenic research and policy, the
relationship between eugenics and the progressive movement, and the degree to which
eugenics in the United States influenced Germany and the Nuremburg Laws of 1935.
Then I look in particular at nine high school textbooks and other textbook materials to
determine the degree to which eugenics is covered in high school. In the concluding
section, I offer conjectures to account for the omission and the missed opportunities to
educate students resulting from the omission.
Eugenics: Economics, Biology, and the Ideology
Eugenics-inspired public policy was the outcome of combining two ideas. The first was
an economic idea about population growth offered by Thomas Malthus (1798), and the
second was a biological idea about human development and behavior offered a century
later by Francis Galton (1883), who labeled the biological idea eugenics by combining
the two Greek words eu, well, and genics, born: well born.
Malthus was not the first to discuss the conflict between the demand for resources
to support life and the supply of resources, but he formulated the conflict in such a
manner that it had the simplicity of a well-designed talking point. According to
Malthus, the capacity to reproduce exceeds the capacity to produce food because
whereas the former grows geometrically, the latter grows arithmetically; hence, the
positive checks that operate on the death rate and the preventive checks that operate on
the birth rate are constantly in play, with famine being the ultimate check on population
growth. Not only was the idea simple, but it also appeared timely.
Rapid population growth occurred in the early nineteenth century, and the Irish
famine from 1845 to 1852 seemed consistent with Malthuss political economy. The
idea became a part of the classical growth model, influenced public policy by making the
Poor Laws in England more restrictive, was used as a general argument against any
extensive safety net provided by the government, and became a theme in popular
literature. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge responds to a request for a donation to the
poor: If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population
(Dickens 1843, 11).
In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, the Malthusian predictions
were increasingly contradicted by reality. Population increased, but economic growth
and increased productivity supported the growing population with an increasing real
gross domestic product (GDP) per capita worldwide. Nonetheless, Malthus had already
opened Pandoras Box in two ways.
First, concern with population growth combined with the ideology of catastrophe
(Bruckner 2012; 2013) had a profound influence on public policy, ranging from the
welfare state and unemployment and workers compensation insurance to immigration.
The ideology of catastrophe is a type of madness of the crowds used by advocates of a
policy agenda to invoke fear of impending catastrophe unless action is taken immediately
and to silence any dissenting views. Second, the Malthusian concern with the
quantity of population relative to the resource base could easily be extended to a concern about the quality of population relative to the resource base in terms of the
efficiency and productivity of the population.
In On the Origin of the Species (1859), Charles Darwin attributed to Malthus his
theory of natural selection and evolution toward improving the quality of any species
(introduction). Herbert Spencer (1864) incorporated Darwin in his treatise on biology
and coined the phrase survival of the fittest, arguing that societies based on the
individual in the context of competitive institutions were the strongest and the fittest.
The anxiety first over the quantity of population and then over the quality of
population found scientific support in the emerging biology of the human being and
human behavior that attempted to identify inherited traits that predicted human behavior.
In England, Frances Galton (1883) applied the concept of heredity introduced
by Gregor Mendel in the 1860s to human behavior and studied whether different
characteristics of human beings and how they influenced behavior were passed on to
subsequent generations. In Galtons view, the quality of the human in terms of
contributing to society was not accidental, and because this quality was based on
heredity, human behavior could be managed and shaped into producing a better
society. Galton called this new science eugenics.
Racist views predate eugenics, of course, but eugenics provided the scientific
foundation for these racist views and rationalized them as something more than an
emotional dislike of others who differ because of color, religion, culture, country of
origin, economic standing, mental and physical disability, and so on. Eugenics essentially
elevated racism to a virtue in that breeding out the unfit was defined as an
expression of concern for improving society.
Eugenics in the United States, Progressives, and the
The United States became the worlds center for eugenics by the end of the
nineteenth century and more than any other country institutionalized scientific
racism in its treatment of blacks; immigrants from Asia, eastern Europe, and the
Mediterranean; the mentally and physically disabled; and any group deemed to have
low potential to contribute to a healthy and productive economy. Eugenics was
widely studied as settled science at Americas most prestigious educational and
research institutions; supported by the Supreme Court (Buck v. Bell 274 U.S. 200
); widely accepted by prominent politicians such as Woodrow Wilson and
prominent academics such as Irving Fisher; and ultimately responsible for the forced
sterilization of large numbers of those determined to be unfit with the first compulsory sterilization law passed in Indiana in 1907 (Lombardo 2011). Eugenics
inspired other public policies to reduce the unfit populationrestricted immigration
from countries deemed racially inferior, laws against interracial marriage, and de jure
and de facto rules to limit citizenship to individuals deemed unfit, such as blacks,
low-income individuals, and Jews.
What accounts for the widespread acceptance of eugenics in the United States?
Two considerations are importantchanging demographics and the emergence of the
First, significant demographic changes brought large numbers of people deemed
racially inferior into competition for resources. After the Civil War, there was considerable
fear, especially in the South, that newly freed blacks would integrate into the
economic, political, and social life of the nation. Increased immigration at the end of the
nineteenth and into the early twentieth century raised similar concerns. Immigrants
from Asia, eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean were generally regarded as eugenically
unfit. Both demographic events raised concern they would dilute the quality of
the population and, if left unchecked, would amount to racial suicide.
