Eugenics and the Deaf Classroom

Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Three of the social and political forces that influenced American education were the Industrial Era, the Eugenics discussion, and the mass education after World War II.

Industrialization and Education

The first of these forces was the industrialization of United States society. There was a massive shift from artisan work, apprenticeship and niche-specific training schools, to impersonal manufacturing work (Mod-U). This shift in the economy impacted schooling, for good and ill, by eventually making education compulsory, but also by homogenizing the educational system (with education focused solely on producing workers).

Eugenics and the Deaf Classroom

Alongside this synthesization of the education machine was a homogenizing philosophy taking root in American Society: eugenics. The idea that creating a genetically pure society, the Darwin-influenced theory that the fit who survive should lead and purify society, had a resounding impact on America’s Deaf education in particular. Deaf schools taught by teachers who knew sign language, focused on helping Deaf students learn skills needed to survive in society. However, as the eugenics movement grew in popularity, the Milan Conference in 1880 determined that Deaf students should be only taught to speak and that all sign language should be banned (Brill, 1984; World Federation of the Deaf, 2010). This determination came with Alexander Graham Bell at the lead and, of course, no Deaf present to voice (sign) their strong aversion to this ableist philosophy except for one Deaf man (out of 164 delegates from 7 countries). The enactment of this decision played heavily in proposed laws for the mass sterilization of people with disabilities (an ideal that Hitler later enacted fully). It also led to sign language going underground and Deaf schools no longer able to be the hub of Deaf communities. Students were harshly punished for signing (with the most common being that their hands were tied down to their chairs, which incredibly continued in most of the USA until the Deaf Rights movement in the 1980s). As one of my professors at BYU taught, while they may have been able to say a few words correctly, they had nothing to talk about; their schooling (and home life) was extremely limited without their natural language. It has only been in the last decade or so that significant strides to overcome the Milan Conference fiasco have finally been achieved and the basic human right to language has been addressed in the schooling system (World Federation of the Deaf, n.d.). Though, unfortunately, oralism continues to lead out in Deaf education, despite the manifold of research to the contrary.

World War II and the GI Bill

A third force that impacted American schooling was World War II. The US government enacted “the GI bill” which paid for veterans to be able to go to higher education institutions. This meant that members of society were receiving college educations at an unprecedented rate. This bill (which continues to be part of the American military incentives), made getting a college degree the norm (or at least a norm). The societal, philosophical, and political shifts in American Society clearly influenced the education system in significant ways.


Brill, R. G. (1984). International congresses on education of the deaf: An analytical history, 1878-1980. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet College Press.

Mod-U. (2017). Why Is Our Education System So Complex?: A Short History of Education [Video file]. United States: Duke University's Social Science Research Institute. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from

World Federation of the Deaf. (2010). 21st International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) in July 2010 in Vancouver, Canada. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from

World Federation of the Deaf. (n.d.) WFD Charter on Sign Language Rights for All. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from

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