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October 14, 2016 - WRECKING BALL EDUCATION: Blinded By Science: Thorndike, Yerkes, Sanger, Terman, and Snedden and the Rise of Educational Eugenics

For those new to this series, Wrecking Ball Education (WBE) highlights people and/or ideas that have in some way either had a devastating effect on true education or, conversely. those that suggest pathways for knocking down false reforms and restoring opportunities to teach and learn substantively. At Resounding Books, we're not interested in playing it safe. We don't publish sanitized thoughts. You may not agree with us on everything you read on our blog...but we're pretty sure you'll at least find nuggets worthy of consideration...things you didn't know, interesting connections you hadn't previously recognized, or reasons to examine the already-familiar from a new angle.   

For this installment of WBE, Resounding Books is pleased to present the second of several guest blogs by Craig Sower. Professor Craig Sower has taught English and teacher education at Shujitsu University in Okayama, Japan, since 1998.

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The ignorance, prejudices, and groupthink of an educated elite are still ignorance, prejudices, and groupthink. (Thomas Sowell, 2009)[i]


Part-1 of this series outlined the roles of Wilhelm Wundt, Stanley Hall, and John Dewey, who advocated using psychology in classrooms to engineer children’s minds. Next, we turn to a group of people who used the mantle of science to promote social and educational reform. Edward Thorndike (1874-1949), Robert Yerkes (1876-1956), Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), Lewis Terman (1877-1956), and David Snedden (1868-1951) were key players in IQ testing and eugenics. Their work was used to justify the differentiated curriculum—a bifurcated system with an advanced track for selected elite students, and “life-adjustment” classes or vocational training for all others.

These reformers sought to overturn the system of locally controlled common schools prevalent in the U.S. in the 19th century. Guided by parents and teachers, common schools provided eight years of instruction in which all pupils studied reading, writing, math, science, history, and civics. This ideal of liberal education was based on the assumptions that: 1) rigorous study disciplines the mind; 2) this benefits all students; and 3) studying the cultural, scientific, and religious heritage of the nation adds value to the community and uplifts society as a whole. While most students left school after the eighth grade, those aiming for college continued on to high school. High schools offered an academic curriculum that built on K-8 skills by adding advanced classes, foreign languages, and often Latin. American schools worked well—in the 1830s, for example, Massachusetts had a literacy rate of 98% (today it is 91%).[ii] When critics of the differentiated curriculum and Common Core suggest a back-to-basics approach, they mean replacing the watered-down curriculum of today with the kind of high-quality liberal education Americans received a century ago.  

The reformers rejected traditional American education, however. Instead, they favored a disparate collection of ideas that, according to Diane Ravitch, formed the basis of four movements within education reform:

  • First, proponents of the mental testing movement sought to transform education into an expert-driven science, with goals and methods that could be “measured with precision and determined scientifically.”[iii]
  • Second, advocates of the child-centered movement believed educational goals and methods “could be derived from the innate needs and nature of the child.”[iv] Educationists, not teachers, would decide what those needs were.
  • Third, adherents of the social-efficiency movement wanted experts to assess social needs to determine educational goals and subsequently fit children to their proper role in society. Parents and teachers would be peripheral.
  • Fourth, members of the social reconstruction and child-centered movements sought to reform society and change the social order “either by freeing children’s creative spirit or conversely by indoctrinating them for life in a planned society.”[v] Reformers, not parents or teachers, would choose.

These theories were inconsistent and frequently at odds with one another, but those who espoused them came to dominate the institutions that trained most of the nation’s teachers, notably Teachers College at Columbia University (TCCU).

IQ Testing

Edward L. Thorndike received his Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University in 1898, and spent most of his career at TCCU. There, in 1901, he conducted experiments that he claimed demonstrated transfer does not occur in learning—i.e., that skills learned in one context cannot be generalized to others. Educationists seized upon his findings as proof that a basic tenet of liberal education—that mental discipline trains the mind—was false. While his claims were later disproven, they did irreparable damage to the academic curriculum. Based on his dubious findings, Thorndike asserted that most students would benefit more from learning life skills than from studying academic subjects.

