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Why did the US enact compulsory education?

Why did the US enact compulsory education?


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Why did the US enact compulsory education? The wikipedia article actually isn't very helpful, at least where the intentions of the people who campaigned for this are concerned. I seem to remember hearing in high school that this had something to do with the Progressives, and they were concerned that everyone (regardless of their ability to pay) needed a basic education. Am I remembering any of that right? I have also heard this was a way to limit child labor. My real interest is in the motivations: why did people at the time think that children should be educated, and how did their reasons change as the 19th century transitioned into the 20th? I'm down to read primary sources.


From about the mid-19th century on, there were four distinct trends occurring that all motivated, in unison, the development of compulsory education. These trends occurred throughout all of Western Europe as well as North America at roughly the same time.

First was the desire to eliminate child labour. By ensuring the registration of all children, and then assigning them all to designated schools and classrooms, legislation against child labour became much more effective. In many rural areas (including most of North America) the school year was deliberately scheduled around the planting and harvest seasons.

Second, growing nationalism created a desire to ensure assimilation of minorities. To that end, national curricula were designed so that a "national dialect" was taught to all children throughout each nation. Parisien throughout France and Algeria; Berliner Deutsch throughout Prussia and then Germany; Wiener Deutsch throughout Austria; British English throughout England; etc.

Third, increasing suffrage of first men and then women created a desire that citizens be capable of educating themselves about their world, and its political policies and platforms. In an age when the newspaper was king, this required the ability to read at a high school level.

Finally, the increasing technical demands of industrial jobs required a better educated workforce. A workforce capable of reading, writing, and basic arithmetic calculations, whether measuring parts, cashiering, or taking dictation, was fast becoming a requirement in an industrial society. Evidence for this is clear in the massive explosion of mail order sales in the latter half of the 19th century, leading into the development of the Sears Catalogue business in the 1890's. Prior to that time catalogue sales were pretty much restricted to books, but in the late 19th century much of a farm family's purchases were by catalogue, requiring that even the traditionally least literate segment of society become capable readers.

So, regardless of the governmental level at which the details of education policy were crafted and implemented, national policies in all of the four areas above drove the increasing trend towards universal education of minors. Details vary by nation, but in every Western Culture from Berlin to San Francisco, Oslo to Naples, national policies in these areas were driving educational policy towards universality.


Compulsory Education

Compulsory education laws require parents to have their children attend public, private, or parochial school for a designated period. Each state determines both the start and end time duration and generally requires children to begin school at the age range of five to seven years and end at the age of sixteen or seventeen. Some parental rights and responsibilities around educating children of a certain age were born out of U.S. Supreme Court decisions. This section focuses on the history and development of compulsory education laws, also known as compulsory attendance laws, and provides an overview of court case exemptions. Click on the links below to learn more.


Schooling Monopoly

The problem is the monopoly that schooling has gained over education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 97 percent of kids go through traditional schooling (as opposed to homeschooling or unschooling), and just over 90 percent of those attend government schools. That is to say, there is basically one accepted way to educate kids today: school them.

Given the relatively poor performance of American students on international achievement tests, you would think schooling might receive a second look. Quite the opposite, actually. It is instead made mandatory, and taxpayers are forced to subsidize it. This begs the question: Why would the government continue to propagate a system that produces such questionable results? The answer lies in their motives, and their motives are best understood by reviewing a brief history of compulsory schooling.


What is the History of the K-12 Education System?

The K-12 education system is the public education system that most people are familiar with today. Comprised of 13 grades, kindergarten through 12th, it refers to the public school system in all of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and parts of Europe as well. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact history of education, as it has been occurring in some form for centuries in all parts of the world.

Today, K-12 education represents the compulsory education required of all children in the US. Though this type of education can be attained from either publicly or privately funded institutions, children who have reached compulsory school age (ranging from age six to eight, depending on the state) are required by law to attend school. Compulsory education in the United States began over 150 years ago when Horace Mann established a statewide system of education in Massachusetts, which became the first state to pass school attendance laws in 1852. By 1918, children were required by law to receive an education in all states.

