The modern educational reform movement takes little notice of its forbears and the sordid evolution of elitism of which they are the most recent proponents. Behind the guise of economic advancement and the propaganda of equal opportunity lies a darker history of sectionalism. Human history is rife with efforts on behalf of the elite to clarify and justify the distinction between themselves and what they define as the lower classes. It helps to maintain the existing power structure. If people are taught to accept their caste, the rarely seek to improve upon it.
Academic testing serves to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Those who meet the standard established by those in power are allowed into the peerage; those who do not now understand that their place is among the lower hierarchy. College has long acted as a social marker for the ins and outs. Not only has its financial barriers served to disenfranchise millions, but its outmoded general curriculum, being largely irrelevant to the daily life of a common citizen, reinforces the distinction by its mere superfluity.
Society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind…. Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum…. Some day we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty of the good citizens of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type. The great problem of civilization is to secure a relative increase of the valuable as compared with the less valuable or noxious elements in the population… The problem cannot be met unless we give full consideration to the immense influence of heredity…
- Theodore Roosevelt to Charles B. Davenport, January 3, 1913, Charles B. Davenport Papers, Department of Genetics, Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.
Roosevelt’s words were not uncommon for the time. Several decades before the now infamous experiments by Nazi doctors as part of Adolph Hitler’s Final Solution, the seeds of eugenics had been firmly planted in the minds of the ruling classes around the world. Always interested in justification for their power, Social Darwinism allowed them to put a quasi-scientific spin on efforts to create a super race, an Übermensch, which would ostensibly move humanity toward its foreseen destiny. Intellectuals openly debated the merits of forced sterilization for various less useful classes of people such as the mentally ill and disabled. Margaret Sanger, the major voice behind birth control said in 1921,
Eugenics is … the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems.
-“The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda.” Birth Control Review, October 1921, page 5.
America might have freed the former slaves from their physical bondage, but few whites actually believed in true equality. Early in the 20th century notoriously slanted methods of testing “intelligence,” such as the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test, were already being used to justify the lower class status of Black and Hispanic peoples. Written by “reformed” racist, Carl C. Brigham, the questions naturally catered to the intellectual leanings of WASP children of the Northeastern states. “In 1923, he wrote A Study of American Intelligence, which analyzed the findings of the Alpha Test by race. Its conclusion, which Brigham insisted was without prejudice, was that American education was declining and ‘will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive.’”
The wrong kind of whites were also cause for much concern among the all male, all white, all Protestant, mostly Episcopalian, Ivy League establishment. Hundreds of thousands of European immigrants were flooding into the United States. Less distinguishable by the color of their skin, it seemed only natural to design a test that would more easily define their differences and subjugate them because of it.
What we would call the white race they divided into a lot of little sub-races in order of superiority and inferiority. In particular there were three white races, according to this theory—Nordics, Alpines and Mediterraneans. So it was a cause for alarm, not just that non-whites were coming to the country, but that too many of the lower class of whites—Mediterraneans—were coming to the country.
-Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, Interview for PBS.
Were it not for the atrocities of World War Two, it is quite possible that eugenic ideology might be more popular. One unfortunate benefit of the Nazi horror was its bringing to light the natural consequence of eugenic thinking. Humankind, in an effort to shape its own future, puts on blinders to consequences. Richard Dawkins alluded to this.
In the 1920s and 1930s, scientists from both the political left and right would not have found the idea of designer babies particularly dangerous - though of course they would not have used that phrase. Today, I suspect that the idea is too dangerous for comfortable discussion, and my conjecture is that Adolf Hitler is responsible for the change… Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular.
- Richard Dawkins
The sad truth, of course, is that eugenics is a fundamentally flawed ideal. As many people with pure bred dogs can attest, selective breeding creates more problems than it solves. What is bred for often adversely affects heartier traits and the purification of the gene pool is actually detrimental to species survivability. The Irish dramatically discovered this when the single most used species of potato succumbed to blight during the 18th century. Roughly a million people perished from what was essentially a lack of variety among the potato gene pool.
In a similar way, standards-based testing only serves to create one type of thinker—one that tows the company line and reifies the existing system. Movements like The Common Core are simply inheritors of this long standing system of shaping class distinctions.
The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy. (Emphasis mine)
The genius, of course, is the verbiage used to justify its methods. Promising equality, as long as one makes the grade, makes the recipients grateful for the chance, but accept their place as subordinates once they don’t meet the standard. “You were given every opportunity to learn what we wanted you to learn, but you did not succeed. Too bad. I hear McDonald’s is hiring.” Just as Adolph Hitler never intended actual equality among his people, but only to rouse loyalty with its potentiality, those who would establish the preeminence of testing delude the masses into faithful observance of its outcomes.
The true benefit to mankind, to all species, is to stop trying to control its direction and instead learn to work with what is already available. If we lived within our means, our planet and its inhabitants would be much better off. Similarly, if we stop pretending that college is unquestioningly the answer for everyone and that each person brings value as they are, we will increase the intellectual gene pool beyond any measure of what excessive control could ever dream to do. Left to its own devices, evolution will determine best outcomes, anything else is fighting the tide. It feels productive, but it’s ultimately futile.