This view of impending racial catastrophe was captured in The Passing of the Great
Race (Grant 1916) and The Rising Tide of Color against the White World Supremacy (Stoddard 1921). Both books and authors played an important role in spreading the
message of eugenicsheredity determined ones ability to contribute to society, and
heredity was unchangeable by environment. Madison Grant helped establish the
American Eugenics Society (192972) to promote eugenics research and provide
education programs. Hitler regarded Grants book as the bible (Kühl 1994, 85) for
the coming eugenic cleansing of Germany, and Grant wrote the introduction to
Lothrop Stoddards book The Rising Tide of Color against the White World Supremacy.
Second, the emerging Progressive movement in the first two decades of the
twentieth century elevated eugenics as the foundation for government policy instruments
to achieve a healthier and productive society. Birth control, sterilization of
the unfit, restrictions on immigration, restrictions on interracial marriage, as well as
progressivisms willingness to ignore anti-Semitism and willingness to keep blacks
confined to second-class citizenship status were accepted policies to achieve a better
society. Equally important, eugenic-inspired policies and attitudes might not have
prevailed to the degree they did without the Progressive movements emphasis on
science, social planning, and control.
Eugenics and progressivism were made for each other. Eugenics provided the
science to categorize individuals as fit or unfit and thereby was meant to provide a
path to a healthier and more productive society. Progressives rejected the invisible hand of the market as the path to a healthy and productive society and instead embraced the
visible hand of an interventionist administrative state that based policy on science and
experts as the more sure path. Eugenics-inspired policies had to wait for the politics of
the large interventionist administrative state (Leonard 2005, 217).
Eugenics and eugenics-inspired policies were an important part of the Progressive
movement and show that progressives were not enlightened reformers who protected
the weak. In fact, they were just the opposite. Thomas C. Leonard (2003; 2005; 2016)
shows how reform-minded economists in the Progressive Era utilized eugenics to
rationalize labor and immigration policy. According to Leonard, Reform-minded
economists of the Progressive Era defended exclusionary labor and immigration legislation
on the grounds that the labor force should be rid of unfit workers, whom they
labeled parasites, the unemployable, low wage races and the industrial residuum
(2005, 2078). Minimum-wage legislation was proposed because it paid unfit individuals
more than their productivity and thus left them unemployable and less likely to
reproduce. Leonard (2016) concludes that progressives were the illiberal reformers in
the first decades of the twentieth century rather than the enlightened reformers that
modern progressives portray them to be. Americas most well-known economist up to
that time illustrates this point. Irving Fisher was an illiberal reformer who embraced
eugenics to counter race degeneration and breed out the unfit and breed in the fit
as a logical extension of his mathematical view of the world (Cox 2005). Fisher was
among the founding members of the American Eugenics Society, serving as its president
from 1922 to 1926.
The womens movement aspect of the Progressive Era likewise illustrates the same
point. A number of articles in the Birth Control Review (191740) reveal racial attitudes
common at the time. The Birth Control Review was the journal of the American
Birth Control League, founded by Margaret Sanger in 1921 and renamed Planned
Parenthood in 1942. Sanger was an advocate of the Malthusian view and eugenics who
viewed these perspectives as a foundation to establishing a nation of thoroughbreds (Lamb 2015). Attempts (e.g., Kelly 2015) to separate Sanger from the scientific racism
of eugenics are not convincing (as argued, e.g., in Mosher 1997; Black 2003, chap. 7;
and Schweikart and Allen 2014, 551). Sanger, the Birth Control Review, and the
American Birth Control League on the surface appeared focused primarily on birth
control but in reality were closely aligned with the broader eugenics movement. Birth
control was viewed as only one of many methods society could utilize to reduce the unfit
proportion of the population.
Two Birth Control Review articles illustrate Sangers broad eugenics perspective
and the AmericanGerman eugenics interaction by the early 1930s.
Sangers article A Plan for Peace (1932) proposed a broad plan to reduce the
number of the unfit population. She advised the nation to keep the doors of immigration
closed to the entrance of certain aliens whose condition is known to be
detrimental to the stamina of the race; apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization
and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted, or whose
inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring; give
certain dysgenic groups in our population their choice of segregation or sterilization;
take an inventory . . . [of ] illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes,
dope-fiends, classify them in special departments under government medical protection,
and segregate them on farms and open spaces as long as necessary for the
strengthening and development of moral conduct (1078).
Ernst Rüdins article Eugenic Sterilization: An Urgent Need (1933), originally
published in Germany, focused on the voluntary sterilization of mental defectives and
recommended a program of propaganda for the general acceptance of sterilization.
Rüdinemphasized that the propaganda should be gradual and first directed to
medical providers. Individual objections to sterilization need really not be feared where
careful explanations and advise are given, consent would, however, be obtained more
generally if the operation were offered free of cost to those in poor circumstances
(103). Despite the articles focus on voluntary sterilization, Rüdin argued that ultimately
there is absolutely no question of using compulsion (103). He was expressing
views that had already been stated many times in the Birth Control Review. The April
1933 issue also included a short summary of developments in Germany regarding
sterilization (Hodson 1933, 106).
