teaching Buck v Bell an argument for the relevance of History
October 31, 2016
Last week I taught my students about the
Buck v Bell
Supreme Court case during a history lesson about the eugenics movement. I was surprised to learn that not one student in the room had heard of eugenicist Harry Laughlin or of Carrie Buck or of the involuntary sterilization of tens of thousands of American women.
We turned to a chart in their textbook which shows the number of sterilizations that occurred state-by-state. California leads that list. Yet my students, who were mostly raised in California, had never heard this before. A few of them were visibly angry.
I had a moment on my soapbox where I railed a bit about the inadequacy of the students’ high school education.
But then I stopped talking and I started listening.
The students had so many questions:
Why it was that they didn’t know that the United States had fostered the ideologies that led to the Holocaust?
Doesn’t the rhetoric in the current election news sound a lot like the words used by eugenicists, especially Coolidge’s “America must be kept American” slogan?
Did I think that the history of eugenics is relevant to the posthumanist movement, or to the CRISPR technologies that allow parents to create designer babies?
Why were women sterilized more often than men? And, weren’t the sterilization surgical procedures dangerous, potentially even life-threatening?
The students kept talking, raising questions. But the most insistent question among them, was:
Why had they never heard this before?
As the teacher I could see that it was one of those powerful moments where the students “got it.” They learned that history was important and that it had meaning to their lives, today.
But I also couldn’t help but consider what the implications are for a generation of young people who have missed some pretty important aspects of our national story. Especially when it is so obvious that this specific part of history is relevant to them, in a world beset with issues about immigration, of emergent scientific technologies for genetic engineering, of gender inequity, and of entire groups of American people who have fewer civil liberties due to prejudice.
As I closed class that day the students looked at me and told me that they were worried about their world, one where people seem to have forgotten about history. I remembered myself at that age and that feeling like I HAD TO DO SOMETHING about injustice. I could see that they wanted something specific to tweet or to rage about (or to “raise awareness,” as one does).
I thought about it for a minute and gave the answer that I usually give when such situations happen in the classroom. I told them that I remembered feeling very much like them when I was their age. And that’s why I became a teacher.