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The Education of Laura Bridgman: First Deaf and Blind Person to Learn Language

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Ernest Freeberg

Laura Bridgman, a blind and deaf woman in Victorian America, was something of a celebrity due to the amazing education she received from Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, who taught her to read, write, and speak despite her disabilities. Charles Dickens even … see full wiki

Author: Ernest Freeberg
Genre: Biography & Autobiography
Publisher: Harvard Univ Pr
Date Published: October 15, 2002
1 review about The Education of Laura Bridgman: First Deaf...

Do Horses Stand Up Late?

  • Mar 17, 2009
Pros: Well-researched portrait of Laura Bridgman and the man who both liberated and destroyed her.

Cons: The poor author had to dwell on Dr. Howe, a prisoner of hostility.

The Bottom Line: It will grieve you, it will anger you, it will fill you with joy. I recommend it--if you know the dangers of throwing books across the room.

A Fish Is a Fish Is a Fish...

     Actually, a fish is a wet, slippery, slimy creature--something that you do not wish to touch, despite your mother's entreaties to pose with it for a "humorous" picture. I came to these conclusions one day when my father, recently returned from a fishing trip, inquired as to whether I actually knew what a fish was like. Being totally blind, I admit that the first six years of my life had been rather fishless. If anything, I had imagined a fish as a little rubber toy model that had long since lost its tail. Of course, the situation must be remedied. Without further ado, my father grabbed my hand and ran it over this unattractive relic of a boating adventure: "This is a fish. Here, we have its tail. If you go up, you'll find a fin..." My sensibilities balked at this experience. Even the texture of eggs was revolting; how could my father expect me to take pleasure in this "manly" mischief?

     Although I admittedly found all manner of slime unattractive, I came away with a firmly-implanted concept of a fish. No longer were sea creatures all relegated to toys that had somehow been deprived of their tails. Now, I had a concrete notion upon which to base future experiences.

     Said the celebrated poet and hymn-writer Fanny Crosby, "How many blessings I enjoy that other people don't. / To weep and sigh because I'm blind, I cannot and I won't!" So long as children in the blind community are presented with a variety of tangible experiences to enhance their growing ideas about life, Ms. Crosby's words hold true. What, though, of those who are intentionally sheltered? What of deaf-blind children who are essentially reduced to the status of birds and locked inside a Skinner box? What of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf-blind student to learn language under the tutelage of Dr. Samuel Howe? What of her sheltered, isolated, sterile, Spartan laboratory environment?

     You have questions; I have answers. Actually, I have very little for you save a wrathful diatribe and a five-star rating. What I have learned, however, consists of a thoroughly unbiased biography of this gentle pioneer. Laura Bridgman's exploits--good and bad--are captured within Ernest Freeberg's philosophical work, The Education of Laura Bridgman: First Deaf and Blind Person to Learn Language. In a world populated almost exclusively with references to Helen Keller, Freeberg's assessment of Laura Bridgman is both timely and refreshing. My only qualm with the book lies in its title. Freeberg ought certainly to have classified his portrait as The Brutality of Samuel Howe: One Among Many to Advocate Enforced Atheism, Isolation, and Negligence.

     But you likely feel that I am getting ahead of myself. Momentarily, I shall lay aside my petty emotions and provide a logical summary, complete with Nicolic analyses. For the moment, however, let us resort to a little temper tantrum, shall we?

     Earnest Freeberg is a good man. He's actually fair. Laura Bridgman: I like her. I like her a lot. Dr. Samuel Howe: Cruel! Cruel! Cruel! Cruel! Ad infinitum.

     Yes, dear reader, I deserve it. Give it to me. Plaster this little report with an enormous F that covers the entire page. I am entirely deserving of your ridicule, and I shall take it like a woman. But at least it felt good to rant!

     You, however, are in search of a polemic. Intelligent, nonbiased, objective reader that you are, you find yourself drifting into dreamland, wondering all the while whether I shall ever provide you with one iota of helpful information. Perhaps I shall, perhaps I shan't. This is for you to judge, for an entirely unbiased reviewer has scarcely existed. Yes, this little endeavor shall be handed to you as I view education--that is, in passionate, theologically-textured words.

But I Tell You, "I Have Mump!"

