How eugenics became a keystone of modern educational policy

Table of contents

1          Setting the Stage
2          On Eugenics
3          The Faces of Carl Emil Seashore
4          The “Charm of an Educated Woman”: Women, Education, Sexuality, and Eugenics
5          Mental Ability, Testing, and the Pedagogical Production of Destinies
6          Making Musical Destinies: Talent, Testing, and Music Education Reform
7          In Defense of Whiteness: Music, Musical Ability, and Racism
8          “And All the Children Are above Average”: Euthenics, Eugenics, and the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station
9          What Should We Tell the Children? Silences, Secrets, Erasures, and the Full Social Funding of Race
10        Resemblances


A little-known fact about the prominent US psychologist and educator Carl E. Seashore (1866–1949) is that he was deeply involved in the American eugenics movement. He was among the US academics to support eugenics long before German Nazis embraced it. A titan in a host of disciplines and a proponent of radical education reform, Seashore used his positional power to promote a constellation of education reforms consistent with central precepts of eugenics. Many of these reforms, including tracking, gifted and talented programs, and high-stakes standardized testing, were adopted and remain standard practice in the United States today. He promulgated the idea that musical talent is biologically inheritable, and he developed the first standardized tests of musical talent; these tests were used by early-twentieth-century researchers in their attempts to determine whether there are race differences in musical talent. Seashore’s ideas and work profoundly shaped music education’s research trajectory, as well as enduring “commonsense” beliefs about musical ability. An intersectional analysis, “Destined to Fail” focuses on the relationship between eugenics and Seashore’s views on ability, race, and gender. Koza concludes that Seashore promoted eugenics and its companion, euthenics, because he was a true believer. She also discusses the longstanding silences surrounding Seashore’s participation in eugenics. As a diagnosis and critique of the present, “Destined to Fail” identifies resemblances and connections between past and present that illustrate the continuing influence of eugenics—and the systems of reasoning that made early-twentieth-century eugenics imaginable and seem reasonable—on education discourse and practice today. It maps out discursive, citational, and funding connections between eugenicists of the early twentieth-century and contemporary White supremacists; this mapping leads to some of Donald Trump’s supporters and appointees.

Julia Eklund Koza is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“With deep research, readable prose, an interdisciplinary scope, and a judiciously balanced critique, Koza probes the disturbing impact of eugenics on the influential early 20th-century psychologist and educator Carl Seashore. This is history with a long reach, revealing the stubborn lineage of attitudes about race, ability, disability, education, and testing.”

- Carol J. Oja, Harvard University

“Fifteen years in the making, encapsulating 30 years of eugenics research, focusing on Carl Seashore, one of the last overlooked giants of American eugenics and brought together by an exceptionally ethical historian who never fails to see her subject as fully human. Koza lays bare the dangerous logic that pervades American education and promotes eugenics and genocide today.”

- Barry Mehler, Ferris State University

“In this deeply researched and carefully argued bookJulia Koza documents how principles derived from eugenics shaped the work of Carl Seashore, a pioneer in American music education and standardized testing. Openly prejudiced against women, people of color, and homosexuals, Seashore influenced generations of musicians who either met his criteria or were, in his words, ‘destined to fail’ and therefore unworthy of training. A chilling reminder of the racialist currents that underlie our present-day pedagogy and admissions policies. Anyone involved in music education, K through Full Professor, should read this brilliant, disturbing book.”

- Susan McClary, Fynette H. Kulas Professor of Music, Case Western Reserve University

“Written with literary eloquence and the finest archival skills of a historian, Koza provides a major contribution for understanding the historical conditions that make possible an American life rife with racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, xenophobia, and disabilities. The book explores the architecture and topography of eugenics through the biography of the psychologist Carl Seashore as it is tracked, traced, and stitched in the intersections of science, aesthetics, psychometrics, perceptual studies, standardized testing, and education. While the present polarizations of American society may seem to some as a horrible aberration in a long history, the argument powerfully details the minute ways in which eugenics and racialization are deeply engrained in the infrastructures to differentiate the subject, the body and knowledge.”

- Thomas S. Popkewitz, University of Wisconsin-Madison

"Destined to Fail is an important and timely volume that peels back the layers of a shameful history of racism and eugenics that laid the foundation for what should have been the most democratic and inclusive area of human endeavor, music education. Koza has bravely revealed the underside of the field."

- Gloria Ladson-Billings, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“This book is a 'must read' for music education historians and those interested in the foundations of American music education. It is thoughtful, thorough, well written, and brilliantly assembled, and it should become one of the distinguished scholarly texts in the field.”

- Estelle R. Jorgensen, Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University

Winner of the 2022 Outstanding Book of the Year Award in Division B: Curriculum Studies

- American Educational Research Association (AERA)

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