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SAAP Annual Meeting

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Dewey’s Dilemma: Eugenics, Education, and the Art of Living

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Timothy McCune
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
United States

Dewey’s eugenicist contemporaries—whose influence pervaded education and social policies, including state laws—championed a fixed and limited view of human nature and society. Dewey rarely referred to eugenics in both his public writings and private correspondence, but he actually combated its supporters for decades. I argue that elements of his educational theory specifically respond to the assumptions of his eugenicist colleagues. Dewey saw people as irreducibly unique, infinite in potential, and neither wholly determined biologically, nor completely transformable environmentally. Rather than judge individuals by standardized testing and educational screening that operate according to a preconceived understanding of what is superior or inferior, he urged educators to assist in the identification and development of the unique qualities and talents of each person. Institutions and social relations also needed intelligent adjustment in order to accommodate and foster individuality.


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