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For “Children Who Vary
from the Normal Type”: Special Education in Boston, 1838-1930|
Robert L. Osgood
from Chapter Four
The profound and fundamental changes in public education that took place in Boston during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected similar developments in public schools throughout the United States. The common school movement, the crusade for a business-like efficiency in public school systems, and the rise of progressive education and child study were all national movements that dramatically affected the development of public education and educational research. As the Boston public schools paid greater attention and developed more sophisticated understandings of the differences among schoolchildren, their deliberations and efforts drew upon a significant, dynamic body of research on and experience with individuals with disabilities. Centered primarily in private and public institutions during the 1800s, the education of children with disabilities—particularly those with deafness, blindness, and mental retardation—attracted considerable attention from doctors, educators, politicians, and eventually the public.
By the early 1900s, “special education” had moved into the public schools, not just in Boston but in a significant number of other cities as well. The development of special education as a notable component of public schooling owed much to the growth and dissemination of research on the etiology and pedagogy of disability. As the concept of special education emerged and sharpened, the Boston public schools began putting it to extensive use; by the 1920s the city’s public school system had seven separate programs enrolling thousands of students with formally identified disabilities. This chapter briefly summarizes the contexts of research and practice out of which the concept of a special education for students with disabilities arose and moved into the world of public schools.
Notions of Educability: The Deaf and the Blind
In 1817 the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons opened its doors in Hartford. The asylum was the first of a multitude of institutions opened during the 1800s in the United States that aimed to provide residence, treatment, and education to individuals with formally identified disabilities. Arising out of a complex mixture of reform movements in medicine, education, and humanitarianism, these institutions offered space and resources for individuals—mostly children and adolescents—whose families could not or would not keep them at home or who were deemed incapable of participating in or contributing to mainstream society. Such institutions hosted teachers, doctors, and intellectuals who believed strongly in the educability of the disabled; they supplied opportunities for research, observation, and experimentation that helped develop understanding of disability and constructions of educability for these particular populations. The work done within these institutions would later find its expression and modification in the education offered to children with disabilities in the public schools by the early twentieth century.