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American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf History and Culture in Spain: A Reader of Primary Documents
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Part II: The Return to Deaf Education

In 1793, Lorenzo Hervás y Panduro, a Spanish ex-Jesuit living in Italy, wrote a book that would be published two years later in Madrid titled The Spanish School of Deaf-mutes, or Method of Teaching Them to Write and Speak the Spanish Language (1795). In this work, he appeals to the whole of society and seeks to engage “the politician, the physicist, the philosopher, and the theologian.” As noted by Susan Plann (1997), he emphasizes that the lack of public schools that were engaging in a more formalized instruction of deaf people reflects poorly on Spain. In my view, although perhaps mitigated by the beliefs of his day, Hervás’s two-volume book seeks to provide philosophical and even linguistic reasons to dispense with the oralist bias toward spoken language. Although he makes the statement that he considers vocal language to be “certainly superior for the human mind,” this explicit opinion (can we understand it as a rhetorical device to strengthen his persuasive argument?) needs to be read against the grain of his recuperation of the “natural languages” of visual character. In this sense, this selection may be of particular interest to readers familiar with recent advances regarding the gestural origins of language.

Also in 1795, José Miguel Alea composed an eloquent and intriguing letter to the editor of the Diario de Madrid titled “In Support of Deaf-mutes” (1795). In it, he also laments that the Spanish “art” has fallen into disuse and seeks to demonstrate to the public that such support befits those who would work for the common good. Ultimately he concludes that “the issue of the art of teaching deaf and mute people to speak is a cause worthy of the pen of a man of goodwill, and if Your Lordship or any other learned man finds stronger reasons than my own for persuading the Spanish public of the importance of this invention, please do so without delay, for I will be the first to champion it.” As Plann (1997) relates, the pleas by Hervás y Panduro and Alea were situated in the context of a decline of interest in deaf education in Spain—public classes in both Madrid and Barcelona were shut down in 1802.

Nevertheless, Madrid’s Royal School for Deaf-mutes was opened in 1805 and became an important institution. Instead of basing its instruction in the Spanish tradition of oral articulation (as documented in part I of this volume), the Royal School explicitly embraced a French model of instruction that was based not on speech but on the methodical signs of the Frenchman Abbé l’Epée. Although from today’s perspective l’Epée’s methodical signs would be the equivalent of such systems as Signed English (or manually coded English), where the grammar of the spoken language is represented visually, this in itself constituted a sharp turn away from the oralist method popular at the time. The methodical (manual/visual) signs fundamentally underscored the validity of the visual modality, even if they were inflected with the grammar of spoken language. This method of visual, and not oral, instruction, was to form the basis also for instruction in the United States, when Laurent Clerc, a student of l’Epée’s method (through Sicard, l’Epée’s successor) would come with Gallaudet from France to help found the first American school for deaf students in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817.

Tiburcio Hernández’s “Speech Delivered on the Opening of the Royal School of Deaf-mutes, the Afternoon of the Sixteenth of October of 1814” (1814) returns once again to the controversy surrounding Ponce de León and Bonet, and, in my estimation, does well in clearly acknowledging that Ponce de León was not the origin of the Spanish “art.” The speech seeks to clarify the nature of deafness and muteness and also produces some prescient remarks, such as the following, which acknowledges the arbitrary/conventional nature of both spoken and signed language: “Convention produces signs, and there is no articulation that is natural, to which may be added that even those articulations held to be natural, like lowering the head as a sign of consent, or moving it for negation, are in fact conventional signs.” In another place, he underscores that the “natural” language of deaf people, visual language, should be the first used by the deaf person, and that only through it may a deaf person come to know another language—advice that unfortunately went unheeded in Spain for quite a while.

The next selection in this volume is perhaps the most intriguing, even if it is one of the most straightforward and also one of the most brief. The excerpts from Ramón de la Sagra’s Five Months in the United States of North America from the Tenth of April to the Twenty-third of September of 1835 (1836) describe his visits to three American schools for deaf students in New York, Philadelphia, and Hartford. His observations are somewhat ordinary and quantitative, detailing his impressions of the schools and more often their objective measures such as numbers of students, budgets, and so forth. However, context is everything: Ramón de la Sagra was a Spaniard then living in Cuba, which remained a Spanish colony until the end of Cuba’s Guerra de Independencia (War of Independence; in America known as the Spanish-American War) in 1898. Particularly when read against the documents included in the first section of the present work, la Sagra’s account of the French influence present in American schools seems to be the nail in the coffin of the underrecognized Spanishness of the “art,” whose Peninsular origins are (lamentably, in la Sagra’s opinion) now condemned to the dustbin of history because they are unknown not only in France and throughout Europe but also on another continent, North America. This point of contact, the observations documented by the eyes of a Spaniard in America, may also be taken as foretelling the more recent explicit importation of the values of a strong American Deaf culture back into Spain toward the end of the twentieth century (explored in part IV of this book).[4]


4. Interestingly, in 1839 la Sagra delivered a lecture at the Royal School for the Deaf in Madrid.
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