Even before the end of World War II, eugenics was a “science” under terminal assault. Its funding had been cut. Its leaders discredited. Its methods proven unworkable. Yet, even after the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed, eugenics hung on as a key topic taught in at least 50% of American high school biology classrooms into the 1960s.
Because eugenics could perform a trick no other topic could manage – deliver cautionary tales about the consequences of sex to roomfuls of pubescent teenagers. While “special lectures” about venereal disease and personal hygiene were presented to sex-segregated groups from the 1920s on, frank talk about reproduction was too much information for the regular classroom. Eugenics served as a non-controversial proxy. That its lessons folded in big dollops of racism and classism, frankly, only added to its appeal and longevity.
An examination of the history of biology textbooks published during the critical “pre-boom” decade of the 1940s reveals a battle between authors who hoped to survive in a shrinking market by simply ignoring the fact that eugenics had been discredited, others who attempted to create non-eugenic based curriculums, and a third group who used their textbooks to fight against challenges to eugenics, as if a critique of the topic represented nothing but capitulation to political correctness.