American Progressives today like to talk about their Green New Deal, free higher education for all and slavery reparations. But recently the eminent economist Dr. Thomas Cargill addressed Reno’s Hayek Group about Progressives’ original cause: eugenics.
Eugenics is a dark and troubling part of US history – one not accurately reflected in standard accounts and teaching today of that history. The “scientific” racism of eugenics ideology flowered in the second half of the 19th Century through the 1930s.
It classified persons as “fit” or “unfit” based on traits assumed to be hereditary, including race and ethnicity, mental and physical characteristics, and country of origin. Because “fitness” was assumed to be genetic, it was hereditary and thus immutable: not subject to alteration via environment, nurture or other conditioning methods.
Eugenics gained wide acceptance, even being reflected in decisions of the Supreme Court of The United States. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” said Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the case of Buck v. Bell, a 1927 decision upholding a Virginia law that authorized the state to surgically sterilize certain “mental defectives” without their consent.
Eugenics doctrine had a broad reach from justifying slavery to the alleged superiority of Nordic peoples (“Aryans”) to other races. It was fostered in the US by the mushrooming of the administrative state during the progressive period, and it also provided some ostensible intellectual foundation for that mushrooming.
German Nazism also drew greatly on the developing American eugenics tradition. As much as anything, the fall of the Third Reich undid eugenics.
After the Civil War, it was used first to justify low military compensation for blacks and then to support barriers to non-Nordic immigration. Implementation of eugenics was helped by the rise of progressivism’s administrative and interventionist government over-riding the outcomes of free markets. By 1905, 32 states had sterilization laws fostered by eugenics, and thousands of people were sterilized.
One scholar recently noted, “Eugenics and progressivism were made for each other.” The doctrine was an excuse for the exercise of extreme coercive collectivism, the fundamental means employed by progressivism.
Minimum wage legislation was also originally related to eugenics, as it proposed to let the market pay low or no wages to the unfit persons (mainly races) so they would over time die off. Even the famous Yale economist Irving Fischer bought into such dogma.
Perhaps the most (in)famous proponent and activist in favor of eugenics and its abuses of human beings was Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, who was an outright racist. Her 1933 article in the journal Birth Control Review was also a strong argument against immigration to America. And sterilization of the mentally ill was a popular birth control idea from the start.
The notable surprise beyond the flourishing of eugenics in America is that it has been almost completely omitted from modern history and government texts. Since almost all high school students must take a US history course, this omission has given them a completely false account of very important US history, politics and government. Eugenics and its disastrous history as a key part of progressivism are at best mentioned in passing, and mostly minimized and treated as not a significant part of our history.
Why? The writers of the books don’t themselves seem to know much about this central subject. Some authors are aware, but seem to consider it unimportant; eugenics is viewed by many progressives as the crazy uncle in the family. Also, eugenics’ relationship to abortion makes it a taboo subject for many advocates of that practice. And almost all these writers are progressives with a bias in support of the over-reaching administrative state, and discussing eugenics undermines that key advocacy.
What do students lose due to these biases and omissions? First, balanced and reasonably complete perspective on US history, politics and government and the roles of various factions then and now. Second, a necessary skepticism of the ideology of catastrophe supported allegedly by science. (See also climate change deniers.) Third, the perils of small groups, especially of self-selected elitists, controlling social power; this often leads to bad decisions and social disasters. (See also China’s one-child policy.) Finally, a profound understanding of the power of even a bad idea.
Recently, the outstanding economist Richard Vedder penned a column in the Wall Street Journal on the problems of higher education in America. He titled it: “College Wouldn’t Cost So Much If Students and Faculty Worked Harder.”
The piece was a preview of his book on the subject, Restoring the Promise: American Higher Education Today to be published May 1. From his summary and from reading his previous writings on the subject, I’m certain the book will be outstanding
His analyses have coincided with my own as a Nevada legislator, higher education regent, college teacher and state controller, and he has brought good data to illustrate issues I have observed in those roles. So, here, I’ll present a summary of his WSJ piece, and in future column I’ll detail from my experience and his book some major issues and solutions to the serious challenges U.S. higher education faces.
Vedder begins: “One reason college is so costly and so little real learning occurs is that college resources are vastly underused. Students don’t study much, professors teach little, few people read most of the obscure papers the professors write, and even the buildings are empty most of the time.”
As a regent and part-time community college instructor for four years, I observed all these phenomena and more first hand. They are some key reasons higher education costs have increased faster in real terms than the incomes of students and their families while those students are being ever more poorly prepared for life and the job market. And taxpayers are shorted.
His first observation is that surveys show college students today spend about 27 hours a week in class and studying, while taking classes only about 32 weeks a year. Or, fewer than 900 hours a year on academics – “less time than a typical eighth-grader and perhaps half the time their parent work to help finance college.”
He notes other researchers have found that in the middle of the 20th Century students spent 50 percent more time – around 40 hours weekly. Grade inflation has vitiated their incentives to work hard because the average grade received has risen from B-/C+ in 1960 to B/B+ now.