Kindergarten was actually developed prior to compulsory education. Though it is not compulsory in all states, children are required to start school in most states at the age of six. If the child is too young to start kindergarten the year he turns five, kindergarten may technically be required since he will be turning six that school year. The word kindergarten is of German origin and means “children’s garden.” The concept was the brainchild of Friedrich Froebel, a self-educated philosophical teacher, who sought to develop a place of guided play for children to “bloom.”

The first kindergarten established in England was in 1852, and the United States followed by establishing its first in 1856. Though education was required of all children in Massachusetts by that time and many other states were following suit, not all schools provided, nor required, kindergarten.

Similarly, not all schools required a student to stay in school beyond a certain grade, as compulsory education initially applied only to elementary aged children. Many children were also permitted to miss portions of the school year, especially farmers’ children who were needed at home for harvesting crops and preparing for the winter.

The Education Act of 1918, or the Fisher Act, was an act of British Parliament that implemented changes in progressive education and helped form many aspects of the K-12 education system used today. The Fisher Act raised the age at which children could leave school to 14 and addressed education needs, such as health inspections and accommodations for special needs children. This act also led to the development of a committee that reported to and made recommendations to policy makers regarding education.

In the United States, unlike England, public education was governed by each individual state. As early as 1791, seven states had specific provisions for education in their own individual constitutions and were formed partly on the basis of education without religious bias. Prior to the passing of compulsory school attendance laws, education was primarily localized and available only to the wealthy, and it often included religious teachings. Following the compulsory attendance laws, Catholics banned together in opposition of states mandating common schooling and created private Catholic schools. In 1925, the Supreme Court ruled that children could attend public or private schools for education.

Over time, each individual state developed its own department of education to oversee the public education system. Compulsory attendance grew to include kindergarten and mandate attendance through the age of 16. Funding sources for public education also grew to include federal, state and local sources. Federal funding was overseen by the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare from 1953 to 1979, until it was divided and the US Department of Education was formed as a stand-alone entity.

By the 1950s, compulsory education had become well established, but the K-12 education system was really still in its infancy. Schools were still primarily localized, but education was no longer available only to the wealthy. Even in the 1950s, however, segregation by race was still common practice in public schools in the US. Then came another landmark decision by the Supreme Court.

In 1954, in the US Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Though this decision was met with resistance and it took many years before legalized segregation was completely eliminated, especially in southern states, the federal courts eventually achieved success.

This achievement was not without its repercussions, and many urban and inner city schools saw an exodus of wealthy and middle-class white families, who moved to suburban districts. In time, many urban districts were left only with poor families and it became difficult to attract and pay for quality teachers and education.

Since the formation of the US Department of Education in 1979, the education system has been similar to what is found today, but has undergone a series of developments and amendments to accommodate the changing needs of education. Funding has always been a source of concern for public schools, especially in poor, urban districts, where the quality of education also came into question.

As a result, federal funding is now directly related to school performance as determined by standardized testing under the current No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NCLB was signed into law by President George W. Bush 3 January 2002. Under this law, standards of accountability were increased in an effort to improve performance and to give parents flexibility in choosing schools.

NCLB requires states to administer assessments of basic skills to all students at certain grade levels and achieve the standards set forth by each state in order to receive federal funding. Specific and more rigorous goals were placed on reading achievements under this law and states also had to develop high school exit or graduation exams with specific measures of assessment in place as well. The intention was to hold schools to a higher level of accountability, but was debated from its inception.

Currently, the K-12 public education system provides a 12th grade education to eligible students for free. Families have the option of sending their children to private schools, but are then responsible for tuition. The future of education will undoubtedly experience change and social and economical challenges, just as it has in the past. Programs may soon expand to include pre-K compulsory attendance and could even expand to include options beyond the 12th grade, as these are concepts, in their earliest stages, currently being explored.


The truth is, homeschooling can provide a uniquely supportive environment, where anxious kids can be encouraged to try new things, and where their emotional and mental health can take priority over academics when that’s helpful.

In this article, we will explore some of the disadvantages of homeschooling.

