Alexander Cowan: Methods and Ethics

In this post, Alexander Cowan, graduate student in historical musicology at Harvard University, considers some methodological and ethical questions in relation to his research on music in the American eugenics movement. In particular, he has focused on the psychologist Carl E. Seashore, whose method of quantifying supposedly inherited musical talent was taken up by hundreds of US schools from the 1920s onwards.

Alex blogs here.

Methods & Ethics

Toward the end of 1926, the American Eugenics Society set out to close their New York City office. Donations that year had been less forthcoming than expected, and, as Executive Secretary Leon F. Whitney wrote: ‘Anybody who has his heart in the cause expects […] to have to make sacrifices.’ Whitney made much of his own sacrifices—taking one week’s holiday instead of his usual three—but he expected more of others, particularly the women who made up most of the Society’s secretariat. One woman, Anna M., was let go from the office without receiving her all of her final month’s pay. When she protested this, Whitney replied with condescension: ‘I do not like the spirit which you have shown in apparently assuming that the world owes you a living’. She responded bluntly: ‘I do not think “the world owes me a living,” but I do think that the American Eugenics Society owes me a week’s salary.’[1]

I came across this exchange among the papers of Charles B. Davenport, Director of the Eugenics Record Office, and moved past it quickly. It is to say the least unsurprising that the American Eugenics Society was not a particularly nice place to work. Whitney’s chauvinism, all too recognizable in its insistence that women bear outsized sacrifices or be branded disloyal, seems of a piece with a man who could be described as American eugenics’ chief bureaucratic enabler: fighting his secretary for a week’s pay is petty, or banal, but consistent with a greater cruelty.

While interesting anecdotally, this exchange contained only a couple of details relevant to my work, on the place of music in the American eugenics movement, and in particular, the psychologist Carl E. Seashore, who developed a method of measuring supposedly inherited musical talent, that found its way into hundreds of schools. But of everything I encountered in Davenport’s archive, it encapsulates best some of the contradictions that I’ve come across while exploring some diverse materials that sit between scientific research, music, and public policy.

Working with scientific sources is, in some ways, a gift. I was able to go a considerable distance in this project using only published primary material—journal articles, society newsletters, magazines—much of which has been digitized and uploaded to academic depositories like JSTOR. (The historical continuity between eugenics and contemporary genetics has its uses).

Archival stories like Anna M.’s can help disrupt the relatively stable, reified picture of scientific research that published sources can construct in isolation, asserting the worldliness and consequence of matters easily deemed abstract.  Secretarial work—apparently underappreciated at the time—offers crucial ways into the political economy of the world in which this research was conducted. From Davenport’s reply to her dismissal, for example, I learned that the shortfall in donations was largely the fault of George Eastman, founder of the Eastman School of Music and Seashore’s primary backer, halving his support to the Society.

It remains the case, though, that I know more about the life of one secretary than I do anyone who was denied a musical education based on the ability tests the eugenics movement pioneered. This difficulty resembles one felt keenly by historians of colonialism, often required to reconstruct the lives of colonial subjects only through the well-preserved archives of the colonizers. But in the case of the history of science, a history of intellectual work that cultivated an image of distance from the lives of those it impacted, an additional problem arises: not so much a matter of letting a subaltern group ‘speak’ on their own terms, but of identifying its scope. Working with scientific papers and society archives can only take us so far, and while some higher-profile victims of eugenic policies are recorded—Carrie Buck’s name lives on, as do those of people deemed ‘imbeciles’ and incarcerated—the number, let alone the social makeup, of those affected by eugenic education policy is not part of the immediate historical record.

Tracing the commercial side of Seashore’s project has helped go some way toward righting this absence. The Seashore Measures of Musical Talent, Seashore’s  primary eugenic innovation, was a listening test, designed to be administered via gramophone to school children en masse, to search out talented children for further musical education—as Seashore put it, to separate ‘the gold from the dross’. (A version of the test can be heard here.) Released on the Columbia record label, the Measures had a double life as a commodity in addition to a scientific instrument, and the reach of the recordings is quite well documented. Although this doesn’t get me closer to the experiences of those who went through the Seashore process, or reveal whether the buyers of the Measures endorsed their eugenic premise, it at least gives a sense of the number of people convinced enough by Seashore’s promises that they were willing to part with money to put them to use. As in the case of Eastman’s donation, it is important that even in the history of ideas, we should still bring the receipts.

Anna M. eventually received her week’s back pay, and went on to secure a job at the Merck Chemical Company, although she wrote, ‘I haven’t found chemicals so interesting as eugenics’. (Leon Whitney may have doubted her commitment to the cause, but it seems she had at least a passing interest.)

For every way examples like hers add a richness of social information to scientific topics that can sometimes very purposefully seem insulated, they draw attention to the lure of a particular kind of detail that can obscure as much as it reveals. This project is still in its early stages, and I hope that as it progresses, I’m better able to account for the cost of these eugenic policies, rather than retell only the stories of those who boasted of their value.

[1] All quotations are from letters in the Charles B. Davenport Collection, at the Library of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Anna M. has been anonymized, as her association with the AES was brief.


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