Henry Goddard: Eugenicist & Inheritability of Intelligence

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  • 0:03 Early Work and Eugenics
  • 1:27 Shaping Intelligence Tests
  • 3:44 Goddard's Impact on Education
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Denise Miles
Henry Goddard is often called the father of American intelligence testing. His controversial work helped shape public education in the United States, while reinforcing negative stereotypes of those with intellectual disabilities. Learn more about the life and work of this controversial figure.

Early Work and Eugenics

Henry Goddard, who lived from 1866-1957, was an educator and researcher in the field of psychology. He began his career teaching at the University of Southern California in 1888, where he was also the first and only undefeated coach of the football team. After leaving USC, he became a teacher and administrator in a Quaker school. He earned his Ph.D. in psychology at age 30 and began a research position at the Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys, in Vineland, New Jersey, in 1906.

It was in doing this work that Goddard became deeply interested in intellectual disabilities. This is also where he built his theories on eugenics. Eugenics is an area of study dedicated to the belief that the human race can be improved by manipulating which people are allowed to breed. His major work in this area is a book he published, entitled Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness.

This book, based on a student he had at the Vineland Training School, purported that intellectual disabilities are hereditary in nature and, therefore, should lead to mandatory sterilization or institutionalization of people with this condition. As you might imagine, this controversial idea would lead many to discount his later contributions because they cannot look past this finding.

Shaping Intelligence Tests

Henry Goddard's research at the Vineland Training School earned him considerable notice in the psychology community. Unlike other eugenicists at the time, Goddard did not believe that visual screenings and physical measures could be used as the sole identification process for intellectual disabilities.

In 1908, he traveled to Europe to research intellectual testing, believing this more qualitative tool would be a better screener. While there, he learned of the work of psychologist Alfred Binet and the development of the Binet and Simon Intelligence Test. He felt this test was so well crafted that he translated it into English for dissemination in the United States. Once he returned to the United States, Goddard distributed the translated Binet Intelligence Test widely, training educators and other professionals in its use.

His data collection continued at Ellis Island, where he began using the Binet Intelligence Test as part of the screenings there in 1910. At the time, his ideas fit into the American zeitgeist about immigration. The popular opinion in the late 19th century was that Ellis Island was allowing too many people with intellectual disabilities into the United States. Many believed Goddard's work lent credibility to that concern by asserting that intellectual disabilities are an inherited condition.

Later, in 1912, Goddard would develop screening procedures for Ellis Island. However, test questions were biased, and results were skewed to reflect the results supporting their theories. You can see an example of this in the test question: Which of the two faces is prettier depicted in this image - where clearly the response is subjective and not based on fact.

1908 Binet-Simon test item

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