Along with other education reformers, Thorndike believed it didn’t matter what children studied because intellectual ability was innate and immutable; smart pupils would demonstrate their intelligence no matter what schools taught. To him, it was magical thinking to believe advanced classes could make students more intelligent. Thorndike was a true believer in science and viewed psychological testing as a means of accurately assessing children’s abilities. By precisely measuring the human mind, Thorndike and other American psychologists believed they could separate wheat from chaff and efficiently assign each person to an appropriate future role in society. He became president of the APA in 1912, but he is best known for the Army IQ tests.

Starting in 1917, Thorndike’s colleague at the Eugenics Records Office, Harvard professor (and then-president of the APA) Robert Yerkes, oversaw development of two intelligence tests that were administered to nearly two million U.S. Army recruits—an alpha test for those who could read, and a beta test for those who could not. Based on IQ scores, certain men were selected for training as officers, while the rest were sorted out and assigned to units.

The eugenic implications of the IQ tests are difficult to ignore. Post-war analyses of the Army IQ tests revealed that psychologists considered the average mental age of those tested to be thirteen or fourteen. They claimed the tests proved that northern Europeans (so-called Nordic stock) were superior to “racial groups” coming from eastern and southern Europe, and that nearly half of all draftees were functionally “morons.” The Army tests had two important effects. First, they provided the eugenics movement with a veneer of respectability. Second, they led to widespread use of IQ tests in schools to determine who should and should not receive an advanced education.

Eugenics and Social Engineering

Eugenics was a hallmark of the Progressive Era in the United States, and was later applied with brutal efficiency in Nazi Germany. Eugenicists believed intelligence to be racial, fixed at birth, and unalterable by education. According to Ravitch, “From approximately 1905 to 1930, enthusiasts of the eugenics movement included such people as birth control advocate Margaret Sanger; David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University; the philanthropist Mrs. E. H. Harriman; and the psychologists Robert Yerkes of Harvard University, Walter McDougall of Harvard University, Edward L. Thorndike of Teachers College, Columbia University, and Lewis M. Terman of Stanford University.”[vi] They argued it was best to limit the effect undesirables might have on the gene pool since nothing could be done to improve inferior “stock.”

In 1920, one of Margaret Sanger’s closest friends, white supremacist Lothrop Stoddard, wrote The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. His advice was stark: “Just as we isolate bacterial invasions, and starve out the bacteria by limiting the area and amount of their food supply, so we can compel an inferior race to remain in its native habitat.”[vii] Sanger was so impressed with his work that the following year she invited him to join her as a founding director of the American Birth Control League. Sanger expanded on Stoddard’s theme in her 1922 book, The Pivot of Civilization, writing that there should be “more children from the fit, less from the unfit—that is the chief issue of birth control.”[viii] H. G. Wells—who infamously coined the term “liberal fascism” in his call for an “enlightened Nazism”—wrote the introduction to Sanger’s book, declaring: “We want fewer and better children … we cannot make the social life and world-peace we are determined to make, with the ill-bred, ill-trained swarms of inferior citizens that you inflict on us.”[ix] While forgotten by most Americans today, Sanger proudly addressed a 1926 Ku Klux Klan rally in Silver Lake, New Jersey. Lest anyone misunderstand whom she deemed unfit, in 1939 she created the “Negro Project” dedicated to birth control for African-Americans.

Lewis Terman, a former student of Stanley Hall’s at Clark University, expressed sentiments similar to those of Stoddard, Sanger, and Wells about people who should not have children: “There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.”[x] These individuals were pillars of the scientific, academic, and artistic communities.

Social Darwinism and the Schools

Within the realm of education, the Army IQ tests also provided the basis for widespread testing of students, and support for the differentiated curriculum. In fact, Thorndike and Terman were in the forefront of pushing IQ testing on schools. By the mid-twenties, four million children each year were being tested. Keep in mind that unlike achievement tests that measure what has been learned, IQ tests purport to measure what may potentially be learned. The tests were used to identify at an early age those few who would be given a good education, and separate them from the majority who would be taught more basic skills. Remarkably, this approach was touted as democratic, in contrast to the common schools in which all children studied the same things for eight years. Thus buttressed by scientific-sounding jargon, pedagogical experts advanced the same program after World War I that they supported before the war began: a centralized system of rigid, early testing designed by experts and used to consign students to differentiated courses that would determine their future.

