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American Annals of the Deaf

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Signs and Wonders: Religious Rhetoric and the Preservation of Sign Language
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Late Nineteenth-Century Methods of Teaching Deaf Students

In the United States, more and more schools for deaf students opened in the late nineteenth century, but the educators who ran them did not agree on teaching methods. Some of them even argued for the end of sign language use. More opponents of sign language and manualist instruction methods emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Very few oralists (i.e., those who believed that the best means of teaching deaf students was with no sign language) started making noise prior to 1850; however, later in that century, through suggestions at conferences and in presentations and publications, the oral method of instruction was touted by many as superior to the manual method. Early evidence of the oralists’ arguments surfaced in Horace Mann’s effort to challenge the use of sign language in the education of deaf students. In the 1840s, Mann, influenced by the oral methods used in Germany, argued for educational reform.2

In an 1848 article, Lewis Weld refers to the 1844 conversation occurring about possible advancements in the instruction of deaf people by Europeans who were using the oral method. Like Mann, Weld had traveled to Europe to observe the teaching practices there. He was the principal of the American School for the Deaf at this time and hoped to bring back a number of improvements in teaching methods.3 Weld summed up his observations by stating “that whatever improvements had been made in those institutions during the previous twenty-seven years, they had not surpassed, if they had equalled, [sic] those of our own American institutions.”4 He disagreed with Mann that the oral methods they had both witnessed in Germany were superior to the manual methods the U.S. schools were still using. However, between Weld’s European visit in 1844 and his “American Asylum” article in 1847, a change in instruction methods occurred in the U.S. institutions. In that article he mentions what may have marked the beginning of the combined method at the American School for the Deaf: a successful shift in emphasizing “articulation and reading on the lips” for those students who lost their hearing after they had learned to speak.5 For Weld and for the American School for the Deaf, sign language was still the optimal choice for instruction.

Until the 1860s, sign language was the primary method used to educate deaf people.6 Around that time, campaigns to replace sign language with lipreading and speech regained momentum and coincided with social and cultural changes occurring in the United States. A younger generation of educators was influenced by theories of evolution and argued that sign language was inferior to spoken language.7 In 1867 the first private oral school opened in New York City.8 Soon after, Alexander Graham Bell appeared in the United States and began holding exhibitions at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes in 1871.9 As an opponent of sign language, Bell offered educators of deaf people another pedagogical option, “visible speech,” which was “a system of universal alphabetics, originated by A. Melville Bell.”10 Bell’s father “pioneered the use of ‘visible speech,’ a system he invented, which correlated all speech sounds with particular visual symbols as a way to assist deaf children to learn to speak.”11 Taking the method his father had devised, Bell claimed he could teach deaf children how to perfectly position their mouths to produce clear sounds. Not surprisingly, Bell promoted oralism; he recommended that deaf students learn to speak and lipread rather than use sign language. Holding exhibitions, Bell asked deaf students to speak in front of audiences to demonstrate the successes of his oralist method. In reality, many of Bell’s successful students were children who had become deaf postlingually, that is, after learning to speak, and had retained some of their speaking ability.12 In spite of this issue, Bell’s oral arguments and pedagogical methods made an impact on schools for deaf students in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In 1891, the American Annals of the Deaf recorded a total of sixty-two public schools and fifteen private schools for deaf children in the United States, serving 9,232 deaf students. These schools subscribed to one of three teaching methods: oralism, manualism, or a combined method. Very few (if any) of these schools truly subscribed to manualism by this time. The Annals recorded that the majority of these private schools were oral schools; however, the majority of these public schools claimed to subscribe to a combined method of teaching. Ideally, the combined method took the best of the oral and manual methods to help all students to learn sign language and written English and to offer some of them training in speech and/or lipreading. However, many of the schools that claimed to subscribe to the combined method actually favored oralism and actually practiced little or no manualism, according to E. M. Gallaudet: “[I]t will be seen that the Combined System as it exists in America today includes schools where the pure oral method prevails.”13 True proponents of the combined method recognized that not all students benefited from learning speech or lipreading, but some of them, occasionally those who became deaf later in childhood, became skilled speakers and lipreaders with practice. While the combined method continued to make use of sign language in the classrooms for deaf students, strictly oral schools removed sign language altogether or relegated its use to religious training and chapel services.14 Although this use of sign language may seem like a contradiction to the definition of a purely oral school, it is this specific use of sign language—for religious training—that problematizes the oral versus manual debates. On this point, E. M. Gallaudet found common ground with oralists: He argued that deaf students should continue to have religious training and chapel services in sign language regardless of the chosen method of instruction. Before examining his arguments for a combined method that emphasized sign language, let’s explore the shift in deaf education that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, which placed greater emphasis on speech and lipreading.

Oralism, Homogeneity, and Eugenics

In the United States, late nineteenth-century arguments opposing sign language and viewing deafness as a deficit were influenced by a desire for a national identity marked by spoken English, theories of evolution, and scientific thinking—stark contrasts to the manualists’ earlier arguments grounded in Protestant theology. The deaf community in that era came under threat by oralists, who viewed the use of sign language as evidence that deaf individuals were excluded from American society. Schools for deaf Americans became sites where these arguments played out. Oral schools based their teaching methods on the goal of bringing deaf students into American society and helping them develop their intellect through the use of speech. For many who supported the oral method, speaking English was an important symbol of national unity.

After 1865, when the United States was recovering from the effects of the Civil War, Americans began to place emphasis on a unified identity. Oralism became a product of this national climate. Seeking homogeneity through language and culture, oralists argued that deaf Americans needed to learn to speak English in order to assimilate. It was partly this thinking and the influence of theories of evolution that bolstered the oralists’ resolve.

It is no coincidence that oralists gained ground in the latter half of the nineteenth century, for it was in 1859 that Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was first published. Darwin’s theory of natural selection provided an ideology for the oralists’ arguments, whereas the manualists’ contentions were often founded on a Protestant ideology. Baynton explains that fueling the oral movement in the late nineteenth century was an American culture that “thought in terms of scientific naturalism, especially evolutionary theory.”15 Darwin’s theory was used to justify the oralists’ view that sign language was inferior to speech. It was common thinking at that time that humans relied on sign language before they mastered speech.16 Manualists interpreted this view in Protestant terms: Sign language was an original language, and its users were “closer to the Creation,” not inferior.17 However, oralists associated sign language with lower evolution or “inferior races.”18 They argued that deaf students needed to learn spoken English and lipreading; otherwise, they would be viewed as animals or savages. Contradicting the Protestant view of the manualists, post-Darwinian oralists of nineteenth-century America viewed sign language use in evolutionary terms:

In an evolutionary age, language was no longer an inherent attribute of the human soul, one of an indivisible cluster of traits that included reason, imagination, and the conscience, conferred by God at the Creation. It was, instead, a distinct ability achieved through a process of evolution from animal ancestors. Sign language came to be seen as a language low on the scale of evolutionary progress, preceding in history even the most “savage” of spoken languages, and supposedly forming a link between the animal and the human.19

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