     "Laura Bridgman". Upon hearing the name, you likely imagine either Helen Keller or Charles Dickens--Keller, because both Bridgman and her successor were deaf and blind, and Dickens for his extensive portrait of Laura within American Notes. Is either of these images accurate? Can a fleeting glance at Laura in a Kelleresque sketch do justice to the first deaf-blind child to be taught communication skills? Could Dickens' pitying narrative possibly convey the complexity of such an isolated, joyful, passionate, frustrated human life?

     Ernest Freeberg thought not. Before exploring young Miss Bridgman, however, ‘twas necessary to provide extensive background concerning Samuel Howe. Born to a wealthy Boston family, Howe was raised to accept the tenants of Unitarianism and gradually came to believe that human nature was not inherently evil. Rather, humans could be reformed and ultimately perfected if circumstances were favorable.

     After an unpromising medical career, Howe traveled to Greece in search of exhilaration and adventure. A Romantic at heart, Howe drew upon the poetic ideals expressed by Lord Byron and began to hold notions of grandeur following the Greek Revolution. Gruesome battle scenes did little to daunt Howe's boyish delusions of greatness. Feeling that American concepts of liberty would benefit the Greeks, Howe established an utopian  colony known as Washingtonia. After this, too, failed to bring satisfaction, Howe traveled back to Boston in pursuit of "something new".

     Apparently, Howe found the adventure he sought upon encountering a fellow reformer who requested that Howe serve as director of the recently-established Perkins Institution for the Blind. Howe was delighted to accept, but traveled extensively before officially taking up his position. During his sojourn in Europe, Howe discovered that institutions for the blind often accentuated stereotypes and failed to treat blind children as individuals. Many schools in France, for example, used a curriculum heavily based on acquiring musical skills. Contrary to popular belief, visually-impaired children may or may not possess perfect pitch. Their ability to compose operas is largely dependent upon their personality rather than their vision status. Having seen the deindividuation of many blind youngsters, Howe resolved that his would be a well-rounded curriculum with emphasis on philosophical development, musical skills, manual labor, grammar, mathematics, and various branches of science.

     Howe quickly discovered that he could evoke public pity----and, by extension, funds--by putting on exhibitions of his students. Programs might feature singing, reading of raised letters, and demonstrations of his students' ability to travel without groping for a foothold with every step. Spectators were duly impressed. Why, the monkeys could do tricks! Oh, my! I had resolved to refrain from commentary. Did I break my little promise, dear reader?

     Anyway, Howe ultimately grew tired of administrative tasks. Apparently, writing letters to parents about little Johnny's progress was not so very interesting after all. But help was at hand--stimulation as an antidote to Howe's boredom. The "good doctor" was soon introduced to the case of Laura Bridgman, a young girl who had lost her senses of sight, hearing, smell, and taste after an illness had severely deprived her at the age of two. Perhaps, Howe reasoned--should I say, illogicized?--Laura would make an excellent experiment. Now seven years old, the child had learned little language save a handful of crude, animalistic signs. Much to the Bridgmans' gratitude, Howe proposed bringing Laura to the Perkins Institution in the hopes of teaching her to communicate.

     Once at the school, Laura learned language gradually yet eagerly. Unlike Helen Keller, who seems to have experienced an intellectual awakening during one beautiful day, Laura's comprehension of sign language took continuous practice. For years, Laura's grammar was firmly regimented and she could not internalize exceptions to linguistic rules. After contracting a case of the mumps that affected only one side of her face, for example, she informed her teacher that she had "mump". If you think about it, Laura's trials with nouns actually make sense.

     Although Laura's language was never quite perfected, she had an insatiable curiosity about all studies save those involving math. Hmm. Laura Bridgman disliked math, Helen Keller disdained it, Fanny Crosby loathed the subject, Nicole Brunswycke questions the necessity of it... Anyway, when given the price of a full barrel of cider and asked what one must pay for a quarter of a barrel, Laura replied: "I would not give anything for cider, for cider is too sour." Très bien!

     Of far greater fascination to Laura were animals. However, she seemed to have difficulty understanding some creatures' habits. At one point, Laura inquired of her teacher: "Does a horse sit up late?" When told that horses do not sit, she asked in confused sincerity, "Does a horse stand up late?" Another time, she wanted to know, "Why does a fish live in the water and not on land?"

     Do I hear an outcry from my readers? Do I hear you suggesting that Laura ought to have been shown a fish--perhaps a small, live fish in a fishbowl? Oh, innocent considerer of all things naïve, how much you must learn! Dr. Howe could not possibly show Laura anything new, for actually allowing her to see the world would disrupt his experiment.

