Stanford’s history with eugenics

Dec. 7, 2016, 2:52 p.m.

Evidence that Stanford’s founding president David Starr Jordan, as well as former professors Lewis M. Terman and Elwood P. Cubberley, were active supporters of the eugenics movement have resurfaced amid recent efforts to rename schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD).

Eugenics and Stanford

According to Mary Rorty, clinical associate professor at the Stanford Medical Center and fellow at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, the growth of the eugenics movement had both scientific and social implications.

As a scientific movement, Rorty said that eugenics was founded in “epidemiology, the development of the social sciences, and the expanding — and increasingly important — science of human (and animal) genetics.”

As a social movement, positive eugenics encouraged individuals deemed ‘fit’ – those who were the most physically attractive, healthy, and/or successful – to marry and have enormous families, while negative eugenics discouraged “the birth of children with heritable, potentially undesirable characteristics,” Rorty explained.

Even before the rise of Hitler and Nazism, perhaps its most infamous proponents, eugenics as a movement was highly popular in both America and Europe and was supported by prominent and respected figures in society such as George Bernard Shaw, Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, Calvin Coolidge and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Support for the movement began to die in the 1930s as many people witnessed the horrors of Nazi-led mass sterilization, and scientific advances revealed errors in many of the founding principles behind eugenics.

Beginning in 1906, David Starr Jordan was chair of the Eugenics Section of the American Breeders Association, a member of the Human Betterment Foundation, and an advisory council member of the Eugenics Committee of the American Eugenics Society. In a 1902 publication titled “The Blood of the Nation: A Study in the Decay of Races by the Survival of the Unfit,” Jordan publicly advocated eugenics as a practice and suggested that talent and poverty could be inherited via blood.

“For a race of men or a herd of cattle are governed by the same laws of selection. Those who survive inherit the traits of their own actual ancestry,” Jordan wrote. “If we sell or destroy the rough, lean, or feeble calves, we shall have a herd descended from the best.”

Lewis M. Terman, also known as the father of modern IQ testing, was an early psychologist who conducted a study named Genetic Studies of Genius to examine intelligence in children. According to Rorty, he also served on the boards of several eugenics associations and may have been in favor of compulsory sterilization.

“It is more important,” Terman wrote in 1928, “for man to acquire control over his biological evolution than to capture the energy of the atom.” After the emergence of Nazism in the 1930s and the exposure of the scientific inaccuracies behind eugenics, Terman expressed his regret for his statements about “inferior races,” though he never publicly recanted like other prominent eugenics supporters such as psychologist Henry Goddard and SAT creator Carl Brigham.

Elwood P. Cubberley, a professor and eventual dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, was also a proponent of eugenics. As an educator, Cubberley believed that children deemed to have greater ability than their peers should be allocated more resources, while the resources given to children with learning and physical disabilities might detract from the goal of cultivating the most “able.”

Like Jordan and Terman, Cubberley’s writings also revealed a racially-tinged view of humanity and nationhood. In her book “Eugenics and Education in America: Institutionalized Racism and the Implications of History, Ideology, and Memory,” Anne Gibson Winfield cited Cubberley’s claim “east European immigrants were ‘of a very different sort’ and were ‘wholly without Anglo-Saxon conceptions of righteousness, liberty, law, order, public decency, and government.’” He added that their immigration would corrupt American politics and “dilute” the population as a whole.

The renaming movement: “Honor role models, not California’s leading eugenicists!”

In the PAUSD as well as on Stanford campus, several landmarks bear Jordan, Terman and Cubberley’s names. Among others, Jordan Hall and Cubberley Auditorium were named in honor of the early school leaders.

While a University committee is working on recommendations for renaming buildings named after Junípero Serra following student objections last year, the buildings named after Jordan, Terman and Cubberley are not directly under consideration. According to Lisa Lapin, vice president for University Communications, the committee is still working on their report about the buildings named after Serra, which may yield guiding principles for similar cases.