  • Time. When parents take the responsibility of educating their children at home, they may need to set aside time to make it work.
  • Cost.
  • Socialization.
  • Lack of Facilities.
  • Patience.
  • Motivation.

1 Guaranteed Access

Compulsory attendance laws exist to ensure that every child in this country receives a free, public education. Without this free access, some parents would not be able to afford private education for their children. Also, these laws ensure that children who need them have access to essential services that may not be available unless they were attending school. Schools not only provide a free education, but also special education interventions and services, free breakfast and lunch programs and vision and hearing screenings.


Why did the US enact compulsory education? - History

The compulsory attendance act of 1852 enacted by the state of Massachusetts was the first general law attempting to control the conditions of children. The law included mandatory attendance for children between the ages of eight and fourteen for at least three months out of each year, of these twelve weeks at least six had to be consecutive.

The exception to this attendance at a public school included: the child's attendance at another school for the same amount of time, proof that the child had already learned the subjects, poverty, or the physical or mental ability of the child to attend.

The penalty for not sending your child to school was a fine not greater than $20.00 and the violators were to be prosecuted by the city. The local school committee did not have the authority to enforce the law and although the law was ineffective, it did keep the importance of school before the public and helped to form public opinion in favor of education.

In 1873 the compulsory attendance law was revised. The age limit was reduced to twelve but the annual attendance was increased to twenty weeks per year. Additionally, a semblance of enforcement was established by forming jurisdictions for prosecution and the hiring of truant officers to check absences.

The state of Connecticut enacted a law in 1842 which stated that no child under fifteen could be employed in any business in the state without proof of attendance in school for at least three months out of twelve. The penalty was $25.00 and the business was made financially responsible for the fine. Through this system of fines businesses were forced to be socially responsible for children as well. In addition, children could not work more than ten hours a day. This fine was $7.00 per day. By 1918 all states had passed a compulsory attendance law.

Some of our current laws have taken root from these early laws and have expanded on them. For example, the exceptions to compulsory attendance have been addressed by the states in various ways. Presently children are required to have a physical before entering school and again before enrolling in high school. They must also have a regulated number of immunizations in order to control disease and attain the best level of health for each child, thus helping to make them physical able to attend school.

The states have also restricted working conditions of school age children. A child must obtain an "intent to hire" form from the business they intend to work for and take it to the school to be approved. There are currently restrictions on the type of work as well as the number of hours worked and the lateness of the hours a child can work.

Since the first law in 1852 the goals of education remain the same and have been gradually improving the conditions of children by supporting these restrictions on child labor. Compulsory education laws and child labor laws have worked hand in hand to advance children's rights.


Why Brown v Board of Education Is More Important Than Ever

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregating public schools according to "separate but equal" was unconstitutional in America, allowing the nation to witness one of its greatest legal achievements of the Civil Rights era. But today, on the 64th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education, we must reflect on that momentous victory not for romanticized nostalgia, but rather because, according to some researchers, our public schools are more segregated today than they were in the late ❠s.

For much of America’s history, black children and white children have been prevented from attending the same schools, due to legalities and sometimes even violence aimed at black students who attempted to do so. Whether it was 19th century anti-literacy laws that prohibited enslaved children from receiving any form of education, or the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v Ferguson which held that segregation did not violate the 14th amendment (which grants all U.S. citizens equal protection under the law) as long as the separate facilities were equal (a ruling referred to as “separate but equal”). This effectively relegated black and white students to incredibly different public schools, with white children having better access to higher quality facilities and resources, while black Americans, who were just 31 years removed from slavery, were displaced with fewer supplies and opportunities than their white neighbors.

In 1951, Oliver Brown, a black father from Topeka, Kansas, became fed up with the inequality of segregation after his 9-year-old daughter, Linda, was denied entry into Topeka's all-white elementary schools and decided to file a class-action suit against the Board of Education of Topeka. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where Thurgood Marshall, who at the time was the head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, served as Oliver's chief attorney — a courtroom Marshall eventually became intimately familiar with after becoming the first black Supreme Court justice in American history. It was just 64 years ago today that the face, and race, of America’s education system was forever changed by the unanimous Supreme Court decision overruling Plessy, effectively disallowing segregation in America’s public schools.