Rüdin was unlike any other contributor to the Birth Control Review in that he
was an internationally recognized German eugenics researcher as well as a strong
supporter of Hitler and his policies. He became an official part of the Nazi governments
effort in 1933 for improvement of the race of the German people (Kühl
1994, 94), helped form the Nazi governments forced-sterilization program, and
supported the euthanasia program in the 1940s, which was directed at the killing of
children and mental patients (Joseph and Wetzel 2013). In 1905, Rüdin and others
had established the Racial Hygiene Society in Germany. In 1933, the society came
under control of the Reich Ministry of the Interior, at which point Minister Wilhelm Frick appointed Rüdin president of the society to work directly with the ministry
(Kühl 1994, 94).
Rüdins article in Birth Control Review in 1933 and his interest in German
sterilization developments represent only one of many examples of the American
German interaction on eugenics. Kühl (1994) argues that historians writing in the
1960s and 1970s and the American Eugenics Society attempted to revise the history
of eugenics during the Progressive Era by claiming American eugenics was different
from the crude and extreme eugenics of Germany. The evidence suggests otherwise.
The eugenics in the United States and the eugenics in Germany in the 1930s is a
distinction without much of a difference. America as a nation needs to accept the
historical fact that American eugenicists contributed to Germanys effort to create a
society of only fit individuals in what ultimately led down the road to Auschwitz.
American eugenics and progressives such as Sanger contributed to building that road
even if they ultimately came to reject the logical extension of eugenics in the Third
Whitman (2017) builds on Kühls work and focuses on how eugenics and
eugenics-inspired policy in the United States influenced the Nuremburg Laws of 1935:
the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law on the Protection of German Blood and
German Honor. Whitman takes to task those who deny or minimize such a relationship
by claiming that American eugenics policy was not directed toward Jews and that the
Nuremburg Laws said nothing about segregation. Whitman dismisses both arguments
and emphasizes that the common dominator between America and Germany was the
pursuit of a racially purer and healthier society based on the science of eugenics via
the administrative state. Law was important in the Third Reich even if the objective was
the elimination of entire groups of people. Germany wanted to achieve this objective
legally and in this regard turned its attention to Americas laws on immigration and
mixed marriages as well as to the de jure and de facto U.S. policies that denied blacks
and other racially impure groups full citizenship.
Whitmans research and other research (e.g., Leonard 2009) indicate that the
scientific racism embedded in eugenics and the progressives willingness to embrace
eugenics and eugenics-inspired policy reveal the dark side of progressivism. Whitman
ends his book with the following comment: All of these works paint a darker picture of
early twentieth-century American intellectual and political life than we might wish. So
does this book (2017, 200).
These are uncomfortable historical facts for the Progressive movement in general and
suggest a lack of intellectual balance in, first, how progressives portray their own history;
second, how they ignore failures of the administrative state; and third, how they portray
nineteenth-century classical liberalism or what is called today the conservative perspective.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that eugenics was an important part of the
Progressive movement, progressives continue to ignore their dark history, continue to
portray themselves as reformers concerned with the nations general welfare, and
continue to claim that their policies based on the administrative state and supported by
experts have enhanced and will continue to enhance the nations general welfare.
Not only are progressives unwilling to confront their own history, but they are also
unwilling to recognize the inherent flaw of the administrative interventionist state
supported by experts. Progressives offer the administrative state as the solution to
economic and social problems but show a remarkable unwillingness to consider the
downside of the administrative state revealed by history. This is clearly the case with
regard to the Great Depression and the Great Recession, wherein government policy
failure played a major role in the economic and financial distress. Eugenics is an even
clearer example of government failure. An inherent flaw with the progressive view of the
administrative state is the reliance on experts and state power to force individuals to do
the right thing as determined by the experts. This approach is prone to the same
fascism espoused by Hitler and Benito Mussolini (Schapiro 1945). A balanced discussion
of progressivism involves considering both the benefits and the costs of the
Not only are progressives unwilling to confront their own past or recognize inherent
flaws revealed by history in their advocacy of the administrative state, but they also ironically
dismiss conservatives as fascists,Nazis, and racists who are insensitive to the weak. In reality,
these characterizations applied to progressives and the Progressive movement in the first
part of the twentieth century. The progressives in fact were illiberal reformers who
imposed significant harm on the weak in American society and were willing to exclude large
numbers of people from society because so-called experts determined them to be unfit. In
contrast to the progressive view, nineteenth-century liberalism offered an enlightened
perspective that recognized differences in individuals but had no problem permitting all to
compete and take advantage of their comparative advantage in the market placeclassical
liberalism was inherently nondiscriminatory regarding race, religion, gender, and even
sexual orientation in its openness to competition.
In sum, all Americans should face the facts that America was the epicenter of eugenics
study; eugenics was an important part of the Progressive movement; and Germany looked
to American eugenics as amodel for race-based law.Given this reality, it is worthwhile to see
how eugenics is presented to high school students in the United States.