Vedder notes that on some campuses students study much more. And, “Engineering majors probably work much harder than communications or gender studies majors.” Ditto, law and medical students. As a sometimes engineering major at Illinois, recipient of a masters from Stanford in Engineering Economic Systems and later law student, I know all that’s not new.
But neither he nor I are suggesting that students responding to the changing incentives is the only problem. Vedder confesses: “I’m part of the problem: I’ve been teaching for 55 years, and I assign far less reading, demand less writing, and give higher grades than I did two generations ago.” Most other professors are less demanding and productive in teaching and useful research than he is, while mostly hard-sciences instructors put in similar teaching and productive research time.
When I taught 15 years ago, I told my community college students at the start of the semester I would teach them just as I would at any four-year college, including the same reading, writing, homework and testing. However, I felt guilty because I succumbed to the grade inflation trend. On the other hand, because a third of them needed remedial English, writing and math skills (having been shorted by their grade and high schools), I provided that service.
Another point he makes is that objective measures show the results of college education today are underwhelming. Similarly, I noted in my controller’s annual reports that American K-12 students’ achievement scores in international tests are in the middle ranks of those for advanced countries, while our per-student spending is among the highest.
A major point I learned as a regent is that much of higher education’s problem is the proliferation of administrative and other non-teaching staff relative to all instructors. Because colleges and universities work hard to cover up this phenomenon, I had trouble getting data on it, and I look forward to his book for more information here.
When we understand the full dimensions of the problem, we can begin crafting remedies. Stay tuned.
One joy of studying history, especially the 20th Century, is to see how life has changed. To my great satisfaction, our daughter Karyn has a fondness for the subject and especially the aspect of it that shows how people lived then versus now, particularly as reflected in popular culture.
As some folks know, I still collect sports and non-sports cards. I believe in the adage that he who dies with the most baseball cards, wins. Such cards and related ephemera are a great reflection of the times when they were produced and a deep insight into the real history and culture of their eras.
Recently, I acquired a reprint set of the first issue of football cards, which included 35 National Football League players and the immortal Knute Rockne, who had coached at Notre Dame and shaped much of the early game.
The original set, produced in 1935 by the National Chicle Co. of Cambridge MA is too expensive for a non-corrupt former elected official, because it includes the most valuable football card ever, number 34 Bronko Nagurski, as well as number 9 Rockne. They can command five-figure prices in near-mint condition. My reproductions, easily distinguished from the real items, cost a few dollars.
Among other things, all the players are pictured in actual football poses, not with fur coats, bling and shades as some stars have been in recent years. The front sides are art, not photographs, and they use very bright colors, attractive compositions and simple designs with football backgrounds.
The text on the back of the cards, written by Eddie Casey, then coach of the Boston Redskins and formerly Harvard, shows how real sports and life were then as compared to today.
A few things really struck me. The first was the line in Nagurski’s biography on the back that said: “A product of the wheat farm country, he stills works the soil between action on the football field and professional wrestling mat.” This is a great example of a feature of many cards even into the middle-1950s: the discussion of the player’s off-season job.
Their pay was so modest that many had to hold an off-season job for a decent living. Quite the opposite of the sometimes multi-million-dollar guaranteed levels even for rookies in some professional leagues now and the long-term contracts with mid-eight-figure annual pay for some stars.
After baseballer Carl Furillo won the National League batting crown in 1953, he returned to his winter job as an elevator repairman for Otis Elevators, according to one of his cards. Perhaps more than any other fact, that illustrates what I mean about life being real then.
Another item is that the text on the first 27 cards is essentially a tutorial for kids and adults on how to play certain positions and actions, as depicted by the player on the front. From all aspects of kicking, passing, receiving and handling the ball both in the open field and when plunging into the line to the need for defensive ends on kickoffs to stay in their lanes and turn the ball carrier to the middle of the field, etc.
These cards were meant for real fans of the time, not for kids ripping open packs to find a rare insert or special card.
A third aspect of how real everything was then is the height and weight statistics. Only one of the 35 players tipped the scales above 220 pounds (number 11 Turk Edwards at 250) and none were taller than 6’ 3.” Some colleges today have all their starting linemen at 300 pounds plus.
Perhaps the most endearing thing is that coach Casey knew his football, as shown in the final text on Nagurski: “He is as much a tradition to [his alma mater] Minnesota football today as Red Grange is to Illinois.”
The text on the next card ends: “Now, reaching the end of his professional career as a player he is following the footsteps of Red Grange in becoming an assistant coach to the bears.”
Illini fans then and now have always known that Grange was the greatest college football player ever.
Now, if only my daughter Karyn would develop a taste for card collecting.
Ron Knecht is a contributing editor to the Penny Press - the conservative weekly "voice of Nevada." You can subscribe here at www.pennypressnv.com. His column has been reprinted in full, with permission.