Far too often when this story is told in textbooks, movies, and even just regular conversations, we tend to present this accomplishment as the beginning of a perpetual nonstop avalanche of school-desegregating victories leading up to our current day — yet, when it comes to the reality of present-day school segregation, that couldn't be any further from the truth. Not only did the ruling inflame racists' response to integration, such as mobs of armed white segregationists patrolling the streets of Mansfield, Texas in 1956 on the first day of school after 12 black students were admitted (one incident amongst many), but it touched off a long and concentrated effort to undermine academic inclusivity, an effort mostly led by white parents. From a more recent lens, the number of segregated schools in America doubled between 1996 and 2016, according to an analysis by Will Stancil at The Atlantic using National Center on Education Statistics data, and entire school districts are increasingly becoming racially distinct, even as the districts themselves become more diverse.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics via UCLA's Civil Rights Project, the percentage of black students in the South who attended a school that was at least 50% white was 0% in 1954 (just before Brown v. Board of Education was enacted), 44% in 1989, and 23% in 2011. While writers like Robert VerBruggen argue that school re-segregation isn't taking place because America, on a whole, is becoming less white, therefore resulting in minorities attending schools that no longer have a white majority, some intensive research appears to disprove his theory. Research from Southern Methodist University's Meredith Richards shows that when neighborhoods experience a lot of demographic change, attendance zones are drawn in an aggressively segregated manner. In fact, even neighborhoods that don't experience much racial change can still enact segregated zoning.

Unfortunately, the actions of the current administration have revealed a stark disinterest in tackling re-segregation. As public schools re-segregate, the rise in charter schools has not helped this trend. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who was previously the chair of the pro-school-choice advocacy group, American Federation for Children, advocated for a "choice" system that, in her home state of Michigan often resulted in increasing school segregation as white students left for less diverse school districts, according to Bridge Magazine. Across the nation, the rise of charter schools has contributed to this disturbing trend.

When we talk about school segregation, it is critical to also talk about housing segregation because the less diverse a neighborhood is, the less diverse the schools in that neighborhood will be. While President Obama instituted policies attempting to curb segregation by punishing cities and towns that fail to address segregation by denying them federal housing aid, Trump, along with U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, have delayed the Obama-era requirements. By delaying, Trump is allowing segregation to go unchecked and unfixed which could result in inner-city neighborhoods becoming even more segregated and disenfranchised which quickly overflows into the schools, damaging all measures of fostering enhanced opportunity and equality. And, to make matters worse, just last month during a confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Trump's federal judge nominee Wendy Vitter refused to say whether she agreed with the Brown v Board of Education ruling. A woman who may receive a federal judgeship seemingly can't publicly state that basic equality is a policy to be proud of.

What’s so critical to understand about the case for rejecting segregation is that when it comes to race in America, separate does not mean equal. In the United States, where a long history of prejudice and systemic racism has worked to perpetually disadvantage black communities in myriad ways, separating schools and neighborhoods by race effectively results in separating people socioeconomically. During the Jim Crow period in the early-to-mid twentieth century, white families, who got to live in more affluent communities thanks to government policies, were able to send their children to highly functioning schools, while many black families, who had no government policies to assist them and had to contend with everything from Jim Crow to violent racial terror, found themselves sending their children to poorly functioning and underfunded schools. If we allow school zoning to erode diversity, we can easily find ourselves back in the old "separate but equal" days where a quality education was just out of reach for black students, negatively affecting their post-secondary education opportunities, future employment opportunities, and their overall quality of life.


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&ldquoIn our dream we have limitless resources, and the people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hand. The present educational conventions fade from our minds and, unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive rural folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or of science. We are not to raise up among them authors, orators, poets, or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians. Nor will we cherish even the humbler ambition to raise up from among them lawyers, doctors, preachers, statesmen, of whom we now have ample supply."

- Rev. Frederick T. Gates, Business Advisor to John D. Rockefeller Sr., 1913 [1]

The current American school system took root around the turn of the century. In 1903, John D. Rockefeller founded the General Education Board, which provided major funding for schools across the country and was especially active in promoting the State-controlled public school movement.