Eugenics and High School History Textbooks
To determine to what degree eugenics is presented to high school students, I examined
nine high school textbooks used in U.S. history courses. Each of these textbooks is
about eight hundred to one thousand pages long, written by an individual or individuals
with advanced degrees who claim to provide a comprehensive overview of U.S. history
and policy, and published by a leading textbook publisher. According to the American
Textbook Council (2018), Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin are the three
major K12 textbook publishers. Eight of the nine textbooks are associated with these
The nine books are:
Thomas A. Bailey, David M. Kennedy, and Lizabeth Cohen, The American
Pageant (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998).
Henry W. Bragdon, Samuel P. McCutchen, andDonald A. Ritchie, History of a
Free Nation, Teachers Wraparound and Multimedia Edition (New York:
Glencoe and McGraw-Hill, 1998).
John Mack Faragher, Mari Jo Buhle, Daniel Czitrom, and Susan H. Armitage,
Out of Many: A History of the American People, Advanced Placement Edition
(New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002).
Gary B. Nash, American Odyssey, Teacher Wraparound Edition (New York:
McGraw Hill/Glencoe, 2004).
Andrew Cayton, Elisabeth Israels Perry, Linda Reed, and Allan M. Winkler,
America: Pathways to the Present (Needham, Mass.: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005).
Joyce Appleby, Alan Brinkley, Albert S. Broussard, James M. McPherson, and
Donald A. Ritchie, The America Vision, Modern Times, Teacher Wraparound
Edition (New York: McGraw Hill and Glencoe, 2006).
Edward L. Ayers, Robert D. Schulzinger, Jesus F. de la Teja, and Deborah
Gray White, American Anthem, California Edition (Orlando, Fla.: Holt,
Rinehart and Winston, 2007).
Alan Brinkley, American History (New York: McGraw Hill, 2007).
Gerald A. Danzer, Jorge Klor de Alva, Larry S. Kreiger, Louis E. Wilson, and
Nancy Woloch, The Americans (Boston: McDougal Littell and Houghton
Three considerations suggest these nine books are a meaningful representative
sample of high school history textbooks that provides insight into the degree U.S.
students are exposed to scientific racism.
First, there is a difference between high-school-level and college-level textbooks in
terms of the level of their exposure to individuals. Virtually every individual in the
United States is required to complete a course in U.S. history in high school. High
school is the basic educational foundation for the U.S. population, whereas college
Second, the nine textbooks are written by historians with advanced degrees and in
some cases extensive publication records and by any reasonable standard reflect topics
covered in history courses at the high school level. The textbooks range in publication
dates from 1998 to 2007, and even though published more than a decade ago, they still
offer a perspective of the degree to which the history of eugenics in the United States is
presented to high school students. Textbooks are expensive to publish, and once the
textbook outline in the first edition has been established, it becomes somewhat invariant
with respect to time; hence, revisions do not occur frequently, and when they do, they
are more likely to include new topics rather than revised material up to the time of the
revision. In addition, the American Textbook Council (2018) points out that the
three major publishers of high school textbooks since 2010 are repackaging earlier
textbooks, their emphasis shifting toward more low-content teaching materials emphasizing
Third, the nine books are published by the textbook publishers that dominate the
high school textbook market in social sciences in the United States. They share a
common presentation format; are expensive because of color, visual presentation,
and editorial layout; and claim to present a balanced and comprehensive perspective of
I determined the degree to which each of these textbooks devotes attention to
eugenics based on two criteria: whether certain headings are included in the index
(eugenics, Margaret Sanger, Progressive movement, sterilization, and Buck v. Bell) and
the narrative about each of these topics in the textbook.
Sterilization and Buck v. Bell are especially important because they are interrelated,
were part of the legal model for German race law, and represent the worst public policies
to emerge from eugenics. Sterilization was a logical policy outcome of eugenics. An
estimated 60,000 to 70,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the United States. Paul
Lombardos Sterilization Legislation Chart, 2017 (2017) indicates that at least
65,370 individuals were forcibly sterilized across thirty-two states from 1907 to 1937.
The actual number is likely higher considering that the distinction between forced and
voluntary sterilization is a distinction without much of a difference. Buck v. Bell (an eight
to one decision written by Justice Oliver Wendell Homes) provided the legal authority for forced sterilization and by any reasonable standard is one of the two worst decisions
ever made by the Supreme Court (the other being the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision
[60 U.S. 393 (1857)]; see Sullivan 2015). The Nazi defense at the Nuremberg trials
cited Buck v. Bell as justification for Germanys sterilization program administered by
One caveat should be noted. Even if a reviewed textbook does not include an
index heading to eugenics or sterilization, I found a few cases in which the terms are
mentioned in the books narrative. They are the exception, however. If a specific
heading is not included in the index, that is because the authors or the publishers
apparently did not regard the topic as relatively important.
Eugenics is referenced in four of the nine textbooks. Out of Many, American
Odyssey, The American Vision, and American History devote a paragraph or so to
eugenics and most often mention it in the context of immigration policy. None of the
reviewed textbooks includes a broad-based discussion of eugenics in the United States.
Margaret Sanger is referenced in six of the nine books and presented as a progressive
reformer and advocate of womens reproductive rights. None of the six
textbooks mentions, however, that she was a leading advocate of eugenics or of the
racist perspective frequently found in the Birth Control Review.
