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Laura Bridgman’s Early Education: From the Sixth Annual Report Of The Trustees Of The New-England Institution For The Education of the Blind
by Samuel Gridley Howe, 1838
Samuel Gridley Howe had multiple goals for his work with Laura Bridgman. On the one hand, he wanted to provide her with a thorough education. On the other hand, he hoped to use her as a means of revealing the process of human development and the true nature of humanity. Howe thought that because he could control much of Bridgman’s sensory input, he would be able to better understand how people learned language, developed religious sensibilities, and other characteristic human abilities. His work with Bridgman also reflected his belief in phrenology, a popular mid-nineteenth century science (now discredited) that associated “faculties” such as language and moral sense with bumps on individuals’ skulls. Howe and other phrenologists believed that all humans possessed such faculties, albeit to varying degrees.
Howe also intended to use his work with Bridgman to encourage religious and educational reforms. As a Unitarian, Howe believed that all humans were inherently good and that sins were a product of a poor environment. Unlike Howe, most residents of Massachusetts at this time adhered to orthodox Calvinism (strict Congregationalist Christianity). Through his work with Bridgman, Howe hoped to undermine the orthodox Calvinist doctrine of original sin (the notion that all humans are born as sinners) by documenting that, despite her ignorance of formal religion, Bridgman had a pure moral nature. Moreover, as a close friend and ally of education reformer Horace Mann, Howe hoped that using “moral discipline”—kind treatment—would discredit the rote learning and harsh disciplinary practices common in nineteenth-century public schools.
Until the late 1840s, when Howe became disillusioned with Bridgman’s personality and, in particular, her adherence to evangelical Christianity, he included detailed discussions of their work together in every annual report from the Perkins Institution. Howe’s reports on Bridgman’s progress were reprinted by publishers all over the United States and Europe and were eagerly followed by the public. Because he wanted to use Bridgman to educate the public about the benefits of educating disabled children, Howe’s accounts were selective and almost uniformly positive. He rarely mentioned any of Bridgman’s intellectual or moral struggles.
Among the pupils who have entered during the last year, is one whose situation makes her an object of peculiar interest and lively sympathy; Laura Bridgman, a very pretty, intelligent, and sprightly girl, of eight years, is entirely blind, deaf, dumb, and almost entirely deprived of smell, (1) and has been so since her infancy. Here is a human soul shut up in a dark and silent cell; all the avenues to it are closed, except that of touch, and it would seem that it must be but a blank; nevertheless it is active, and struggling continually not only to put itself in communication with things without, but to manifest what is going on within itself. The child is constantly active; she runs about the house, and up and down stairs; she frolics with the other children, or plays with her toys; she dresses and undresses herself with great quickness and precision, and behaves with propriety at the table and every where; she knows every inmate of the house by the touch, and is very affectionate to them. She can sew, and knit, and braid, and is quite as active and expert as any of the rest of the children. But all this, interesting as it is, is nothing compared to the mental phenomena, which she presents; she has a quick sense of propriety; a sense of property; a love of approbation; a desire to appear neatly and smoothly dressed, and to make others notice that she is so; a strong tendency to imitation, insomuch that she will sit and hold a book steadily before her face in imitation of persons reading. It is difficult to say whether she has any sense of right and wrong disconnected with the feeling that such an action will be reproved, and such an one approved by those about her, but certain it is, she will retain nothing belonging to another; she will not eat an apple or piece of cake which she may find, unless signs are made that she may do so. She has an evident pleasure in playfully teasing or puzzling others. The different states of her mind are clearly marked upon her countenance, which varies with hope and fear, pleasure and pain, self-approbation and regret; and which, when she is trying to study out anything, assumes an expression of intense attention and thought.
(1) For all purposes of use she is without smell, and takes no notice of the odour of a rose, or the smell of cologne water, when held quite near her, though acrid and pungent odours seem to affect the olfactory nerve.
