At the end of the 19th century, the United States Civil War pension system was the largest welfare administration in the world and accounted for nearly one third of the federal government’s expenditures. My project, “Political Bodies: Defining Disability, Dependency, and Citizenship in the U.S. Civil War Pension System, 1862-1907,” looks to the archives of this sprawling federal program to historicize “disability” as a legal, political, and cultural status. These records reveal the meaning of disability in late 19th century America was in flux, subject to revision by not only the claims of petitioners and politicians but also the daily administrative practices and decisions of the Pension Bureau’s agents. Drawing on my research at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., my presentation will highlight claimant’s applications and the often formulaic but also deeply personal ways that veterans and their dependents presented their cases for disability before the federal government. These cases illuminate not only late 19th century understandings of the body, labor (and one’s capacity for it), but also the economic and moral relationship between citizen and the growing federal state.
What is the purpose of education? What even is an education? How does education relate to the social environment? My current book project, “The Educational Environment: Euthenics in American Thought,” takes these questions to heart in telling the history of euthenics. This “science of the controllable environment” was founded by the chemist and public intellectual Ellen Richards in 1910, adopted by Vassar College in the 1920s as an experiment in women’s education, and lasted through the 1950s, becoming a general philosophy of education along the way. Those involved in euthenics — including superstars like Julia Lathrop, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Spock, and Margaret Mead — valued context, integrity (in the sense of wholeness), and engagement with the realities of the social environment. This environmental view of education challenges the industrial view of education that rose in the 20th century (and which dominates today), a view that values conformity, standardization, and mass-produced knowledge divorced from lived experience. “The Educational Environment,” in retracing the history of euthenics, provides an alternative to this dominant view of industrial education.