Leta Hollingworth is one of the pioneers of gifted education. She was the first to create a research-based special curriculum for gifted children, and she was much more interested in the social and emotional development of gifted children than anyone else in the field at the time.

Although neglected after her death, Hollingworth’s reputation made a comeback, starting in the 1990s (e.g., Silverman, 1992). Today, she is championed as the “mother of gifted education” (e.g., Klein, 2002) and has an award named after her, administered by the National Association for Gifted Children.

Leta Hollingworth, the mother of gifted education

But for all this adoration, few people seem to talk about an ugly component of Hollingworth’s work: her endorsement of eugenics. I find this strange, because gifted education scholars and practitioners are more than happy to discuss the eugenics of Lewis Terman, “the father of gifted education.” Because of Terman’s eugenic views, many people in gifted education feel a need to disavow his work (Warne, 2019).

But Hollingworth endorsed eugenics. Here are some excerpts from her writing:

The known fact that stands out most clearly in a consideration of the causes of mental deficiency is that it is heredity. Feeble-mindedness is transmissible through the germ-plasm, and a large majority of the defective, variously estimated at from eighty-five to ninety-five percent, show “a bad family history,” either maternal or paternal, or both. Since this is so, it follows that the prevention of mental deficiency in the population can be accomplished only be preventing defective persons from procreating.

Hollingworth, 1920, p. 236

The objections to . . . sterilization, are chiefly objections of sentiment. Here as elsewhere, there is a wide gap between the theory of what should be done, and actual realization in conduct. In states where sterilization is legalized it is carried out with relative infrequency. The law will have to make sterilization mandatory, not permissive only, before such measures will become effectual . . .

Hollingworth, 1920, pp. 237-238

If the sexual instinct were weak in feeble-minded persons, the problem of mental deficiency would be largely self-solving, and no eugenic program would be necessary.

Hollingworth, 1920, p. 158

Highly intelligent persons simply do not want to have many children, and are at the same time enabled by their mental powers to learn rapidly how to avoid what they do not wish . . . Assuming that we know increase in numbers of gifted children to be socially desirable, can we motivate such increase?

Hollingworth, 1929, pp. 4, 6

I am not the first in the 21st century to mention Hollingworth’s eugenics. My colleague, Jennifer L. Jolly (2018), discussed this candidly, as did Hollingworth’s most recent biographer (Klein, 2002). Both authors quote from the same articles I do above.

Consistency with a Clear Conscience

Consistency and fairness dictate that Terman and Hollingworth should be treated the same way. Both were eugenicists, and it doesn’t make sense to vilify one and unconditionally praise the other. Does this mean that both must be rejected and ignored? How can an ethical researcher today build on the work of people who held such repulsive views?

Rejecting work or ideas because they came from an immoral person is a logical fallacy called the genetic fallacy. (The word “genetic” in this case has nothing to do with genes; it refers to the Greek root meaning “origin.”) To say that we must reject Terman or Hollingworth’s scientific views because they had eugenic beliefs is an example of the genetic fallacy. This thinking is erroneous because correct ideas can come from reprehensible people–and saints can have scientifically incorrect beliefs.

There is no requirement that a scientist’s ideas must all be bundled together and adopted. Rather, later generations are allowed to pick and choose ideas from the past that they agree with and discard the rest. The moral fiber of a person who proposes an idea has nothing to do with whether that idea is correct (Warne, 2019).

The best course of action for modern researchers and practitioners of gifted education is to endorse Hollingworth’s and Terman’s ideas that are empirically supported, and reject their eugenics. This allows people today to have a clear conscience in dealing with these scholars’ legacies, while also treating the two in a consistent manner.

References

Hollingworth, L. S. (1920). The psychology of subnormal children. The Macmillan Company.

Hollingworth, L. S. (1929). The production of gifted children from the parental point of view. Eugenics, 2(10), 3-7.

Jolly, J. L. (2018). A history of gifted education. Routledge

Klein, A. G. (2002). A forgotten voice: A biography of Leta Stetter Hollingworth. Great Potential Press.

Silverman, L. K. (1992). Leta Stetter Hollingworth: Champion of the psychology of women and gifted children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(1), 20-27. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.84.1.20

Warne, R. T. (2019). An evaluation (and vindication?) of Lewis Terman: What the father of gifted education can teach the 21st century. Gifted Child Quarterly, 63(1), 3-21. https://doi.org/10.1177/0016986218799433

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