All but one of the nine textbooks include a relatively long discussion of the
Progressive movement. All emphasize the positive contributions made by the
Progressive movement; however, a number of textbooks mention its racist attitudes
but with the caveat that America was racist in general at the time and that the racism
of eugenics did not apply to all progressives. For example, History of a Free Nation states, Like most white Americans at that time, most progressives believed that
nonwhite races were inferior (642); Out of Many states only that the more extreme
[progressives] . . . embraced the new pseudo-science of eugenics (620);
American Odyssey states, Few white progressives thought to challenge the racism
rampant in American society because they themselves had deeply negative attitudes
toward all minority groups (281); and American History briefly discusses eugenics,
sterilization, and immigration restrictions but indicates that these policies had the
support of [only] some of the nations leading progressives (586, emphasis added).
None of the nine books contains an index heading to sterilization despite the fact
that thirty-two states had sterilization laws and that sterilization continued well into the
twentieth century. American Odyssey mentions forced sterilization as part of the discussion
on eugenics but alleges that some people advocated a eugenics movement, an
effort to improve the human race by controlling breeding. The eugenics movement
successfully convinced some state legislatures to allow forced sterilization of criminals and individuals who were diagnosed as having severe mental disabilities (284, emphasis
In sum, even though several textbooks include a passing reference to eugenics and
sterilization, they do not identify eugenics as a major part of progressivism or the active
support of many progressives for the policies advocated by Sangers Plan for Peace.
None of the nine books indexes Buck v. Bell, whereas eight of the nine textbooks
index Dred Scott v. Sandford, and one textbook mentions the case in the narrative. This
distinction is remarkable, especially because these textbooks place much emphasis on
racism and discrimination in the United States.
The AmericanGerman eugenics relationship is not an index heading, and I found
no acknowledgment of this interrelationship in the textbooks. A number of the books
mention the Holocaust as part of World War II and the Nuremburg Laws, but these
references provide no mention of the connection between American eugenics and
German eugenics or of the influence that American eugenics and race law had on
German race law.
Overall, a high school student reading any of these nine widely used textbooks
would be unaware of the following facts: scientific racism was a prominent feature of
U.S. history from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s; eugenics was a
prominent feature of the Progressive movement; Margaret Sanger played an important
role in popularizing and rationalizing eugenics and eugenics-inspired policies; forced
sterilization was practiced in a majority of states and supported by the U.S. Supreme
Court; and American eugenicists contributed in a meaningful manner to the road Nazi
Germany took that ended in Auschwitz. The brief mentions of eugenics and sterilization
in a few books are the exception, but even in these cases any student would come
away with no meaningful knowledge of the importance of eugenics in U.S. history and
government policy. It is possible that some newer textbooks have corrected this
problem, but this is unlikely. Unfortunately, I do not have complete access to them, but
a review of six recent textbooks available on Amazon provides no evidence to change
I am surprised and saddened by these findings. A number of the textbooks at least
mention the racism of the Progressive movement but attribute that racism to the
general racism in the United States of the period, and although a few textbooks mention
eugenics and sterilization, they appear to limit its influence to only some progressives. Despite these exceptions, the evidence suggests these widely used textbooks fail to
convey the significant role of eugenics in U.S. history and the Progressive movement.
Eugenics has not been entirely ignored in the educational institutions; for example,
the nonprofit organization Facing History and Ourselves distributes teaching
materials to assist teachers. Compared to the textbooks I examined, the organizations
lesson plans on eugenics are comprehensive in terms of the historical aspects
of eugenics, and the references to eugenics, the Progressive movement, Buck v. Bell,
sterilization, and the AmericanGerman eugenics relationship are impressive. The
Facing History and Ourselves materials on eugenics are a step in the right direction;
however, they are presented as a collection of topics, each with a short discussion and
not well interrelated with other topics. As a result, they cannot serve as a substitute for
an overall perspective of eugenics. They do not provide a perspective on the role of
eugenics in the Progressive movement, how abortion emerged from the Birth Control
League, the eugenic racist views of the Birth Control Review, and Americas significant
role in providing a model for Nazi race law. In addition, the usefulness of the topics for
the classroom depends on high school teachers ability and willingness to incorporate
the topics in the classroom. Judged by the nine textbooks and the dominance of
progressives in U.S. educational institutions, it is difficult to be optimistic.
Accounting for the Failure to Confront History and
Opportunities Thus Lost
Why is eugenics not a significant part of U.S. history, as revealed by these prominent
high school textbooks? The following six conjectures are offered to account for the
First, the authors are unaware of eugenics. This conjecture is included here only to
cover all possibilities but by any standard is difficult to accept. The authors are educated
historians who by any reasonable standard possess a detailed knowledge of the historical
events in the United States and world over the past several hundred years. It is difficult
to accept that they are unaware of the general outlines of the history of eugenics; in fact,
in several cases the textbooks acknowledge the existence of eugenics, scientific racism,
and sterilization, but their authors chose to devote only passing attention to these
subjects and thus to minimize their importance.