Meanwhile, the PAUSD has seen a vocal campaign to rename David Starr Jordan Middle School, Terman Middle School, and Cubberley Community Center. Several parents and other members of the PAUSD have expressed their concern to the school board and held a petition and a town hall to address the possibility of renaming the buildings.

Lars Johnsson, who has three children attending schools in the district, has been a particularly outspoken advocate of renaming and has started an online petition on that has garnered over 400 supporters.

“David Starr Jordan and Lewis Madison Terman do not represent the values of 21st-century Palo Alto and the mission of its Unified School District,” Johnsson wrote in the petition.

Johnsson pointed out that the PAUSD’s mission was fundamentally egalitarian, aiming to ensure that “every student has the opportunity and access to programs, practices, and personnel that will empower every child to attain his or her highest intellectual, creative, and social potential.”

Two members of the Stanford community were asked to speak on a panel at the Nov. 7 Palo Alto town hall meeting regarding the controversy over renaming efforts. Rorty and Joseph Brown Ph.D. ’00, who serves as associate director of Stanford’s Diversity and First Generation (DGEN) Office, offered differing views on the drive to rename the buildings.

Brown emphasized the importance of naming in the psychology of stigma, stereotyping and prejudice.

“Renaming the schools [would create] an opportunity to engage in a process that would … convey to all students that they … are respected and valued members of the community,” he said.

Rorty agreed that students would be harmed by prejudice, but questioned whether the name of the school amounted to disrespect.

“Any form of incivility and denigration has a negative effect on our children,” she said. “I’m not sure that the name of the school they attend rises to that degree of disrespect, especially in light of the national ranking of Palo Alto schools.”

Beyond renaming: grappling with eugenics today

Ultimately, both Rorty and Brown thought that the problem at hand lies beyond the renaming of schools.

“Renaming or not renaming can’t be the only options,” Rorty said.

She encouraged members of the PAUSD to take an active role in researching the students’ views on the names of their schools, and to implement a curriculum unit that addresses “all the things these three men did, the good and the bad – and about the history of – both [the scientific and social] stories of the eugenics movement.”

Brown agreed that educating students and educators through “a complex, nuanced, open discussion of these historical figures” was necessary to deal with the implications of eugenics for the present day.

In fact, Brown suggested that the troubling ideas behind eugenics have not been safely relegated to the past, but continue to influence society today.

According to Brown, the concept of “gifted children” — children who are identified at a young age as intellectually superior to their peers — can have damaging long-term effects on women, low-income students, first-generation college students, and students from underrepresented minorities who have to face stereotypes about their intellectual potential.

In 1920, Cubberley wrote that “one [child] of superior intellectual capacity … may confer greater benefits upon mankind” than “a thousand of the feeble-minded children upon whom we have recently come to put so much educational effort and expense.”

Together with Jordan and Terman, one of the early pioneers of IQ testing, Cubberley was part of a movement that worked to distribute resources towards those they deemed able rather than those they deemed needy. While the PAUSD movement shows that most people would now judge their beliefs to be extremist and inegalitarian, the eugenics movement also shared some basic beliefs with the meritocratic ideal that underpins present-day America.

“Those ideas that come from eugenics are woven into the fabric of our educational system,” Brown said. “I don’t believe that it should be just about the naming of a new school. I believe that it should be part of a campaign and an effort.”

As an institution of elite higher education, perhaps the larger question for Stanford is whether or not the systems of education shaped by these individuals — Jordan, Terman and Cubberley — are ever truly free of the foundational legacies they left behind.


Correction: An earlier version of the article stated mistakenly that Terman Engineering Library was named after Lewis Terman, rather than his son, Frederick Terman. The Daily regrets this error.


Contact Claire Wang at clwang32 ‘at’


Claire Wang is The Daily's Vol. 254 magazine editor, and previously served as Vol. 253's managing editor of news. She's a fan of anything with tomatoes in it, and her favorite poet is Ocean Vuong. When she's not biking, her second-favorite mode of transportation is by rollerblade. Contact Claire at clwang32 'at'

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