In honor of my graduation today from Vassar College, I wanted to write about the Cognitive Science program’s home, Blodgett Hall, and the unique Euthenics program that it once housed.
An article in the Vassar Encyclopedia, The Disappointing First Thrust of Euthenics, details Vassar’s unique and short-lived Euthenics program. The program was inspired by Vassar alumna Ellen Swallow Richards (1870), who was the first woman to be accepted to MIT. She coined the word “euthenics,” the science of controllable environment, from the Greek stems eu (well) and tithemi (to cause). Put another way, euthenics was the development of human well-being through the improvement of living conditions, so it concentrated on the application of scientific principles in protecting air, water, and food. Much emphasis was placed on parents’ roles in assuring a quality life for their children in the future. Some courses included nutrition, food chemistry, child psychology, sanitation, horticulture, sociological and statistical studies, and economic geography.
The college’s President at the time, Henry MacCracken, was very excited to offer this new multidisciplinary subject, and saw euthenics as a progressive movement, a way for women to link their coursework at Vassar with professions afterward. His hope was for sciences and arts to enhance each other, rather than compete, which would be done by teaching them together as one multidisciplinary field.
The faculty were not as enthusiastic about the idea of euthenics as MacCracken had been. Many believed it would limit women’s development by pushing traditionally feminine fields on them. However, the program was narrowly accepted in 1924 because Minnie Cunnock Blodgett offered to fund the building to house the program. In addition to being equipped with classrooms and labs for the euthenics program, Blodgett Hall also contained a model apartment for the study of interior design and efficient housekeeping, which was also intended to be Blodgett’s residence when she returned to campus. It also included a social museum, displaying exhibits on topics such as tenement housing, racism, and children’s health.
In 1925, Euthenics courses were officially part of the curriculum, but the program was not as popular with the students as MacCracken and Blodgett had hoped, possibly because they were aware of the faculty’s general opposition to the program.
During the Depression, part of Blodgett was repurposed to create a lower cost coop housing opportunity, and after WWII, the Euthenics program was officially removed. One of the biggest problems with the program was that MacCracken presented it at to a traditional faculty just getting used to having autonomy over developing their own single disciplinary programs, making them resistant to the progressive multidisciplinary approach that he envisioned. However, the transient program did set the precedent for a number of multidisciplinary fields that exist at Vassar today, such as Asian Studies, Environmental Studies, and of course, Cognitive Science. Perhaps Euthenics is partly to thank for the Cognitive Science program that has continued to intrigue, excite, and push me throughout 4 awesome years at Vassar.
Van Lengren, K. & Reilly, L. (2004). Vassar College: An architectural tour. Princeton Architectural Press: New York.
Vassar Encyclopedia: The Disappointing First Thrusts of Euthenics