Academic journal article Social Justice

Engaging the Past: Charles M. Goethe, American Eugenics, and Sacramento State University

Academic journal article Social Justice

Engaging the Past: Charles M. Goethe, American Eugenics, and Sacramento State University

Article excerpt

The Arboretum

EVERY TIME THAT I DROVE THROUGH THE MAIN ENTRANCE TO CALIFORNIA STATE University in Sacramento during the last 25 years, I could not help but notice the prominent signage that announced the C.M. Goethe Arboretum." As a long-time faculty member, I knew that Charles M. Goethe (1975-1966) was a widely respected philanthropist and benefactor of the university. But because I have been doing research on eugenics, a now-discredited science popular in the 1920s and 1930s, I now know that in his 1936 presidential address to the Eugenics Research Association, Goethe (1936: 66) publicly defended Nazi Germany's "honest yearnings for a better population."

Why would my university, with its strong commitment to multicultural values, pay homage to somebody devoted to breeding a master race? This question prompted my investigation into Goethe's relationship to his adopted alma mater. (1) What I discovered was that from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, when Sacramento State College, as it was then known, was courting Goethe for his money and prestige, the university turned a blind eye to his widely known racist views, even participating in efforts to sanitize Goethe's public reputation. Once his bigotry became a public embarrassment, especially in the context of the antiracism movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the university held its nose and distanced itself from Goethe's unsavory reputation, while continuing to use his bequest. This has been the policy for the last 30 years. It is time for a different approach.

The decision to remember, whether made personally or socially, is a selective process and an "ongoing activity" (Young, 1994: 36). There is no such thing as a neutral act of commemoration because memory is always partial. The past never rests in peace: it is always in motion, subject to revision and reinterpretation, dogmatized into eternal truths or splintered into a thousand fragments. "Every act of recognition," observes geographer David Lowenthal (1985: 412), "alters what survives. We can use the past fruitfully only when we realize that to inherit is also to transform." The choices inherent in remembering are critical to how history becomes embedded in everyday life: commemorating momentous dates, people, and events, and enshrining significance in statues, symbols, and public markers. The case of Charles M. Goethe and Sacramento State University provides a window into the problems faced by universities confronting institutional legacies of hatred.

Human Betterment

Charles M. Goethe was a leading visionary and patron of the American eugenics movement. (2) The science of eugenics, which emerged at the turn of the last century, was designed, in the words of one of its founders, Francis Galton, to give "the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable" (Kevles, 1995: xiii). Influenced by new developments in genetics, medicine, and public health, at the core of eugenics was an assumption about "the central role of heredity in determining physical and mental traits and in the innate inequality of individuals and groups" (Weiss, 2004: 15). Belief in the role of genetic inheritance as a determining cause of social inequality was by no means unique to the Third Reich. Social Darwinism, as it was known, had a long, respectable history in the West.

Eugenics was "all over the political map" (Briggs, 2002: 99), with enormous variation in policies and practices from country to country: endorsed by Fabian socialists in England and by Nazis in Germany; linked to birth control and progressive economic reforms in Denmark, and to racial policies against itinerant tattare in Sweden; an expression of fascist ideology in Argentina and of cultural hybridity in Mexico; and closely associated with the sterilization of those defined as "feeble-minded" in Germany, the United States, Sweden, and Denmark, but not in Holland, England, and Mexico (Broberg and Roll-Hansen, 1996; Stepan, 1991; Kevles, 2004). …

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