Amidst the revision of the Schmucker Science Center name, WCU History Professor Brent Ruswick held a talk titled, “What’s in a Name? A History of Eugenics, Samuel Schmucker, and the Politics of Naming and Commemoration.” Dr. Ruswick’s talk consisted of what he called a crash course on eugenics, Schmucker’s contributions and how to approach the renaming of a building.
The talk had been organized by the Office of Sustainability as one of many Research and Practice Seminars taking place this semester. Dr. Ruswick was specifically invited to speak on his research.
“Most of my other current research in the history of poverty and disability likely is less relevant and interesting to WCU,” said Dr. Ruswick. “I offered instead to give a general overview of the history of eugenics, to help think more clearly about what Schmucker meant in his commentaries about intellectual disability, and to reflect on other universities that have faced similar issues.”
Dr. Ruswick first gave a lesson on eugenics, a concept he said had been initially created to solve social issues. He said eugenics had primarily focused on nature, plants and livestock before it began to include the human population. He quickly summarized the two aspects of eugenics: positive and negative. Negative eugenics are what you hear about mostly commonly and include concepts such as marriage restrictions, segregation and sterilization, but those are the more extremist beliefs. He described eugenics as being conflicting to discuss; it has targeted the most vulnerable of society, but has also applied to other aspects of life, such as social reforms and conservation.
Following the crash course, Dr. Ruswick discussed Schmucker’s association to eugenics. He stated it is believed that Schmucker’s beliefs were rooted in those of other eugenicists such as Henry Goddard, who also was a professor at WCU. Schmucker had reportedly come to the defense of Goddard for his ideology and endorsed his concept of the “feeble-minded family tree,” which said feeble-mindedness was caused by heredity.
Dr. Ruswick also addressed Schmucker’s popularity during his time as a professor of Biology and Science Education, stating that Schmucker saw biology as existing in a larger moral universe and believed that biology could instruct us in right living and values. His presentation noted Schmucker’s support of environmental reforms and also included his support for the idea that heredity dictates “feeble-mindedness” and his support for the institutionalization of people who were deemed “feeble-minded.”
During the talk, Dr. Ruswick made sure to reference the counter-arguments, such as the idea that Schmucker was simply a “man of his times.” To this argument, he raised the point that there has always been an opposition to eugenics in government and churches, and victims of eugenics were also people of their times. He said that looking into history, there will always be findings that can be considered problematic and may not hold up to our current values or morals.
For the final part of the presentation, Dr. Ruswick compared Schmucker to a building named after Alexander Graham Bell at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). He said that while Bell made contributions to the deaf community such as helping children gain skills in listening, speaking and lipreading, he did not support the use of sign language. RIT suspended the name in 2008, after an advisory committee decided to terminate the use of the name. WCU has been following in similar steps through their creation of an advisory committee as well. The committee is currently reviewing the findings of Dr. Ruswick, his students and other contributors.
In consideration of renaming Schmucker Science Center, Dr. Ruswick brought up questions that must be taken into consideration with the proposed renaming, “Whose memories are valid? Who is ignored?”, “Who are the buildings for?” and “Is the statement we made when naming the building still the statement that we wish to make today, is it still indicative of our values?”
“What I hope to see from the discussion of the building name is a process that elevates us, that produces more light than heat. I’ve made it clear that I think this is an issue that WCU needs to address, and we are.” said Dr. Ruswick.
A recording of this event can still be found on WCU’s Office of Sustainability homepage.
Kelly Wallace is a second-year media and culture major with a minor in journalism. KW978394@wcupa.edu.