The menace of feeble mindedness is the idea that human evolution is in danger of stupid, degenerate, or other negative intellectual considerations of people breeding. When I think of intelligence in terms of eugenics, I am reminded of the movie “Idiocracy.” The film begins by pointing out a trend: educated couples have a significant less amount of kids than unintelligent. The visual comparison is an upper-middle class couple in a clean, and decorated home versus a lower class, “white-trashy” couple who live ignorant of their squalor. The big issue in the movie is that everyone on Earth is too dumb to figure out basic survival needs. For example, the population only drinks soda and energy beverages, and doesn’t understand why the plants keep dying when they water them with their favorite drinks. The smartest man in the world, an average guy from our present time solves the global issue by watering the plant with water. I’m not suggesting the movie is advocating eugenics, but it sure does share some of fears associated with eugenicists. There was a time in this country when a film like “Idiocracy” might be considered more horrifying than humorous.
In an article in the Journal for Social History by Patrick J. Ryan, “Unnatural Selection: Intelligence Testing, Eugenics, and American Political Cultures,”* Ryan takes a look at American eugenicist, Henry H. Goddard, and how his intelligence tests and eugenic theory effected public policy in Ohio. While Goddard later recounted his theories and declared the menace of feeble mindedness to be a myth, his intelligence testing still effected our society. For example, Goddard helped write the special education bill that required schools to provide educational programs for “deaf, blind, and mentally retarded individuals.” The only difference between Goddard’s change in perspective really was that rather than keeping the intellectually challenged individuals from keeping back the “normal” kids the intellectually challenged kids would be separated for special attention so that they could learn to “keep up.”
Goddard was the man behind the intelligence tests for immigrants that determined 80% of imigrants were feeble-minded. Though Goddard did not believe in sterilization as being a solution in terms of public acceptance, Goddard proposed segregation, colonies where people with “normal” intelligence would not have to be exposed to feeble-minded individuals. He measured intelligence by IQ, using terms such as moron, idiot, and imbecile for lower scores. While today, IQ is not considered an accurate measurement of intelligence, Goddard based his theories in genetics. His most well-known work is a book called, The Kallikak Family. The book is an intelligence study on families that are distantly related. Goddard traced all the families back to one relative, and determined that the feeble-mindedness in the studies families is hereditary. Therefore, Goddard’s work with immigrants and juveniles that suggested incarcerating them for their feeble-mindedness seemed like it was based on science.
Goddard’s work evolved into the formation of special education. It begs the question whether special education comes from eugenic principles. While special education is not comparatively equivalent to the segregated communities that Goddard suggested if sterilization didn’t fly, the idea of segregation is carried over. Now, obviously intelligence is subjective. There is a necessary sensitivity in determining under which circumstances an individual would be required to attend special education or denied. I remember that many of my friends were part of different special education classes or programs. Some had no choice. Some had to fight to get into the program. Some of them loved it. Some of them hated it. I had one friend who didn’t need the classes that had teacher assisted test taking and no time limits. She just didn’t like Spanish class. Her learning disability not only allowed her to never take the tests alone, but also allowed her to take work home where she could use the internet and friends to finish it for her. I’m not saying that there is a fool-proof system for dealing with learning disabilities or other things than can inhibit a person’s education. But I do think that as a society we have evolved to a point where it is possible to turn a handicap into a shortcut, where it doesn’t hurt to be a little bit less than perfect.
*Article can be found in the Pratt Library's Social Science Database