Second, the authors are aware of eugenics but regard it as a relatively unimportant
topic relative to other topics. The authors might argue they have only so much space in a
textbook and need to prioritize what is treated in detail, treated in passing, or not
included. This reasoning is again difficult to accept. Each of the reviewed textbooks is
lengthy, some more than one thousand pages long, suggesting that there is room to
devote at least a few pages to eugenics. It is hard to accept that a historian regards as relatively unimportant the sterilization of tens of thousands of people in the United
States under mandatory laws in force in the majority of states; widespread calls for
eliminating the unfit via force of one kind or another; calls for what amounts to at best
benign concentration camps; the relationship between eugenics and progressivism; or
the relationship between the United States and Germany significantly with respect to
eugenics. It is especially difficult to accept considering how much attention public
education devotes to discrimination and slavery. It is remarkable that none of the
textbooks includes Buck v. Bell in its index, whereas all but one of them include Dred
Scott. There is obvious common ground between racism against blacks in the United
States and the scientific racism of eugenics, much of which was directed toward
blacks. If discrimination and slavery are deemed important on the stage of U.S. history,
then eugenics also deserves some space in the spotlight.
Third, the authors are aware of the history and aware of its importance, but
eugenics is like the crazy uncle in the progressive family. They are aware of the crazy
uncle but uncomfortable discussing the subject in the open. Giving only passing
references or no reference to the crazy uncle is more convenient than revealing the
inconvenient truth of eugenics in the United States. A variant of this third conjecture
is that these textbook authors believe that the Progressive movements overall
contributions to America more than offset the crazy uncles racism and that drawing
attention to the crazy uncle distracts students from these positive contributions.
Marshall Steinbaum and Bernard Wiesenbergers (2017) clearly offer this perspective
in their critical review of Leonards book on eugenics, Illiberal Reformers (2016)
(see note 5).
Fourth, Paul Lombardo in private correspondence made the point that state and
local school boards play a major role in selecting textbooks and perhaps would rather
not discuss the inconvenient truth that their state may have been one of the thirty-two
that passed sterilization laws from 1907 to 1937. California led the country in the
sterilization program and now accounts for the largest market for high school history
textbooks. Textbooks are sensitive to the political environment, so authors are risk
averse regarding the inclusion of any material that selection committees might find
objectionable. In this regard, Lombardos (2017) sterilization legislation chart reveals
an important element of the eugenics movement. Republican governors and Republican
legislators appear to have represented a higher proportion of supporters than
Democrats; however, many Republicans, then as now, are progressives in their reliance
on experts and support of a large and interventionist administrative state.
Fifth, progressives dominate U.S. education from the lowest to the highest levels.
The common element among progressives, including many Republicans, is the faith in
an administrative state supported by experts to guide society to a high level of performance
and social justice. Eugenics is the inconvenient truth of the downside of the
progressive view and the dangers of permitting so much power in the hands of so few. In
this environment, bad ideas can easily become public policy. As such, there is a bias
against a balanced presentation of the progressive perspective, especially when a balanced presentation would weaken the case for the progressives reliance on the
administrative state and reveal the darker side of progressivism.
Sixth, eugenics, scientific racism, sterilization, and the American Birth Control
League (now Planned Parenthood) are closely related. The Birth Control Review contains outright racist articles, including a contribution from Ernst Rüdin, who played
a major role in Hitlers sterilization program. The claim that Margaret Sanger was a
racist is difficult to reject. Planned Parenthood and abortion are now important progressive
institutions and agendas, respectively. Defenders of abortion have attempted to
repackage Sanger and claim there is no link between abortion and the eugenics of the
This perspective is astonishing considering the general objective and history of
eugenics. Eugenics has always been about influencing the composition of the population
to increase the fit/unfit population ratio. Eugenic policies were designed to
isolate the unfit (Sangers farms); to impose rules to limit the unfit populations full
citizenship status; to limit the unfit population through immigration rules; and to lower
the birth rate of the unfit through sterilization and birth control. Abortion was not a
main feature of the preWorld War II Progressive movement for a variety of reasons. It
was an even less important feature of Nazi eugenics (David, Fleischhacker, and H¨uhn
1988). At the same time, however, to claim abortion is not capable of achieving eugenics
objectives lacks logic, and the willingness to claim that the abortion movement
and Planned Parenthood were independent of eugenics and the birth-control movement
is remarkable given the existing documented history. Medical technology,
medications, Planned Parenthood, social acceptance of abortion by a large percentage
of the population and the Supreme Court have elevated abortion as an effective instrument
of population control with a eugenic perspective to increase the fit/unfit
population ratio. In sum, abortion is closely linked to the objectives of the eugenics
movement. The fact that blacks are far more likely as a percent of their population base
to have an abortion (e.g., Riley, 2018) makes it difficult to reject the hypothesis that
abortion and eugenics are closely linked in terms of purpose. Advances in genetics
increase the probability that abortion will increasingly be used to reduce the unfit
population defined by the woman and her medical provider but influenced by the
administrative state through subsidization, information campaigns, and genetic
counseling. In this regard, it is worth reading Rüdins article published in the Birth
Control Review in 1933.
