Schools as Laboratories: Science, Children's Bodies, and School Reformers in the Making of Modern Argentina (1880-1930)

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This dissertation examines the influence of scientific ideas in the school to illuminate teachers’ participation in the production of scientific knowledge about pedagogy and childhood. I interrogate how scientific theories circulating transnationally —including positivism, Darwinism, neo-Lamarckianism, and eugenics—, impacted pedagogical theory and practice. I contribute to the historiographies on race and gender in Latin America by conceptualizing the schools as a laboratory, a site for the circulation and production of scientific knowledge. Between 1880 and 1930, Argentina experienced cultural, political, and economic transformations. Argentine elites promoted their nation’s insertion into the world economy through industrialization, urbanization, and European immigration. Drawing on scientific ideas that provided a language to diagnose and propose solutions to social problems, the government founded normal schools, secondary education institutions to train teachers. In 1884, the Congress passed a law that universalized primary education. Primary and normal schools became the means to incorporate children into the nation and the site where thousands of first-generation students —mostly women— continued their studies with the help of a state run system of national and provincial fellowships.

I argue that in school laboratories teachers contributed to reproducing the positivist and racist ideologies that disciplined children while, at the same time, teaching prompted women to participate in science. Women became producers of knowledge within a local and transnational network that expanded beyond the classroom and connected their practice with magazines, congresses, and scientific journals. By observing children’s bodies and experimenting with pedagogical methods, teachers advanced pedagogy as a science and developed studies on children’s intelligence. Drawing on their teaching experiences and in scientific discourses circulating transnationally, many teachers used their position to challenge what they considered as disciplinary and authoritarian practices and organized to democratize the school. School reformers experimented with teaching methods, enacting alternative ways of schooling that centered on children’s freedom of movement and expression. By looking at the links between science and teaching, I contribute to highlighting the historical connections between the emergence of universal schooling in Latin America, the rise of eugenic thought, and the emergence of women’s participation in science and politics.