To Classify, Control, and Correct

Students marching past the Main School Buildings on the Parade Grounds of Sherman Institute, 1910s. Courtesy of: Sherman Museum, Riverside, CA.

Solitary Confinement Units, Lost Privilege Cottage, Whittier State School (renamed Fred C. Nelles in 1941). Courtesy of: Los Angeles Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Family tree created by eugenics fieldworks to trace supposed genetic defects. Courtesy of: Eugenics Records Office records, American Philosophical Society Library, Philadelphia

John was sent from Whittier to Sonoma State Home, where inmates were routinely, legally sterilized. Credit: Photograph by Fred C. Nelles Courtesy of: California State Archives, Office of the Secretary of State, Sacramento

Whittier State School Dining Room. Courtesy of: Whittier Public Library Historical Photograph Collection

Sherman students in school laundry, a job held without pay to keep the school operating. Courtesy of: Sherman Museum, Riverside, CA

Children wearing military uniforms in front of Whittier State School administration building. Courtesy of: Whittier Public Library Historical Photograph Collection

Written by - Alice Lapoint, Alan Alexander Malfavón, Grace Pankau

The Whittier State School for juvenile offenders and Riverside’s Sherman Institute were among the first state institutions for youth opened in California at the turn of the 20th century. Both used architectural space, racial classification, and vocational training as means to regiment and control their youthful charges to conform to white, middle-class standards of behavior. Yet these modes of order and discipline more often served as means to subjugate and acculturate youth to their place in the lowest societal rungs, and to lives of menial labor and persistent poverty.

French philosopher Michel Foucault describes in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison how architecture is used to correct and control, to transform individuals and shape them through an uneven relationship of power reinforced by physical structures. At Whittier, the benignly named “Lost Privilege Cottage,” for instance, included solitary housing units to isolate and discipline boys, with scarring psychological and physiological effects. (Some of the horrors children experienced were revealed in the investigations following community outcry over the suicides of Benny Moreno and Edward Leiva while in solitary in 1939 and 1940.) Architectural design was disciplinary, in other words, even when seemingly bucolic in its “homelike” exterior appearance. It was an essential component in controlling bodies and molding minds, core to purported goals of “transformation” that children at Whittier and Sherman had been sent there to undergo.

In practice, however, racialized ideas about children’s potential determined their training. At Whittier it was defined through classification into distinct categories based on perceived intelligence. Heralded as innovations that would help transform delinquents, intelligence tests in the 1910s did not take into account the lack of English skills of immigrant and first-generation youth and the limited educational opportunities of many youth of color. Inevitably, a test that relied heavily on these language and literacy skills scored these children as “feeble minded.” These scores were used to justify racial typologies such as the “cholo” Mexican American and the “big coon” African American, epithets established decades earlier and through these studies used with scientific authority. Administrators often explained away test results that countered the racially based thinking they themselves held; when a Mexican American boy scored a “superior” on the test, the field worker concluded the student had been “coached.” Thus, seemingly objective classification methods presorted youth of color into categories of low intelligence. Rather than providing students with instruction, administrators routed some of the “feeble minded” into sterilization programs and transferred others to institutions where they learned to be unskilled laborers, as these students were deemed incapable of being reformed into educated non-criminals. The elimination of these students from Whittier enabled the school to claim success, as in 1925, when “the overwhelming majority” of students were said to be of normal or superior intelligence.

While Whittier’s goals were to reform “delinquents,” the Sherman Institute sought to “civilize” and assimilate Native American children to white society. Removed from their families and forced to stay once at Sherman, students were forbidden to practice native language and culture. Yet they were also deemed incapable of well-rounded education beyond vocational training, due to the assumption of racial incompetence. In the first half of the twentieth century, most of the girls at Sherman were trained as domestic servants. The boys were typically taught farm work or hotel service. Forms of skilled labor, such as welding, were taught to a few boys at Sherman Institute and fortunate girls benefitted from the nursing program offered between 1907 and 1956. However, it was assumed that young people of Native American birth were only fit for nonacademic work of the most servile sort. English instruction was confined to what would help the students in those industries, and selected for them. Due to this training, students at Sherman were routed into a lifetime of menial labor.

Have schools changed in the following decades? To answer this question, perhaps consider the architecture, technologies, and cultures of control that surround marginalized students (youth who are of color, LGBTQI, disabled, and impoverished) in underserved schools today. Or one can look at the standardized tests administered and ask if these are used to classify and determine the course of students’ futures. How do our educational policies fare in helping these students create successful lives?


Bahr, Diana Meyers. The Students of Sherman Indian School: Education and Native Identity since 1892. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.

Chávez-García, Miroslava. States of Delinquency: Race and Science in the Making of California’s Juvenile Justice System. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

Nocella II, Anthony J., Priya Parmar, and David Stovall, eds. From Education to Incarceration: Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline. New York: Peter Lang, 2014.

Trafzer, Clifford E., Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, and Lorene Sisquoc, eds. The Indian School on Magnolia Avenue: Voices and Images from Sherman Institute. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2012.

Whalen, Kevin. “Labored Learning: The Outing System at Sherman.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 36, no. 1 (2012).