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  • Wednesday, January 30, 2019 - 12:00pm to 1:30pm

Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics 350 

Chelsea Chamberlain (History, University of Pennsylvania)

The Myth of Human Equality: Intelligence Testing and Exceptional Children, 1900-1930 

Educational psychologists declared the early twentieth century “the dawn of a new era in education.” Beginning in the 1890s, compulsory education laws had brought increasing numbers of students with wide-ranging mental and physical capacities into schools. Psychologists and educators debated what to do with the “exceptional” children: those who lagged behind, repeating grades without learning anything and the bright children whose potential went unfulfilled. In an era devoted to maximizing efficiency, such waste could not stand.

Psychologists used intelligence tests to classify and sort the nation’s students according to their perceived physical, mental, and moral capacity. School systems subsequently created a host of new classrooms such as ungraded classrooms for the ‘backward,’ sight-saving classes for those at risk of going blind, and gifted classes for the highly intelligent. They also created mechanisms for institutionalizing children deemed incurably defective, and therefore fundamentally ill-equipped to govern themselves. Now inmates, not students, they were declared institutional rather than national citizens. Yet at the same time, their behaviors and bodies were used in service to the nation as experimental test subjects. Historians have argued that compulsory education laws were meant to “safeguard democracy,” but connections between public education and eugenic institutionalization demonstrate that, combined with intelligence testing, such laws instead redefined democracy and remade the bounds of citizenship.

Chelsea’s paper uses the publications and archival collections of prominent psychologists Leta Hollingworth, J.E. Wallace Wallin, and H.H. Goddard to explore how intelligence testing created and attempted to solve the problem of “exceptional children” in public schools. She argues that their efforts not only reorganized public education but also raised new questions about democracy and citizenship by declaring human equality a myth. Her paper demonstrates the political consequences of psycho-medical diagnosis and contributes to our understanding of how disabilities have shaped the shifting exclusionary boundaries of national citizenship.

Ana Klimchynskaya (Comparative Literature, University of Pennsylvania)

Fictions of Equality: Science Fiction and the Technological Challenge to Democracy

From automation to surveillance to the Internet of Things, our lives are becoming increasingly automatized, mechanized, and technologized, often in invisible and subconscious ways. Such technoscience can bring either increased equality or stratification. For example, technologies such as prostheses, mobility devices, and digitized learning tools offer greater freedom and access to resources for disabled individuals. Alternatively, however, machine-learning algorithms designed to improve efficiency – such as predictive policing software or recidivism models– can use faulty data and inaccurate correlations to perpetuate inequalities at great scale under the guise of objectivity. In short, technology can either create opportunities for those less advantaged, or amplify already-existing disadvantages. With the arguably accelerating pace of technological innovation, such stratification may well continue unabated: in addition to, for example, expensive cutting-edge medical technologies, we will likely see the development of prohibitively-priced physiological enhancements that can, on a biological level, increase divisions that already exist on a social level. One of the biggest challenges of the future will therefore be how we approach such innovation while preserving the ideals of American democracy.

Taking as her example several technologies – including machine learning, biotechnological enhancements, and Big Data – Ana considers the challenges we will face from three angles: regulation, education, and access. With the arguably exponential pace of technological development, it has become difficult even for experts to keep up with innovations in their respective fields. Additionally, our legal system is a fundamentally reactive one, with regulation following behind innovation. How, then, Ana asks, do we ensure the proper and informed regulation of new technologies? How might we transform our education system to prepare citizens for the far-reaching transformations such swiftly developing technologies will inevitably bring, and how might we educate them about the dangers and drawbacks of these innovations?  And, finally, how might we ensure equal access to these transformative technologies while safeguarding rights, such as those of intellectual property?

The Andrea Mitchell Center Graduate Workshop Series meets once a month. Graduate students from all fields, interested in the topics of democracy, citizenship, and constitutionalism, are invited to participate in the workshops. Our goal is to foster an interdisciplinary forum for discussing these subjects. To see our schedule of events for this year, please visit our website