     That's right--experiment. Once Howe taught Laura to communicate, he isolated her from society in order to observe her as her natural instincts developed. Basing his irrational ideas on the pseudo-science of phrenology, Howe argued that Laura would develop physically, intellectually, morally, and spiritually if provided the correct circumstances. Given enough cold showers, isolation from any real friends, emotional coercion, and wooden interaction, Laura would develop into a perfect little Unitarian with no deceit and exemplary social skills. If she demeaned those whom she considered less intelligent than herself, ‘twas only her Anglo-Saxon temperament; Howe would ignore this lack of compassion.

     Howe's experiment was immensely popular with Victorian philosophers and educators. Each Saturday, human zoos--I mean, exhibitions!--were held at the Perkins Institute. During these public displays of excellence on the part of the "pitiful" blind, Laura was repeatedly asked to sign her name, provide samples of her sewing and knitting, and converse with the era's finest ladies and gentlemen. At times, Laura refused to perform, much to Howe's chagrin. For not signing her name for a curious gawker, Laura would be punished. Does this mean, dear reader, that if you encounter me at Starbucks and demand a copy of the Braille alphabet, I must immediately create one for you by virtue of your being more intelligent than I?

     As Laura matured, she continued in certain childlike activities. Well into adulthood, for example, she took tremendous pleasure in twirling doughnuts on her fingers. Explanation I: Without a sense of taste, you, too might enjoy playing with your food; how else would it be of any interest whatsoever? Explanation II: Because he did not wish to mar his delicate laboratory specimen, Howe may well have refrained from informing Laura that making doughnuts dance was socially unacceptable.

     Once she transformed from a charming little girl into a devout, Evangelical, moral woman, Laura's celebrity status evaporated. The young woman spent the rest of her days quietly at the Perkins Institution, knitting and sewing to earn a bit of spending money. Although Howe received much acclaim for his experiment, the victim of his moral reform remained in obscurity until she was fifty-nine. Congratulations, Samuel Howe, you destroyed the joys of another life. But you were celebrated, so I suppose your experiment was fine.

I Am Sorry. ... When I Am Older ... Why Can Not I Know?

     I pity Laura Bridgman. My whole heart weeps over her condition, wondering if it would not have been better had she simply lived quietly at home. No, dear reader, I do not pity Laura because she was deaf and blind. I mourn for her, rather, because of the sheer lack of love she daily experienced. For the sake of fame, fortune, and a bit of psychological fun, Dr. Howe crushed Laura's natural tendencies and attempted to create a perfect public image of the child. When Laura failed to meet his Unitarian standards by becoming an "unreasonable" Christian, Howe simply slandered her.

     Again, I am speaking illogically. Let us remedy the situation by discussing Howe's exploitation of poor Laura. As I do, I want you to picture the child to whom you are closest--your son or daughter, your niece or nephew.

     During Laura's early childhood, there is reason to suspect that her father was physically abusive--roughly dragging Laura about and generally resorting to physical force at the slightest provocation. Upon first making Laura's acquaintance, Howe engaged in the same despicable activities. When Laura refused to grasp his hand of her own accord, Dr. Howe gripped Laura's fingers and forced the terrified child to walk with him around the room. I take it you would like to be blindfolded and shoved about, you knew not where? Although Laura ultimately came to accept Howe's touch, she feared all other men for the rest of her life.

     In her first years at the Perkins Institution, Laura made many friends among the other schoolgirls, all of whom learned the manual alphabet in order to communicate with her. Believing that too much contact with the outside world would enforce social constraints on Laura's burgeoning intellectual skills, Howe chose to separate her entirely from the other children at Perkins. Rather than allowing her to live in a dormitory, she was asked to live with Howe and his sister. Each moment of Laura's day was carefully structured and constantly involved the intervention of a teacher. So, here we have the premise that social skills develop without society. Fascinating!

     Of course, Laura was able to interact with others when her doing so would be beneficial to Howe or his exemplary school. Each day, visitors flocked to Perkins in order to witness this model of perfection at work. People requested autographs, bought Laura's knitting, and generally made a spectacle of themselves and her. Voyons-voir. If you were, say, a teacher, would it be all right if I swept majestically into your classroom each time I took a notion to do so, interrupted your lessons, played with math manipulatives, and exclaimed in delight over your teaching style while you were trying to instruct? I didn't think so. Neither did Laura seem particularly fond of this attention. Never was she asked whether she would like to entertain. Performance with the pen was not optional. Certainly, she was not asked whether she would like to participate in the Great Exhibition--just one more figure among the plaster models populating that British outdoor museum.

