Tales of Future Past: The Living Legacy of Eugenics in American Education

  • Dennis Carlson


I have come to believe that democratic education, at least of the socially-reconstructive kind, must involve some shock treatment. By that I mean it must shock people into a new awareness of what they had previously taken for granted, and the shock itself results from the sudden, radical coming together of hitherto unconnected texts and narratives. This shocking experience happens most often when we read a text from an earlier era. In reading history texts of an earlier era, for example, we are almost always surprised and shocked to find that the people back then made some remarks that today would be interpreted as racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic. We are shocked that the voices and experiences of American subaltern groups are simply ignored, as if they did not exist or contribute in any way to American history. Of course, this shock may lead us to two quite different, although not necessarily contradictory, conclusions. On the one hand, we may come away feeling that real progress has been made in re-narrating American history so that it is inclusive and democratic. On the other hand, we may have an eerie, unsettling feeling that this past is still very much with us, and that we really haven’t transcended it even though we now appear to be more tolerant, nlightened, and humanistic. In both cases, we have the shocking experience of viewing the present through the lens of the past.