Three 50-minute class periods

From Theory to Classroom: Eugenics and Education

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Explore the key assumptions of the Eugenics movement, and examine their own attitudes and reactions to these ideas.
  • Examine the role of education in furthering Eugenics in both the United States and Germany.
  • Examine how "race" has evolved into an organizing principle for political theory and social policies.
  • Develop and present conclusions to their peers about the Eugenics movement.


This outline suggests several ways for students to make the critical connection between the American Eugenics movement and the emergence of Nazi race science during the 1920s and 1930s. While distinct, both movements relied upon social and political policy makers to bring their ideology to bear upon American and German citizens. Readings from both Holocaust and Human Behavior and Race and Membership in American History are utilized.


The historical setting of these activities spans the time period between the late 18th century and the early 20th century. During this period, the intellectual movement known as The Enlightenment took hold in both America and Europe. While this movement gave birth to many of the ideas that are central to the founding of the United States, such as, equality and representative democracy, it also spawned the belief that humankind could be divided into distinct and unequal races. Attempts to scientifically validate a belief in "racial" differences produced new ideas and policies, which ultimately surfaced in the 20th century as Eugenics and race science.



  1. Begin with a Barometer activity structured around some of the basic assumptions of the Eugenics movement. The purpose of this activity will be to build a frame of reference for students to reflect on some their preconceptions about race and science. For example, all or some of the following statements can be posted on the board or an overhead projector:

    • "Race" is a real and accurate human trait.
    • Physical and behavioral traits between and within races are biologically determined
    • Environment has little or nothing to do with a person's development
    • Science can help weed out "bad blood" through artificial selection. (Sterilization, immigration restriction, marriage restriction, etc.).

    Care should be taken both before the activity and during a debriefing session to make sure that the purpose of this activity is clear. Rather than create embarrassment or discomfort, this activity is about exploring the range of thinking within the class around these issues.

  2. After completing the activity, focus a large group debrief and discussion around the ideas of scientific objectivity and scientific factuality. Invite students to write reflections on how these ideas might be transmitted from the scientific community to the wider society.

  3. Divide the class into two groups. One group will focus on the role educational institutions in the United States played in furthering eugenics. This group will focus on the following reading:

    The second group will focus on the role educational institutions in Germany played in extending eugenics into Nazi race science:

  4. Following these explorations, have students individually reflect in their journals on their reactions to what they have discovered.

  5. Devote time for each group having to present a summary of their findings.
  6. Provide opportunities for the class as a whole to discuss their findings in more detail, and to recognize the differences and similarities in how these particular histories played out in both Germany and the United States.



Pair students from the two main research groups (United States & Germany) Have each pair prepare four essay questions for an exam for the entire class. Of the four essay questions, two should address the overarching themes and the connections that were made on days three and four, the other two questions should be more specific to what was explored in the separate groups. Have students come to class the following day with a list of Jeopardy questions that they have developed. The teacher should review the questions in order to check for student's comprehension of the material. Have students play the game as a class. An additional assessment of student comprehension would be to have the students do a "Quick Write" in response to questions posed by the teacher

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