With the foundations of educational psychology laid by Hall and Thorndike, and Dewey’s child-centered approach well established, the stage was set to apply new scientific principles to the whole of society. David Snedden began his education and career in California. In a speech titled “The Schools of the Rank and File,” he posited that most students would follow the lead of a small elite, that schools would assume roles previously performed by the family and church, and that vocational and life skills training was more important for the masses than was a liberal education. [xi]

Under the aegis of Herbert Spenser’s theories of Social Darwinism, Snedden arguably did more than anyone to destroy the academic curriculum. By the time he completed his doctorate at TCCU in 1907, Snedden was already a well-known champion of social efficiency and the differentiated curriculum. Ravitch identified four main points in his position that may be paraphrased thusly:

  • different groups (separated by gender, occupation, and ability) need different kinds of education;
  • after the age of twelve, but no later than fourteen, all children need to be in vocational training;
  • academic programs are “useless, elitist, and of little value to a democratic society” [xii] save for those few who will lead; and
  • these views are scientific and enlightened; all others are ignorant, if not evil.

Second Opinions, Then and Now

In a series of articles in The New Republic in 1922, Walter Lippmann took issue with the results of the Army IQ tests and the use of such tests on American children. He found it preposterous that psychologists felt justified in measuring intelligence with tests that would settle the fates of millions of children, when they did not even agree on a definition of intelligence. For Lippmann, the teachers’ responsibility was to educate children, not classify them. He predicted tests would, in fact, be used to prove that some students were uneducable, and to then place them into situations where the prophecies would be self-fulfilling. Charges of labeling and warehousing of pupils in Title I and special education programs today[xiii] lend credence to Lippmann’s warnings.

In 2010, the elitist attitudes of Thorndike, Yerkes, Terman, and Snedden resurfaced in Jason Zimba, primary architect of the Common Core math standards. Questioned by Sandra Stotsky before the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education about the adequacy of the standards he’d written, Zimba testified that, “the concept of college readiness [in the standards] is minimal and focuses on non-selective colleges.”[xiv] Zimba further noted, “We have agreement … that the minimally college-ready student is a student who has passed Algebra II.”[xv] When Stotsky asked if that level of preparedness was enough, Zimba stated, “Well, for the colleges most kids go to, but not for the colleges most parents aspire to.” Pressing him, Stotsky asked: “‘Not for STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]? Not for international competitiveness?” Zimba tellingly replied: “Not only not for STEM, it’s also not for selective colleges … [W]hether you are going to be an engineer or not, you’d better have precalculus.” [xvi] Yet these are the very standards the public is now expected to embrace as making students “college- and career-ready.”

More than a century after education reformers introduced IQ testing, eugenics, and the differentiated curriculum into our schools, we are still battling self-appointed experts who believe it is appropriate to have one standard for educating elite students, and another standard—a lesser standard—for everyone else. There is a strong case to be made that all children, not just the chosen few, deserve the benefits of a high-quality liberal education.


[i] Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society (New York: Basic Books, 2009), p. 17.

[ii] Charles Cooke, The Conservatarian Manifesto (New York: Crown Forum, 2015), p. 82.

[iii] Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform (New York: Touchstone, 2000), p. 60.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid, p. 134.

[vii] Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism (New York: Doubleday, 2007), p. 272.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Lewis M. Terman, The Measure of Intelligence: An Explanation of and a Complete Guide for the Use of the Stanford Revision and Extension of the Binet-Simon Intelligence Scale (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1916), pp. 91-92.

[xi] David Labaree, How Dewey Lost: The victory of David Snedden and social efficiency in the reform of American education. (Available at:, p. 8.

[xii] Ravitch, op. cit., p. 82.

[xiii] Abigail & Stephan Thernstrom, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004), pp. 182-188.

[xiv] James Milgram and Sandra Stotsky, Lowering the Bar: How Common Core math fails to prepare high school students for STEM (Pioneer Institute White Paper No. 103, September 2013). (Available at: p. 2.

[xv] Ibid, pp. 4-5.

[xvi] Ibid, p. 5.