It was considered doubtful when she came whether it would be possible to teach her any regular system of signs by which she could express her thoughts or understand those of others; it was deemed highly desirable, however, to make the experiment, and thus far it has been successful. Common articles, such as a knife, a spoon, a book, &c. were first taken, and labelled with their names in raised letters; she was made to feel carefully of the article with the name pasted upon it; then the name was given her on another piece of paper, and she quickly learned to associate it with the thing. Then the name of the thing being given on a separate label, she was required to select the thing from a number of other articles, or to find the article; for instance, the word key was given her, on a bit of paper in raised letters; she would at once feel for a key on the table, and, not finding it, would rise and grope her way to the door, and place the paper upon the key with an expression of peculiar gratification. Thus far no attention was paid to the component letters of the word; the next step was to ascertain the correctness of her notion, by giving her metal types with the separate letters on their ends; these she soon learned to arrange and to spell the word; for instance, the teacher would touch the child’s ear, or put her hand on a book, then to the letters, and she would instantly begin to select the types and to set them in order in a little frame used for the purpose, and when she had spelt the word correctly, she would show her satisfaction and assure her teacher that she understood, by taking all the letters of the word and putting them to her ear, or on the book.
She then learned the arrangement of the letters in the alphabet, and is now occupied in increasing her vocabulary of words. Having learned the alphabet and the arrangement of letters into words, which she associated with things, she was next taught the manual alphabet, as used by the deaf mutes, and it is a subject of delight and wonder to see how rapidly, correctly, and eagerly she goes on with her labors. Her teacher gives her a new object, for instance a pencil, first lets her examine it, and get an idea of its use, then teaches her how to spell it by making the signs for the letters with her own fingers; the child grasps her hand, and feels of her fingers, as the different letters are formed — she turns her head a little one side, like a person listening closely — her lips are apart — she seems scarcely to breathe — and her countenance, at first anxious, gradually changes to a smile, as she comprehends the lesson. She then holds up her little fingers and spells the word in the manual alphabet; next takes her types and arranges her letters, and last, to make sure that she is right, she takes the whole of the types composing the word, and places them upon or in contact with the pencil, or whatever the object may be.
The process of teaching her is of course slow and tedious; the different steps to it must be suggested by her successive attainments, for there are no precedents to go by; (2) but thus far the results have been most gratifying. She has not yet been long enough under instruction (four months only) to have got beyond the names of substances; the more difficult task of giving her a knowledge of names, expressive of qualities, feelings, &c. remains yet to be accomplished. No sure prognostic can be made, but much is to be hoped from the intelligence of the child, and the eager delight with which she lends all her attention, and the strong effort she evidently makes to gain new ideas; not from fear of punishment, or hope of reward, but from the pleasure which the exercise of the faculties confers upon her. No pains or expense will be spared in efforts to develop the moral and intellectual nature of this interesting child, and no opportunity lost, of gathering for science whatever mental phenomena her singular case may furnish. (3)
(2) Julia Brace, the deaf, dumb, and blind girl, in the Institution for the Deaf Mutes, at Hartford, did not succeed in attaining a knowledge of the written signs significative of objects. Julia possessed her senses until the age of four years, and she is aided by a sense of smell, sharpened by practice, to the acuteness of the vulture, while Laura has it so imperfectly as that she may be said to be without smell. James Mitchell, whose case is noticed by Dugald Stewart and other philosophers, did not learn any system of arbitrary signs, nor is there any case on record of a person deprived of sight and hearing succeeding in doing so.
(3) A further notice of the case will be found detailed in a note at the end of this Report.
Source: Howe, S.G. (1838). Laura Bridgman’s early education. Sixth Annual Report of the Trustees Of The New-England Institution for the Education of the Blind. Retrieved [date accessed] from /issues/bridgman-laura-early-education/.
Source: Disability History Museum, http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/lib/detail.html?id=2282&page=all
Photo Source: Samuel Gridley Howe: National Library of Medicine, Prints and Photographs, Control no.: B015138, Portrait no. 3