Justice Clarence Thomass recent concurring opinion (Thomas 2019) in two
Indiana abortion laws recognizes the link and illustrates the sensitivity to any attempt to
point out the obvious facts that abortion can be a policy instrument to increase the fit/
unfit population ratio and that abortion law emerged from the eugenics-inspired birthcontrol
movement. The hostile reaction to the obvious (e.g., Cohen 2019; Rosenberg
2019) is remarkable in the context of a balanced reading of Justice Thomass opinion.
The critics protest too much and in my opinion fail to consider Thomass opinion in
the broad context of the history of eugenics and the objectives of eugenics. A careful reading of the opinion in the context of the history of eugenics suggests that the critics
are misreading Thomas rather than that Thomas is misreading history, as these critics
Justice Thomass opinion is worthy for three reasons: (1) It presents an important
history lesson the country needs in the current debate over abortion and is evidence that
eugenics and eugenic-inspired policies are again becoming accepted (Wertz 1998;
Zigerell forthcoming). (2) It makes the historically correct observation that abortion
law grew out of the eugenics movement and does have the potential to be a policy
instrument for a eugenics agenda. (3) It is a long overdue effort by a justice of the
Supreme Court to mitigate the shame of Buck v. Bell. Not only has Buck v. Bell never
been overturned, but the case, along with another decision, is cited in Roe v. Wade (410
U.S. 113 , at 154) to support the Courts opinion that the right to privacy is not
absolute. The Roe v. Wade opinions willingness to cite this shameful decision shows the
Supreme Courts lack of sensitivity to the great harm eugenics imposed on society by
Buck v. Bell both in the United States and Germany.
Of the six conjectures, the first and second are not credible. The next four are
important and offer insight into why eugenics is not a part of the U.S. history presented
to high school students. The United States has been steadily moving toward an administrative
state structure in which unelected experts play a major role in initiating and
implementing public policy. This outcome is not one propelled just by Democrats
because there are many Republican progressives who support an administrative state
and accept the importance of experts in designing policy. As such, the political correctness
so in favor in the United States at this time is not open to a dark history so
directly tied to the Progressive movement and so clearly illustrating the adverse impact
the administrative state can have on those without political and economic power.
Irrespective of the explanation for omitting eugenics, the omission rules out
opportunities to produce an informed public.
First and most obvious, students end up with an incomplete and misleading view
of U.S. history, which in turn denies them a foundation to participate in the democratic
process. The road from Malthus to Auschwitz had many architects, and unfortunately
the United States was a major one. This inconvenient truth is denied to high school
Second, a study of eugenics in U.S. history would provide an opportunity to
illustrate to students the danger of relying on the impending crisis, the ideology of
catastrophe, and the settled science arguments for any agenda. These commonly
utilized political arguments increase the probability that disastrous ideas become policy,
especially in the context of a large and interventionist administrative state. If textbooks
can find space to show how Dred Scott was bad policy that hastened the coming of the
Civil War, how can anyone rationalize the omission of Buck v. Bell in those same
Third, the history of eugenics in the United States provides perspective on the
current debate between socialism and capitalismthat is, the debate whether the collective or the individualistic approach to managing the country is best. It clearly
demonstrates the downside of the collectivist approach and of relying on experts, which
is the foundation of the various forms of socialism. U.S. history textbooks have no
difficulty pointing out the problems of the individualist approach with the many examples
of greed in the market system but are reluctant to reveal government policy
failures such as eugenics. Students need to understand that government policy failure
has been at least as much a part of U.S. history as market failure has. Failure to address
the costs of the administrative state amounts to nothing less than intellectual dishonesty.
Fourth and last, inclusion of eugenics in school textbooks would provide an
important lesson to students on the power of an idea to influence human history, a
lesson so eloquently made by John Maynard Keynes in the last paragraph of The
General Theory: [T]he ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they
are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood.
Indeed the world is ruled by little else. . . . I am sure that the power of vested interests is
vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed,
immediately. . . . [B]ut, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous
for good or evil (1936, chap. 24).
Eugenics, eugenics-inspired policies such as sterilization, and scientific racism
are bad ideas that in the context of the administrative state brought great harm to large
numbers of human beings in the United States, Germany, and elsewhere. Ironically,
Keynes was a strong advocate of eugenics and the administrative state.
In closing, the question needs to be asked whether any effort will be made to correct
the lack of attention and misrepresentation of scientific racism in the United States, as
appears to be the case in high school history. It is easy to be pessimistic, especially given the
reaction to Justice Thomass opinion and the influence that progressives and teacher
unions have over U.S. educational institutions. At the same time, increasing attention is
being directed to the history of eugenics, to the close association between eugenics and the
progressive movement and to the influence the U.S. eugenics movement had on Nazi
Germany. The potential exists for this information to influence public-school teachers who
are motivated to present a realistic view of U.S. history, and, even more important, if the
movement toward charter schools and vouchers continues, the environment for a balanced
presentation of U.S. history would be enhanced. This paper is offered in that hope.
 Bradford DeLong (1998) presents estimates of world GDP from one million B.C. to 1998. Despite
Malthuss warning, world per capita GDP grew after the start of industrialization and has continued to
 There is no difference between the enthusiasm for eugenics and the current enthusiasm for climate
change in regard to the ideology of catastropheboth illustrate how advocates utilize impending catastrophe
to advance their agenda and silence dissenting views as deniers of settled science.
