Tuesday, November 7, 2017
A committee at the University of Michigan is studying whether to rename an academic building currently named for geneticist and cancer researcher C.C. Little, the university's president in the 1920s, who was also a leading eugenicist and president of the American Eugenics Society. At a September forum accompanying a student rally calling for the renaming, a UM history professor reviewed Little's involvement:
[P]rofessor Martin Pernick opened the panel by discussing the topic of eugenics in a broad sense and what role Little played in it. Pernick made the argument that being in support of the idealistic form of eugenics was not cause enough to remove a person’s name from the building they were named after.
“Eugenics meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” Pernick said. “Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, defined it as the use of science to improve human heredity. Who can argue with that? Using science to improve things.”
Pernick explained Little’s interpretation of eugenics was what merited a renaming of the building named after him. According to Pernick, the type of genetics Little supported was one that promoted the advancement of those who held power in society in the early 20th century, through any means necessary.
“The kind of eugenics that Little promoted included all of the American Eugenics Society’s most controversial methods: compulsory sterilization, ban on interracial sex, selective immigration and restrictions by ethnicity,” Pernick said.
In an interview, university president Mark Schlissel says he has no opinion yet and is waiting for the committee report, which he notes is charged with suggesting criteria for these renaming debates:
[O]ne of the more interesting and challenging criteria is: You can imagine there are many ideas that in today’s context seem ridiculous, that they’re so out of step with our current values and the current social norms in our society that they make no sense. However, when you’re thinking about a naming, you have to actually go back in time to when the naming happened, and then figure out in the context of those times, how do you judge that person? Were they typical of their era, or were they a terrible outlier that, regardless what the era was, you wouldn’t want to associate yourself with their values? That’s a very hard thing to do because I’m sure 100 years from now there are going to be things that we all do and think and care about today that our society a century from now is going to think about really differently. That’s happened all throughout our history, there’s no reason to think it’s not going to keep happening.
How should one shaped by the criticism of eugenics found in Catholic social thought assess a debate like this? (1) Welcome the fact that the wrongs of eugenics have been brought to campus attention through the kind of student advocacy that we've seen concerning other historical wrongs? (2) Suspect, and complain, that condemnations of eugenicists will be selective (e.g. entirely omitting Margaret Sanger or Clarence Darrow) and overly narrow (e.g. underplaying its threats to human dignity that are not tied to racial/ethnic discrimination) and will simply rest on the currently dominant political views on campus? (3) Some other assessment?