Here&rsquos a timeline to show the radical shift in education and the influence of the financial elite.

Pre 1840: Literacy Rates High, Schools Predominantly Private and Locally Controlled

Up until the 1840&rsquos, the American school system was mainly private, decentralized, and home schooling was common. Americans were well educated and literacy rates were high.

1852: Massachusetts Passes First Mandatory Attendance Law

1902: John D. Rockefeller Creates the General Education Board

At the ultimate cost of $129 million, the General Education Board provided major funding for schools across the nation and was very influential in shaping the current school system.

1905: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is Founded

1906: NEA Becomes a Federally Chartered Association

1913: Frederick T. Gates, Director of Charity for the Rockefeller Foundation, Writes &ldquoIn our dream&hellipthe people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hand&rdquo

Frederick T. Gates wrote in The Country School of Tomorrow, Occasional Papers Number 1:

&ldquoIn our dream we have limitless resources, and the people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hand. The present educational conventions fade from our minds and, unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive rural folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or of science. We are not to raise up among them authors, orators, poets, or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians. Nor will we cherish even the humbler ambition to raise up from among them lawyers, doctors, preachers, statesmen, of whom we now have ample supply."

1914: National Education Association (NEA) Alarmed by the Activity of the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations

At an annual meeting in St. Paul Minnesota, a resolution was passed by the Normal School Section of the NEA. An excerpt stated:

&ldquoWe view with alarm the activity of the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations&mdashagencies not in any way responsible to the people&mdashin their efforts to control the policies of our State educational institutions, to fashion after their conception and to standardize our courses of study, and to surround the institutions with conditions which menace true academic freedom and defeat the primary purpose of democracy as heretofore preserved inviolate in our common schools, normal schools, and universities.&rdquo

1917: NEA Reorganizes and Moves to Washington DC

The NEA is the largest labor union in the U.S., representing public school teachers and other school faculty and staff. It generally opposes merit pay, school vouchers, accountability reforms, and more.

1918: Every State Requires Students to Complete Elementary School

1932: &ldquoEight Year Study&rdquo &ndash Largely funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the General Education Board

This laid the groundwork for education reform and the schooling system we have today.

1946: Rockefeller Foundation grants the General Education Board $7.5 billion

1953: Reece Committee of the US House of Representatives Reveals Agenda of Carnegie Endowment and Rockefeller Foundation on Education

&ldquoIt seems incredible that the trustees of typically American fortune-created foundations should have permitted them to be used to finance ideas and practices incompatible with the fundamental concepts of our Constitution. Yet there seems evidence that this may have occurred.&rdquo

-Norman Dodd, Director of Research, Special Committee to Investigate Tax-Exempt Foundations, 1954 [2]

1968: Edith Roosevelt&rsquos Article &ldquoThe Foundation Machine&rdquo Indicts Carnegie Funded Textbooks

Carnegie funded &ldquoProgrammed Textbooks&rdquo were distributed to &ldquoculturally deprived areas.&rdquo Edith Roosevelt stated that &ldquothese young children are being indoctrinated with a pattern of anti-social ideas that will completely and violently alienate them from the mainstream of American middle-class values.&rdquo

1979: US Department of Education Created

1986: Carnegie Teaching Panel Charts New Teacher Framework & Provides $900,000 in Grants for Reforms

2003: 14% of American Adults are Illiterate

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) administered tests which revealed 14% of US residents would have extreme difficulty with reading and written comprehension. In 2003, some 30 million American adults had Below Basic prose literacy, 27 million had Below Basic document literacy, and 46 million had Below Basic quantitative literacy.

[1] Frederick T. Gates, "The Country School of Tomorrow," Occasional Papers, no.1 (New York: General Education Board, 1913), p. 6.


11 Facts About the History of Education in America

How familiar are you with the history of education in the United States? Did you know the first schools focused on religious studies, not math or reading? Or that public schools as we know them didn’t come into vogue until the 1930s?

We’ve compiled 11 facts about the history of education in America, from the founding of the country to present day. Read below to learn more.

