On Feb. 9, the Palo Alto Unified School District board decided to form a committee to review whether Jordan Middle School should be renamed, given the eugenics background of its namesake, David Starr Jordan. While talking to Palo Alto residents and community organizations, it became clear to me that a more complete picture of who Jordan was is needed. With this column, I hope to introduce readers to Jordan based on his own writings and that of various historians and Stanford University resources.
Born in 1851, Jordan graduated with a master's degree from Cornell in 1872 and became professor of zoology at the University of Indiana in 1879. He assumed the presidency of Indiana University in 1884, and at age 40 he became the first president of Stanford University, serving from 1891 until 1913. According to the university's website, Jordan "had not only handled the problems of starting a new university but had dealt with academic budgets being cut back in order for an extensive building campaign to progress and handled a major catastrophe (the 1906 earthquake) that had left his university in ruins." (tinyurl.com/DSJ-Stan01) He died in Palo Alto in 1931.
Stanford's eighth president, Donald Kennedy, noted: "Jordan's own scientific accomplishments were, to be fair about it, significant but not monumental. But the institutional seeds of growth he left behind germinated into something more far-reaching than any of his own ideas." (tinyurl.com/DSJ-Ken02)
Jordan's scientific interests spanned natural history, biology and zoology, which were in transition after Darwin postulated the "survival of the fittest" in his "Origin of Species" study (1859). Jordan converted to this evolutionist position and, according to his autobiography, "The Days of a Man," lectured on the "Science of Bionomics" throughout his tenure at Indiana and Stanford. Bionomics, he wrote, deals with "the philosophy of Biology, beginning with the laws of organic life and leading up to Eugenics and Ethics."
Eugenics was a pseudo-science that applied Darwin's survival-of-the-fittest concept to the human race. The movement originated in England where Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin, promoted that the fittest members of society should be selectively married off and reproduce, so that poor heredity would disappear over time. While hotly debated in England, no eugenics laws were enacted, and no actions taken.
In the U.S., Jordan was one of the early leading proponents of eugenics, according to historians Paul Lombardo and Sheldon Olsen. But unlike Galton's selective marriage proposals, Jordan's eugenics sought to prevent the decay of the Anglo-Saxon/Nordic race by limiting racial mixing and by preventing the reproduction of those he deemed unfit.
Jordan's obsession with the "survival of the Anglo-Saxon/Nordic race" was fueled by his deep-seated racism. In his book, "David Starr Jordan: Prophet of Freedom," historian Edward McNall Burns dedicates chapter 3.1, "Superior and Inferior Races," to Jordan's racism, attributing this assertion to Jordan: "To say that one race is superior to another is merely to confirm the common observation of every intelligent citizen."
Even Jordan's "much admired" pacifism was rooted squarely in his eugenics beliefs. Jordan did not reject war on grounds of morality; instead, he feared that during war the nation's strongest die, leaving room for the unfit to reproduce and decay the Anglo-Saxon/Nordic race, according to historian Garland E. Allen. Jordan forcefully argues his "pacifist" convictions in his 1899 newspaper article, "Anti-Imperialism," six months after victory in the Spanish-American War, as the U.S. was about to annex the Philippines: "There is no objection to national expansion, but colonies are not national expansion; slaves are not men. Wherever degenerate, dependent or alien races are within our borders today they are not part of the United States. They constitute a social problem, a menace to peace and welfare." ([http:www.tinyurl.com/DSJ-Call03 tinyurl.com/DSJ-Call03)
Starting with his presidency at Indiana, throughout his 22 years at Stanford and up to his death, Jordan leveraged his reputation and connections to influence lawmakers, organize funding and rally the public to his cause. Specifically, according to historic records and historians cited above:
1902: Jordan published one of the first books dedicated to eugenics, "The Blood of the Nation: A study of the decay of races, through the survival of the unfit."
1906: Jordan chaired the first U.S. eugenics organization, a chapter in the American Breeders Association.
1907: The first U.S. forced-sterilization law was enacted in Indiana, heavily influenced by Jordan's authority.
1909: California's eugenics program, driven by Jordan's outsize influence, quickly dwarfed those of all other states.
1928: Jordan was a founding member of the Human Betterment Foundation, devoted entirely to the promotion of forced sterilization legislation.
1935: The Human Betterment Foundation, led by Jordan protege Paul Popenoe, takes credit for inspiring the eugenics program in Nazi Germany, as historian Anthony Platt writes in "Bloodlines."
In 2003 the California Legislature unanimously "expressed its profound regret over the state's past role in the eugenics movement," which ultimately caused more than 65,000 forced sterilizations in 33 states. This regret was caused in no small part by the eugenics leadership and actions of Jordan.
In its resolution the Legislature also reminds us that we "must honor human rights and treat others with respect regardless of race, ethnicity, religious belief, economic status, disability, or illness."
By continuing to honor Jordan, we dishonor the values of our school community. Each year, in every school, we recognize and honor the diversity, inclusion and acceptance of each other's differences with "Unity Day" and "Not In Our Schools" activities.
And last but not least, Jordan "summarily dismissed the argument that differences in intellectual capacity are the result of opportunity and education," according to historian Burns, undermining our schools' mission to "empower every child to attain his or her highest intellectual, creative and social potential."
As a community, and for our children, we cannot continue to honor the legacy of David Starr Jordan.