Eugenics was a popular political view, an intrinsically socialist one, even. Eugenics as Galton understood it was initially to be accomplished ‘positively’, by means of a financial bonus for example. But this view naturally changed into something much more sinister in the United States, where Galtonian eugenics really caught fire. Eugenics was the view society ought to be purified from the inferior, leading to mass-sterilizations of mentally disabled individuals, and found itself immersed within a deeply rooted legacy of racial oppression. And this was when I found myself immersed into a whirlwind, picking up my house of the psychological discipline and throwing it into a new land not of technicolor, but one of oppression. I was never prepared for this. I was never taught this information. But we need to discuss it.
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The history of our psychological discipline is not free from oppression. A big part of the scientific ground on which we stand was founded during a period of time when racism was the norm. We shouldn’t ignore that many of our theories were adjusted to adhere with the racial agenda of that time, some were even specifically designed to aiding and abetting the founder’s personal views on race and society. When we’re taught theories and their founders, we often fail to mention the context behind them.
An often-named anecdote in our studies is the pseudoscience of phrenology. With its picturesque skulls, decorated with dotted lines and nonsensical numbers, it is a go-to illustration presented in multiple PowerPoint lecture slides. It’s regularly used to strengthen the narrative of a self-correcting science. When we discuss phrenology, we’re taught it was the precursor that gave rise to modern neuroscience and neuropsychology. The pseudoscientific disgraced cousin who was the disappointment of the family, but who nonetheless set a powerful example to the children by inspiring them to be a better science. However, the societal impact of phrenology at the height of its popularity goes undiscussed.
We receive no mention of how phrenology was used as the perfect justification of superiority of the white ‘race’, because their skulls, specifically the white male skull, were simply more developed. It is a crowning example of scientific racism, deeply enveloped within generations of oppression by perpetuating white supremacist rhetoric. And yes, eventually we realized that it was not a science, and it paved the road for better sciences. This is a very important thing students need to be aware of: we as a society, as a discipline, are in time capable of change. However, when we use this as an example, we have to be aware and transparent about the entirety of our history, including the hurt and the hate, not solely the promising end result.
All of this, in my mind, epitomized into the perfect illustration: Francis Galton, on a lecture slide. Three bullet points: individual differences, first lab for IQ measurement, and considered the ‘father of psychological tests’. No eugenics. The founder of eugenics, whose intellectual heritage is one of profound hurt and intergenerational trauma. We need to discuss it, and yet; we don’t. I wanted to know why and went to the coordinator of the course. And I was met with sympathy. He understood the importance. Yes, it had to be discussed. But, it needs to be discussed well, not in a hurried way, he explained. Not crammed somewhere in the four-week curriculum of the course, where a predetermined amount of information just has to be conveyed. I understood and respected this, it was a good explanation. But I still believe it is crucial that we discuss it. Especially in these times, when discussions about police brutality and institutional racism are so impactful and present in society and amongst students. Universities are teaching future professionals, our students will be in front of a corporation, or a research project, or perhaps a client. A client who is themselves perhaps a member of a minority group. Whose family history has a difficult and hurtful relation to science and our profession. If we don’t explain the history and applications of our profession fully, how can future psychologists offer professional care and help?
During the last lecture of the course, an overview of all the material was given in order to prepare us for the exam. And there it was again: Francis Galton. But this time, there was something different. In cursive: eugenics. Because, as the coordinator put it: “When we talk about Galton, we also need to mention eugenics.” Perhaps this led some students to enter the whirlwind with me as well. It is an important whirlwind, one that many of us need to enter. And this includes the university. We, as a university, should reconsider what information we want to make students aware of. In this, we need to make difficult decisions and sometimes enter a whirlwind of information to enter that world. As the American blues musician and activist Daryl Davis puts it: “We have the good, the bad, the ugly and the shameful. And it’s all part of our history and no history should be destroyed. It should be preserved so people can learn from it.” The history of Psychology is no exception.
Georgina Dijkstra (19) is currently enrolled as a second-year Psychology student and follows a double degree in Philosophy.