11 Facts About the History of Education in America

1600’s-1800’s

1. The first schools in the 13 colonies opened in the 17 th century. The Boston Latin School was the first public school opened in the United States, in 1635. To this day, it remains the nation’s oldest public school.

2. Early public schools in the United States did not focus on academics like math or reading. Instead they taught the virtues of family, religion, and community.

3. Girls were usually taught how to read but not how to write in early America.

4. By the mid-19 th century, academics became the sole responsibility of public schools.

5. In the South, public schools were not common during the 1600s and the early 1700s. Affluent families paid private tutors to educate their children.

6. Public Schooling in the South was not widespread until the Reconstruction Era after the American Civil War.

7. Common Schools emerged in the 18 th century. These schools educated students of all ages in one room with one teacher. Students did not attend these schools for free. Parents paid tuition, provided housing for the school teacher, or contributed other commodities in exchange for their children being allowed to attend the school.

1900’s-Present

8. By 1900, 31 states had compulsory school attendance for students from ages 8-14. By 1918, every state required students to complete elementary school.

9. The idea of a progressive education, educating the child to reach his full potential and actively promoting and participating in a democratic society, began in the late 1800s and became widespread by the 1930s. John Dewey was the founder of this movement.

10. Through the 1960s, the United States had a racially segregated system of schools. This was despite the 1954 Brown vs. Board Supreme Court ruling. By the late 1970s segregated schooling in the United States was eliminated.

11. In 2001, the United States entered its current era of education accountability/reform with the institution of the No Child Left Behind law. *Update: The Every Student Succeeds Act has replaced No Child Left Behind. Learn more about the change here.

Surprised by any of these facts? Let us know why in the comments below!


In the second of her series to mark disability history month, Victoria Brignell investigates America

In the decades following the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, a craze for eugenics spread not only through Britain but through America as well. Overbreeding by the poor and disabled threatened the quality of the human race, American campaigners warned. Drastic measures must be taken to avert a future catastrophe for humanity.

Amid popular fears about the decline of the national stock, one of the main drives behind the formation of American immigration policy at the end of the 19th century was the desire to exclude disabled people. The first major federal immigration law, the Act of 1882, prohibited entry to any 'lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.'

As the eugenics movement gathered strength, the exclusion criteria were gradually tightened to make it easier for immigration officials to keep disabled people out of America. The 1907 law denied entry to anyone judged 'mentally or physically defective, such mental or physical defects being of a nature which may affect the ability of such alien to earn a living.' It added 'imbeciles' and 'feeble-minded persons' to the list of automatically excluded people and inspectors were directed to exclude people with 'any mental abnormality whatever'. Regulations in 1917 included a long list of disabilities that could be cause for exclusion including arthritis, asthma, deafness, deformities, heart disease, poor eyesight, poor physical development and spinal curvature.

Detecting physical disabilities was a major aspect of the American immigration inspector's work. The Commissioner General of Immigration reported in 1907: "The exclusion from this country of the morally, mentally and physically deficient is the principal object to be accomplished by the immigration laws." Inspection regulations stated that each individual 'should be seen first at rest and then in motion' in order to detect 'abnormalities of any description'. It was recommended that inspectors should watch immigrants as they carried their luggage upstairs to see if 'the exertion would reveal deformities and defective posture'. As one inspector wrote: "It is no more difficult to detect poorly built, defective or broken down human beings than to recognise a cheap or defective automobile." An abnormal appearance meant a chalked letter on the back - L for lameness, G for goitre, X for mental illness. Once chalked, a closer inspection was required, which meant that other problems were likely to be established.

Preventing disabled people immigrating to America was motivated by both economic and eugenic concerns. Officials wanted to keep out people considered likely to be unemployed and who might transmit their 'undesirable qualities' to their offspring. There was widespread support for this approach to immigration. In 1896, Francis Walker noted in the Atlantic Monthly that the necessity of 'straining out' immigrants who were 'deaf, dumb, blind, idiotic, insane, pauper or criminal' was 'now conceded by men of all shades of opinion' and indeed there was a widespread 'resentment at the attempts of such persons to impose themselves upon us.' William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor, argued that immigration restrictions were "necessary to the preservation of our national characteristics and to our physical and mental health". A New York Supreme Court judge feared that the new immigrants were "adding to that appalling number of our inhabitants who handicap us by reason of their mental and physical disabilities."

