The California’s Senate Resolution No. 20, passed in 2003, “urges every citizen of the state to become familiar with the history of the eugenics movement, in the hope that a more educated and tolerant populace will reject any similar abhorrent pseudoscientific movement should it arise in the future.” Yet the resolution presents no outline for how this idealistic “urging” is to become a reality. In order to most effectively carry out this suggestion, California should focus on educating young adults so that they can become familiar with the disturbing history and legacy of eugenics in our state and union. Our goal is for the California Board of Education to change U.S. history textbook standards and the language of California educational code to include curriculum on sterilization and eugenics in public high schools.
Lately, eugenics in America has gained increased scholarly and media attention. While the curriculum will be officially determined by California teachers and historians, we, as high school students, have five basic recommendations for the structure of the curriculum:
- Potential guiding question: “Why was sterilization seen as a viable option for solving a diverse array of societal problems in California?”
- A concise background on the origins of eugenics and its prominent role in US History
- Identify the unique motives and circumstances underlying the two distinct eras of eugenics in California: the forced sterilization of those who were deemed “unfit” by state hospitals and clinics, and the continued Eugenics through the mid-1900s into the 1970s such as the forced sterilization of Latin American women in Southern California women up until the late 1970s.
- Distance the history of sterilization in the US and California from the eugenic atrocities committed by Nazi Germany by showing how American scientists supported eugenics long before and after “racial betterment” in Nazi Germany. Eugenics is a part of our history in California and the US, not some distant European legacy.
- Actively address contemporary issues to which questions of eugenics are still relevant and examine the power and danger of advancements in genetic technology in modern day California.
From a more philosophical lens, students will focus on science’s powerful potential to shape public opinion or justify discrimination. In an official letter acknowledging California’s legacy of eugenics State Attorney General Bill Lockyer stated, “At the Dawn of an era when cloning and genetic engineering offer both great promise and great peril, we must learn from our history, teach our children about our past and be mindful of our future.” The eugenics curriculum will seek to advance the goals of the state by preparing students for the challenges of the future through an examination of the past.
California’s educational system currently finds itself at a unique crossroads. The 2012 FAIR (Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, Respectful) Education Act established a precedent for teaching tolerance by addressing the contributions made to our society by the LGBT community. In addition the FAIR education act also highlights the contributions of people of color and people with disabilities. California educational trends are already moving towards a more expository and critical view of American history. FAIR provides a structure for how we want to teach the history of eugenics in California, which would both educate the populace and provide redress to the victims of this somber history. California public high schools would be required to choose U.S. history textbooks that include the history of eugenics in America with a spotlight on California. The curriculum should follow the four goals of FAIR by accurately detailing California’s involvement in the Eugenics movement while remaining respectful to the victims. However, it is important to note that the addition of eugenics to California’s education code would be slightly different from the other aspects of FAIR. While all aspects of FAIR seek to teach tolerance, the eugenics piece would ensure a significant piece of history that affected thousands of people is not overlooked, rather than highlighting their contribution.
Education as a form of redress is constructive and looks to create positive change in the future. Other forms of redress such as monetary compensation and public displays of apology are often polarizing and messy or simply ineffective. Educational reform reaches a larger and more open population, and moves toward achieving the goal originally stated in the California Senate Resolution No. 20.
Citizens of California need to know the truth about the role that California played in the eugenics movement, just as the victims of sterilization deserve to have their stories heard. The greatest service the state of California can do for the victims of compulsory sterilization at this belated hour is to enact substantive educational measures that will help prevent anything like this from occurring in the future, while respectfully acknowledging the injustices of the past.
As high school students who have studied eugenics in California, we personally understand the incredible value of learning about the movement in our state. As we started this project, it quickly became clear that this sad aspect of California has not received the attention it deserves in government, education, and media. Learning about eugenics in California is not simply about being more informed, or redressing past wrongs, but about considering difficult questions about justice, equality, and human rights. We have seen how these questions are now more important than ever, as we move into an uncertain age of genetic science.