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Learning Amid The Silence: Education of the Hearing-Impaired in Ante-Bellum America

Author: Timothy Crumrin, Conner Prairie Historian

Formal education of the deaf or hearing impaired was late in arriving in the America. It was not until the April 15, 1817 opening of the Connecticut Asylum for the Education of Deaf and Dumb Persons in 19th Century Sign LanguageHartford that the United States could boast of its first permanent school for the deaf. The school, the brainchild of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, was dedicated to the use of the "natural language of signs" in the education of its charges.1 By doing so, it was casting itself forth upon one of the two main streams of deaf education- -and setting the standard for that specialized instruction that would remain supreme in the United States until after the Civil War. European Background

The deaf or hearing impaired have been communicating among themselves and with the hearing world around them since times unknown. Through pantomime, contrived signs, and speech they have understood the world and made themselves understood. They have taught and been taught by various means over the years, but the earliest recorded educational efforts probably took place in sixteenth century Spain. There, wealthy parents of deaf children could well afford to hire "learned individuals" to teach their children, and with it came the "literature of deaf education. 2

Fray Meichior de Yebra was the first Spaniard to set down a method of communication for the deaf. The monk adapted a hand alphabet used by members of Catholic brotherhoods sworn to silence after concluding that a means was needed of communicating with those who were unable to speak but wished the rites of the church. De Yebra also indicated that such a sign language was already used by some in the deaf community. It was probably spread by deaf boys who had been educated in the monasteries and subsequently hired as the teachers of deaf children of the wealthy. It should be noted that de Yebra's hand alphabet is nearly identical to that used by hearing-impaired Americans in the twentieth century.3

It was through the efforts of a fellow countryman, Juan Pablo Bonet, that de Yebra's work was made known to later generations. De Yebra's fingerspelling chart appeared in Bonet's Simplification of the Letters of the Alphabet and a Method of Teaching Deaf-Mutes to Speak. Ironically, Bonet's work advocated the teaching of oral language to the deaf. It was Bonet's contention that members of the household should know sign language so that they could communicate with the deaf members, but the deaf person "should reply by word of mouth to the questions put to him, even though he may err in pronunciation of his replies." Bonet's viewed echoed that of the proponents of the other main stream of thought in the education of the deaf, the oralist movement. 4

The Oralist Tradition

The oralist movement, which emphasized the importance of teaching speech as the primary communication method, had many proponents from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.5 News of the progress in the education of the deaf in Spain spread elsewhere. Stories abounded of the successes and tales were told of the deaf individuals who were able to converse easily. Sign language was often used in conjunction with the teaching of speech and speechreading, but the goal for oralists was a deaf population which could speak to all.6

Perhaps the most famous of the oralist schools, and the one most important to the oralist tradition in America, was the Braidwood School in Edinburgh, Scotland. Thomas Braidwood, a mathematics teacher, accepted the assignment of teaching the deaf son of a wealthy merchant in 1760. The young man had become deaf at the age of three and Braidwood claimed success in teaching him speech-- although this was disputed by many.

Despite these contrary claims, Braidwood's school prospered and grew- -especially after Samuel Johnson and his Boswell wrote approvingly of his work. The school employed signing, but again the hoped for end result was speech. Braidwood, one historian claims, was one of those who "confused the gift of speech with the gift of reason, and he taught primarily rich, hard of hearing pupils.7

Word of Braidwood's achievements spread to America and some wealthy Americans, among them the Bollings of Virginia, began to send their children to Scotland. The cost of so doing being prohibitive, some parents of deaf children began to look for alternatives. GallaudetSome hired private teachers who met with little or mixed success. Hopes were raised when word that John Braidwood, grandson of Thomas, had arrived in the United States. Ambitious, but troubled, young Braidwood had crossed the Atlantic in 1812 to seek his fortune.

Among the first to approach Braidwood was Dr.Mason Fitch Cogswell, a Connecticut physician whose daughter's deafness had sparked an interest in deaf education. Cogswell had begun a campaign to start a school for the deaf in his home state. Thomas Braidwood seemed the logical choice to head such an enterprise, but the young Scotsman with an eye for his best chance declined. Braidwood failed in attempts to set up schools in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond, Virginia and was lounging in a new York jail when he was approached by the Bollings and set up a school at their Plantation, Cobbs.

The Cobbs school operated from 1812 until 1816, but was doomed by Braidwood's profligate ways and Thomas Jefferson's refusal to make it a part of the University of Virginia. Following Braidwood's disappearance from Cobbs, he took one more stab at operating a school, this time in Manchester, Virginia in 1817, but once again his lifestyle was his undoing and he was soon shown the door by the minister who oversaw the school.8

Braidwood's failures opened the way for another school-- and method of communication- - to claim hegemony in America. Clerc , Gallaudet, and the Power of Signs

Signing, too, had its adherents. Seventeenth century works like Deusing's Deaf and Dumb Man’s Discourse and John Bulwer's Philocophus, or, the deafe dumbe man’s friend added to the understanding that the hearing impaired could be well educated and the importance of sign language.9 France replaced Spain as the leader in the field.

In France the Abbe L' Epee began to teach the deaf in earnest in 1760, the same year Braidwood began his school. Known as the Father of the Deaf, Epee pioneered in the use of sign language and did much to aid the general public's understanding of the hearing impaired. He, in turn, taught the Abbe Sicard who made the Royal Institute for the Deaf in Paris the preeminent center for the education of the deaf in the world.10

One of the institute's star pupils was Laurent Clerc. Clerc was held up as a shining example of the educated deaf person. Sicard took Clerc on tours with him to explain and hype his methods. While on a tour in London Clerc met Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. A sickly Congregationalist minister, Gallaudet became interested in the education of the deaf through the deaf daughter of his neighbor, Dr. Cogswell. Cogswell's rebuff by John Braidwood had not dimmed his interest in the cause. He and Gallaudet joined forces and by 1815 had raised enough money to send Gallaudet to Europe to learn the latest methods.