 Many progressives claim Spencer as the source of the social Darwinism feature of classical and
nineteenth-century liberal economics; however, this is incorrect and is a myth used by progressives to
misrepresent classical economics. The term, in fact, was introduced by Richard Hofstadter ( 1955) as
a criticism of classical economics and was not part of classical thought (Leonard 2009).
 Historians date the 1920s as the end of the Progressive movement, but in terms of the essence of
progressivism the movement continued with the New Deal interventionist policies of the Roosevelt administration
in the 1930s and with the slow but steady move toward the administrative state in the postwar
period. In fact, the label progressive is increasingly used to describe the liberal perspective.
 Marshall Steinbaum and Bernard Weisberger (2017) provide a critical review of Leonards Illiberal
Reformers, relegating it to motivated history that reveals nothing new, fails to appreciate the intellectual
evolution of the Progressive movement and the context from which it emerged, and fails to appreciate the
Progressive movements intellectual contribution to elevate the role of the administrative state supported by
expert economists to improve the general welfare. In sharp contrast, Phillip Magness (2017) reviewed
Steinbaum and Weisbergers review essay and found that it fell short of reasonable scholarly standards,
failed to confront Leonards evidence, and failed to address Leonards main point about the administrative
state; in sum, he says, the review essay amounts to mainly an endorsement of the Progressive movements
contribution to general welfare.
Steinbaum and Weisbergers review essay does in fact fall short of reasonable scholarly standards, and its
main contribution is to serve as an illustration of progressives insensitivity to the collateral damage inflicted
by an interventionist administrative state on those without economic and political power.
Bradley Batemans review of Illiberal Reformers criticized Leonard for not devoting attention to
economists who were not eugenicists, but it nonetheless found Leonards contribution important.
According to Bateman, The story of progressivism will never be told exactly the same way again. . . . There
is a dark side to progressive thinking that must be fully acknowledged and reckoned with (2017, 718).
 Issues of the Birth Control Review can be found online here.
 The Wannsee Protocol (1942) emphasized the complete elimination of Jews from German living space
in a legal manner. The dramatization of the Wannsee Conference in the 2001 movie Conspiracy emphasizes
the Germans desire to base the Holocaust on a legal foundation.
 Progressives continue to present the Great Depression as an example of market failure mitigated by the
administrative state, when in fact research suggests that government policy failures played a major role in
causing and prolonging the Great Depression (e.g., Miller and Rose 1983; Cargill and Mayer 1998, 2006;
Bernanke 2002; Cargill 2011). The same argument can be made for the progressive view of the Great
 Critics dismiss classical economics as the dismal science and an attack on the weak; however, this phrase
and its implication are misrepresentations of the intellectual content of classical economics (as clarified, e.g.,
in Persky 1990 and Levy 2001; 2005).
 The nine books were provided to me by Jennifer Jurosky, a social science teacher at North Tahoe High
School, Tahoe City, California, in connection to a project on teaching economics in Washoe County High
Schools (Cargill, Jurosky, and Wendel 2008).
 Adam Shoda, a faculty member at Galena High School in Reno, Nevada, informed me that the 2007
edition of The Americans (number 9) is still used for history classes.
 I also reviewed Larry Schweikart and Michael Allens book A Patriots History of the United States (2014) for this paper but did not include in the sample of textbooks because it would likely not appeal to
high school selection committees because of its emphasis on the exceptionalism of the United States.
 Schweikart and Allen conclude that Sanger revealed herself as a full-fledged racist and reference the
proeugenics articles published in the Birth Control Review (2014, 551). Despite these references, even
they do not present a broad discussion of eugenics.
 One reader of an earlier version of this paper suggested using Amazons Look Inside feature to see
whether other history textbooks reference eugenics. Taking up this suggestion, I looked inside five U.S.
history books written by Howard Zinn ( 2003), Steve Wiegand (2014), Lily Rothman (2016),
George Lee (2017), and Sterling Education (2019) and used Google Books search feature to look inside
a book by Wilfred McClay (2019). Five of the six textbooks are recent publications. Eugenics is not
mentioned in five of the six books and only once in McClay. Even there it is not discussed but only
mentioned in passing as part of a quote from a textbook used by the biology teacher John Scopes in State of
Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (1925). Sterilization and Buck v. Bell are not mentioned in any of the six
books. These results are consistent with the review of the nine textbooks; however, the results are limited
because they depend on the search engines and because some of the books are not designed specifically for
high school history.
Spencer, Herbert. 1864. Principles of Biology. London: Williams and Norgate.
Steinbaum, Marshall I., and Bernard A. Weisberger. 2017. The Intellectual Legacy of Progressive
Economics: A Review Essay of Thomas C. Leonards Illiberal Reformers. Journal of Economic
Literature 55, no. 3: 106483.
Sterling Education. 2019. Everything You Always Wanted to Know about American History.
Boston: Sterling Test Prep.
Thomas F. Cargill is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is the author of the article Eugenics in High School History: Failure to Confront the Past in the Summer 2020 issue of The Independent Review