     Perhaps bleaker than Laura's social isolation was the experiment performed upon her intellect. Although Laura could quickly identify geographical locations on tactile maps and globes, her comprehension was not fostered. At one point, while still living in Boston, she asked her teacher whether the windows of her New Hampshire home were visible from the street. Another time, Laura inquired as to whether her teacher could hear Niagara Falls. Laugh if you wish, but I do not find Laura's circumstances either cute or amusing. Rather, the world could easily have been clarified for her if her teachers had been permitted to explain matters using tangible objects. Instead, because Laura's remarks were replete with innocent metaphor, Howe allowed Laura's confusion to remain in order to please his own fancies and increase public sentiment.

    By far the most grievous abuse that Laura experienced was the brutal war over her soul. Before I describe this annihilation of Laura's faith, it may behoove you to know that I am an Evangelical Christian. I write the following paragraphs not in anger but in anguish. Many, many discussions with friends and family have clarified my concept of Laura's spiritual exploitation until I almost felt like one of the nineteenth-century Evangelicals pleading with Howe for Laura's freedom. I say to all: Please leave your seatbelts fastened, for we will be experiencing some slight theological turbulence--for those who disagree, perhaps the winds of dissention; for those who agree, the storms of frustration.

     As an Unitarian, Dr. Howe believed that God's character must be witnessed only through His creation. Although he considered the Bible a moral book, he felt that its multiplicity of writers rendered it fallible. Furthermore, Howe believed that human nature was inherently neutral or even very good. Rejecting the doctrines of the Trinity and of salvation through Jesus Christ, he claimed to provide a non-sectarian environment for his students. Certainly, he did not allow a fourteen-year-old girl to be baptized or join an Evangelical church, but through much rhetoric he excused his behavior.

     Throughout his public reports, Howe ignored minor mishaps in Laura's life and portrayed her as nearly perfect. This, he did in order to disprove the doctrine of original sin. In several letters to such "worthies" as Horace Mann, he opposed the orthodox Christian belief that man is sinful and must be redeemed by God's grace. By insinuating that Laura was flawless, he attempted to convey the notion that social influences are the only corrupting evils upon humanity. The problem? Laura was not perfect! Like any other caged bird, she sometimes cried out in anger, tossed her personal effects about, and failed to comply with orders. At least in the minds of many Christians, the orthodox doctrines still stand.

     For year after disconcerting year, Howe insisted that Laura's intellect was not yet sufficiently developed to comprehend the nature of God. Laura, understandably believing otherwise, asked daily questions about the Lord. How could she be forgiven of the things she did wrong? Did God love her? What was heaven like? Each time Laura made such inquiries, her instructors were told to evade the child. Laura's persistence met with a firm yet gentle, "Doctor will tell you when you are tall".

     One day, Laura committed a small act for which she was sorry and again asked about God. Receiving the standard responses, she retired to a corner and began to engage in a silent discourse with herself--or perhaps with God?--using the manual alphabet. Her teacher, observing Laura's prayer, caught the phrases: "I am sorry" and "why can not I know". What do you suppose--that Laura was beyond capable of understanding concepts of God? Why, then, are Sunday schools and youth groups created?

     Despite Howe's desire to shelter Laura from Christian teachings, his overt attempts to hide raised-print Bibles from her, and his general opposition to the things of God, Laura continued her search. When Dr. Howe finally began to instruct her in his version of Christianity, he found himself disappointed in Laura's "unreasonable" faith. Much to Howe's consternation, Laura prayed to Jesus and explained, "I like to think about Him more than anything else". Referring to God as her Father, she quietly opposed Howe's more distant ideas of God as an impersonal being.

     As a young woman, Laura continued to read the Bible whenever she had the opportunity. At the age of thirty, she had a deep and joyful experience in the Lord and was baptized into a devout, conservative church. If you are at all interested in the Christian aspects of historical works, this scene is far too beautiful for me to depict. Suffice it to say that I consider Laura's dedication to God the climax of the entire text.

     Once Howe realized that his hopes of transforming Laura into an Unitarian would never come to fruition, he gave her up to loneliness and almost complete isolation. During later reports on his former pupil, Howe suggested that Laura was merely mimicking Evangelical language--discussing Jesus without having a full knowledge of Him. This assumption was entirely unfounded; Laura's letters provide no basis whatsoever for such an accusation.