Disabled people born in the USA were as despised as disabled immigrants. A leading American-based scientist, Alexis Carrel, who worked at the prestigious Rockefeller Institute in the early years of the 20th century, advocated correcting what he called "an error" in the US Constitution that granted equality to all people. In his best-selling book Man, the Unknown, he wrote: "The feeble-minded and the man of genius should not be equal before the law. The stupid, the unintelligent, those who are dispersed, incapable of attention, of effort, have no right to a higher education." Arguing that the human race was being undermined by disabled people, he wanted to use medical advances to extend the lives of those he deemed worthy and condemn the rest to death or forced sterilisation. He later praised Hitler for the "energetic measures" he took to prevent the contamination of the human race.

Carrel was not a lone maverick in America. His views were shared by large sections of the American population. While some scientists distanced themselves from him, much of America idolised him and welcomed his ideas. His book sold more than two million copies and thousands of people in America would turn up to hear Carrel's talks, sometimes filling venues to capacity. He was even awarded the Nobel Prize.

Soon the White House itself was intent on restricting the right of disabled people to reproduce. President Theodore Roosevelt could not have been more blunt: "I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding and when the evil nature of these people is sufficiently flagrant, this should be done. Criminals should be sterilised and feeble-minded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them". Theodore Roosevelt created an Heredity Commission to investigate America's genetic heritage and to encourage "the increase of families of good blood and (discourage) the vicious elements in the cross-bred American civilisation". Funding for the eugenics cause came from such distinguished sources as the Carnegie Institution and the WK Kellogg Foundation, and support also came from the influential leaders of the oil, steel and railroad industries.

In an effort to prevent unfit offspring from being born, sterilisation laws were introduced in many American states to stop certain categories of disabled people from having children. The first such law was passed in Indiana as early as 1907. This was 26 years before a similar law was introduced by the Nazis in Germany in 1933, The Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Disease. In their sterilisation propaganda, the Nazis were able to point to the precedent set by the United States.

From 1907 onwards, many American men, women and children who were "insane, idiotic, imbecile, feebleminded or epileptic" were forcibly sterilised, often without being informed of what was being done to them. The German geneticist Fritz Lenz commented in 1923 that "Germany had nothing to match the eugenics research institutions in England and the United States". He went on to castigate the Germans for "their backwardness in the domain of sterilisation as compared to the United States, for Germany had no equivalent to the American laws prohibiting marriage. for people suffering from such conditions as epilepsy or mental retardation".

A landmark Supreme Court case in 1927 upheld America's sterilisation legislation on the grounds it was necessary "to prevent our being swamped with incompetence". Judge Holmes, reflecting in his judgement that our "best" citizens may be called on to give up their lives in war, said of sterilising the feeble-minded or insane: "It would be strange if we could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices . It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind".

By 1938, 33 American states permitted the forced sterilisation of women with learning disabilities and 29 American states had passed compulsory sterilisation laws covering people who were thought to have genetic conditions. Laws in America also restricted the right of certain disabled people to marry. More than 36,000 Americans underwent compulsory sterilisation before this legislation was eventually repealed in the 1940s.

America was not the only country in the Western world to introduce compulsory sterilisation of disabled people. Sweden sterilised 60,000 disabled women from 1935 until as late as 1976. Thousands of children labelled as having learning difficulties were sent off to live in "Institutes for Misled and Morally Neglected Children" where they were required to undergo "treatment". When the extent of Sweden's sterilisation programme came to light in the 1990s, some heartbreaking stories emerged. One woman was told that she would remain shut away in an institution for the rest of her life if she didn't agree to be sterilised. She recalled crying as she was forced to sign away her rights to have a baby. Another man described how he and his teenage friends, terrified by the prospect of an operation, hatched a plan to run away. Other countries which passed similar sterilisation laws in the 1920s and 30s included Denmark, Norway and Finland. However, America led the way in promoting such a practice.