After meeting Clerc in London, Gallaudet went to Paris to study at the Institute. Homesick and running out of funds, Gallaudet persuaded Clerc to travel to America with him to teach and serve as a model for others. In America they combined with Cogswell, who had been working to garner support for a deaf school, and founded the Hartford school.11

The Hartford school set four important precedents which were to influence the course of deaf education in America. It was a residential school that drew from a large area. Though initially privately funded, it soon began to receive support from state and federal funding. Sign language, not speech or speechreading, was to be its guiding principle. Finally, many of the instructors were also deaf.12 Sign language formed the basis of instruction. Paramount was the "natural Language of signs, " a system "without which every attempt to teach the deaf and dumb would be utterly vain and fruitless." The other three methods were a standardized sign system modeled after Epee's system and similar to modern signed English, fingerspelling using the Bonet system and written English.13 Only written English usually required classroom instruction. The other three methods were normally acquired by interaction with other pupils. A regular curriculum of arts and sciences was taught. The school was a success and had thirty-one students from ten states by the end of its first year.14

A Movement Spreads

A New York school opened in 1818. An instructor from Hartford named Stansbury was hired as its superintendent even though Clerc thought him inferior and without understanding of the Hartford system. As if to confirm this, Stansbury used only the methodical system and went into the oralist camp at the new school.15

The next school for the deaf to emerge opened its doors in Pennsylvania in 1820. Like the other schools, its founding was based on a perceived need and grew out of the incipient reform and betterment movements of the era. That movement was soon to spread to the west.

Kentucky School

The first school west of the Alleghenies was located in Danville, Kentucky. The impetus for the school came from a Kentucky senator who had a deaf daughter. Opened in 1823, it was under the direction of Centre College and meant to serve the West. It was provided with large grants of land. Manual AlphabetThe school first operated under the "New York Method" of oralism under the direction of Dewitt Clinton Mitchill, but that proved a failure.

John Jacobs, a nineteen year old student at Centre was chosen as its new director. A dedicated man, Jacobs traveled for thirty days on his white horse to Hartford to take private lessons from Laurent Clerc. Jacobs paid forty cents an hour to receive instruction in American Sign Language and manual English. Jacobs lived with the Hartford students and spent his days observing classroom methods. The Deaf and Dumb Asylum was to continue to use manual English even after Hartford and Clerc turned mainly to American Sign Language.16 The Ohio Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb

In 1827 the Ohio legislature passed an act, largely under the urging of a Rev. Hoge of Columbus, establishing a school for the deaf.17 It had been preceded by a private school begun in the early 1820's in Tallmadge, Ohio. The school was operated by a Col. Smith and the teacher was a former Hartford student.18

The state school opened on October 16, 1829.19 It was the first school "established on the principle that the state must defray the entire expense of providing a complete education for the deaf."20 This was in contrast to Kentucky and other schools which expected those able to pay to provide at least part of the cost.21

Horatio Hubbell was the director. Hubbell had also gone to Hartford to learn its methods and returned with both this knowledge and students to act as teachers in the new school. In addition to enrolling its own students, it absorbed those from Col. Smith's school.22 In 1833 it was described as a three story brick structure 50 by 80 feet. It was located one half mile east of the statehouse. The building was fronted by four Doric columns and could house 200 students.23 The Ohio school was to "sire" schools in Indiana. Illinois and Tennessee.24

Beyond 1836

The Hartford system which relied on signing in its various forms was to dominate deaf education until after the Civil War. Schools opened between 1836 and the Civil War (Indiana in 1843, Illinois in 1846) normally adopted at least part of the Hartford system. It was not until after the war-- and at the urging of Alexander Graham Bell-- that a trend toward oralism and speechreading began to take hold in America and the world.

Notes 1. John Vickery Van Cleve and Barry A. Crouch, A Place of Their Own (Washington, 1989) pp. 29, 44-45: Harlan Lane, When the Mind Hears (New York, 1984) pp.226-229
2. Van Cleve and Crouch, p. 10
3. Van Cleve and Crouch, pp. 11-12
4. Van Cleave and Crouch, p. 12
5. Lane, p. 112
6. See Lane, pp. 85-102
7. Lane, p. 106
8. For details of the Braidwood and other educational schemes see Lane, pp. 105-112 and Van Cleve and Crouch, pp.21-28
9. Van Cleve and Crouch, pp. 17-18
10. See Lane for a more detailed explanation of the lives and importance of Epee and Sicard.
11. Van Cleve and Crouch, pp. 36-38
12. Van Cleve and Crouch, p.29
13. Van Cleve and Crouch, p. 45
14. Lane, pp. 226-228
15. Lane, pp. 243-248
16. Lane, pp. 247-248
17. Henry Howe, Historical Collections of Ohio, vol. I (Cincinnati, 1908) p. 636
18. Lane, p. 248
19. Howe, p. 636
20. Lane, p. 248
21. Advertisement in the Indiana Journal, September 12, 1840
22. Lane, pp. 248-249
23. Scott & Wright, The 1833 Ohio Gazetteer ( Columbus, 1833) pp. 155-156
24. Lane, p. 249