     I emphatically realize Dr. Howe's right to believe as he wished. I make no attempt to refute Unitarianism or to slander Dr. Howe for holding doctrines with which I disagree. However, it seems that a man of his intelligence ought to have allowed Laura to make her own decisions concerning God. Rather than providing a non-sectarian environment for spiritual growth, as he claimed to do, Dr. Howe inundated his scholars with Unitarianism. When said students found that their hearts inclined toward Evangelical Christianity, Howe simply dismissed them as unreasonable beings without sense. He even went so far as to state that these children's physical blindness left their "irrational" souls benighted. So, then, what are we to assume--that Christianity is to be disdained and that only Unitarianism is acceptable? This attitude displays an inexcusable lack of tolerance--rather remarkable, wouldn't you say, for a man who claimed to be wholly tolerant?

     Even during her childhood, Laura's imperfections were met with a hideous form of discipline that seems a cruel affliction for someone deprived of four of her senses. If Laura ever did wrong, she was physically isolated for hours or even days. Locked away and forbidden from contact with any teacher or friend, Laura was told to think about her error. Now, imagine this: You are imprisoned with no window through which to look, neither birds nor music nor human chatter to listen to, no sense of fragrances good or bad, and no ability to  enjoy even the meals that are tossed your way. Your only recourse is touch. All communication has been thwarted. No wonder Laura was charming and obedient!

     Yes, I say, ‘twould almost be better had Laura not learned to communicate under the tyrant so deceptively known as Samuel Howe. I ask you: If you could either enjoy unconditional love while residing in a ramshackle hut or live in elaborate luxury without human companionship, which would you choose?

Textbooks That Feature Pigs!

     Now, it seems, you  have been carefully introduced to the subjects of Freeberg's work. You know that Samuel Howe was a pig--not clean, given to wallowing in the mire of misguided concepts, and prone to feeding on any coercive idea that came his way. Why, then, am I awarding this work five stars and recommending it?

     If I write a review of Danielle Steele's works, does my review necessarily suggest that I begin every sentence with the word "and" and write continually about characters with blonde hair and blue eyes? Neither is it Freeberg's fault that his subject is unworthy of pen and paper. Freeberg himself is an unbiased historian who attempts to present both the notable and the notorious sides of Howe's character. Although I came away with the understanding that Howe was more imprisoned by arrogance than Laura was by deafness or blindness, you may have an entirely different perspective. Freeberg's extensive research, footnoted entries, and exploration of all possible discrepancies render him the most objective historian I have ever encountered. Throughout his thirteen chapters, Freeberg incorporates copious citations from Laura's journal. Notes by Laura's teachers are likewise given the attention they deserve.

     With the exception of only one book, no written work is perfect. While engaging in an anthropological study of this book--for you know that all written works take on their own culture--when, as I said, I began to examine this work thoroughly, I found it somewhat lacking in the department of detail. If you have never become acquainted with books that discuss Helen Keller's childhood, I am afraid that you have missed out on the disability/hero genre. Allow me to provide a definition. The disability/hero formula plunges into a narrative with reckless abandon, inventing details and creating the world of the protagonist with great, fictitious swoops of the pen or paintbrush.

     The Education of Laura Bridgman provides no such fantastical world. Rather, Freeberg's research renders his writing somewhat dry. By analyzing the concepts of Unitarianism, Evangelicalism, Common Sense philosophy, and even phrenology, Freeberg often became distracted with exploration and neglected day-to-day details of Laura's life. His work had the tone of a history text. Consequently, it may work well in a sociology classroom but might not be considered entertaining prose. 

   The Education of Laura Bridgman. Friend, do you not suppose that a book bearing such a title must of needs depict Laura Bridgman? Freeberg seems to believe that too much detail concerning the child would only be superfluous. Rather than describing Laura's thoughts, emotions, ideas, and experiences, Freeberg focuses primarily on Howe. This is like purchasing a recording entitled Classic Piano to find that a faint keyboard has been usurped by drums--somewhat disappointing.

     Notwithstanding these minuscule failures on the part of Freeberg's noble book, I cannot recommend the scholar's research more highly. Read, formulate an opinion, and engage yourself in the thought-provoking discovery of the long-lost Laura. Although I ordered this book from the Library for the Blind, it is still available from Amazon.com.

     Now, time to thank my father for showing me a fish!


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