With such a prevailing culture, it is not surprising that some disabled Americans felt compelled to remain single voluntarily. According to a recent biography by Lyndall Gordon, the acclaimed American poet Emily Dickinson was epileptic. For this reason, Dickinson chose to spend the second half of her life as a recluse, refusing to leave her father's house. In middle age, Dickinson had a passionate romance with a widower who wanted to marry her but she turned him down, regarding herself as unfit for marriage. People with epilepsy in America were warned against marrying for fear that sexual arousal might provoke seizures.

Following the first International Eugenics Conference in London in 1912, two more were held, in 1921 and 1932. Both were hosted by New York and both were dominated by America. At the 1921 conference, 41 out of the 53 scientific papers presented were written by Americans and the invitations were even sent out by the American State Department. At one stage, 375 courses covering eugenics were on offer at American universities including Harvard, Colombia and Cornell.

Not only did the American authorities take measures to stop disabled people immigrating, marrying or having children, but there are examples of American disabled people dying needlessly because society believed their lives were not worth living. In 1915 a leading Chicago surgeon Dr Harry Haiselden decided to allow a disabled new-born baby to die. This wasn't the first time he had permitted a baby with an impairment to die, but no disciplinary action was taken against him. He was investigated three times by different legal authorities and each time they found in his favour. He was expelled from the Chicago Medical Society but only because he wrote newspaper articles about his work, not for his treatment of these children. Indeed, Haiselden received support from many prominent Americans and also won endorsements from some of America's most well-regarded publications including the New York Times and the New Republic.

In 1937, a Gallup poll in the USA found that 45 per cent of supported euthanasia for "defective infants". A year later, in a speech at Harvard, WG Lennox argued that preserving disabled lives placed a strain on society and urged doctors to recognize "the privilege of death for the congenitally mindless and for the incurable sick". An article published in the journal of the American Psychiatric Association in 1942 called for the killing of all "retarded" children over five years old.

After World War II, the Nuremburg court established by the Allies did not order reparations to be paid to the families of disabled people killed by the Nazis nor that those responsible be punished. German doctors accused of murdering disabled people defended themselves by claiming (with some justification) that they were only implementing ideas which had found support in other countries, including America.

What's more, the Allied authorities were unable to classify the sterilisations of disabled people in Nazi Germany as war crimes because similar laws either did exist or had recently existed in America and other European countries. The new West German administration only provided compensation for people who had been sterilised against their will if they could prove they had been sterilised outside the provisions of the 1933 sterilisation law - in other words, if they could prove they were not genetically disabled. Following the defeat of the Nazis, compulsory sterilisation ended in Germany but it continued elsewhere in America and Europe. Only in the 1950s was the eugenic philosophy finally discredited in most countries.

There was no wholesale slaughter of disabled people in the UK and USA as there was in Nazi Germany. However, there are disturbing similarities in the history of these countries. The widespread support given to eugenics in America and Britain shows that many people in these countries shared the values and ideology of the Nazis towards disability. Eugenicists in Britain and America like those in Nazi Germany believed it was socially desirable to prevent the creation of new human beings who might be physically or mentally disabled. Just as the Nazis set out to eliminate disabled people during the Holocaust, so the long-term aim of America's sterilisation programme was to rid the country of people deemed to be "inadequate". Although no formal mass sterilisation programme was implemented in the UK, an unknown number of forced or coerced sterilisations occurred in this country.

Forced sterilisation and mass killing are ethically different. But underlying both these measures was the presumption that there are people who are unworthy of life. The Nazis believed that disabled people's lives had little value and wanted to relieve society of the burden of having to care for people they regarded as useless. We need to recognize that there was a time when such attitudes also received considerable support throughout America and Britain as well.

Social reformers in America and Britain wanted to create a perfect society, but the kind of society they envisaged contained an intolerant, illiberal, authoritarian dimension which allowed no place for disabled people. As Isaiah Berlin once put it, "Disregard for the preferences and interests of individuals alive today in order to pursue some distant social goal that their rulers have claimed is their duty to promote has been a common cause of misery for people throughout the ages."


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