Education Of Laura Bridgman

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Overview

In the mid-nineteenth century, Laura Bridgman, a young child from New Hampshire, became one of the most famous women in the world. Philosophers, theologians, and educators hailed her as a miracle, and a vast public followed the intimate details of her life with rapt attention. This girl, all but forgotten today, was the first deaf and blind person ever to learn language.

Laura's dark and silent life was transformed when she became the star pupil of the educational crusader Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe. Against the backdrop of an antebellum Boston seething with debates about human nature, programs of moral and educational reform, and battles between conservative and liberal Christians, Freeberg tells this extraordinary tale of mentor and student, scientist and experiment.

Under Howe's constant tutelage, Laura voraciously absorbed the world around her, learning to communicate through finger language, as well as to write with confidence. Her remarkable breakthroughs vindicated Howe's faith in the power of education to overcome the most terrible of disabilities. In Howe's hands, Laura's education became an experiment that he hoped would prove his own controversial ideas about the body, mind, and soul.

Poignant and hopeful, The Education of Laura Bridgman is both a success story of how a sightless and soundless girl gained contact with an ever-widening world, and also a cautionary tale about the way moral crusades and scientific progress can compromise each other. Anticipating the life of Helen Keller a half-century later, Laura's is a pioneering story of the journey from isolation to accomplishment, as well as a window onto what it means to be human under the most trying conditions.

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Editorial Reviews

Boston Magazine

Freeberg delivers a...compelling perspective of [Laura Bridgman's] life and education at Boston's Perkins Institution for the Blind.
— Brian Wilder

New York Times

There was a time in the 1840's when a bright, difficult but above all tragically afflicted girl named Laura Bridgman was one of the most famous people in the world...Bridgman has long been forgotten, overshadowed in the public memory by the more brilliant and articulate Helen Keller...If we had only the story of Bridgman and how she mastered language, including abstract language, that would already be interesting enough. [The Education of Laura Bridgman] provides a lucid explanation of the philosophical and religious stakes involved, an explanation that goes back to the pioneering explorations of human nature in 16th- and 17th-century Europe by Descartes, Locke, the Earl of Shaftsbury and others.
— Richard Bernstein

African Sun Times
Against the backdrop of an antebellum Boston seething with debates about human nature, programs of moral and educational reform, and battles between conservative and liberal Christians, Freeberg weaves an extraordinary tale of mentor and student, scientist and subject. Poignant and hopeful, The Education of Laura Bridgman is both a success story of how a sightless and soundless girl gained contact with an everwidening world, and also a cautionary tale about the way moral crusades and scientific progress can compromise each other. Anticipating the life of Helen Keller a half-century later, Laura's is a pioneering story of the journey from isolation to accomplishment, as well as a window onto what it means to be human under the most trying conditions.
Choice

The disabled have rarely received historical recognition. Freeberg offers an important corrective. Born in 1829 in New Hampshire, Laura Bridgman contracted scarlet fever at the age of two and lost her sight and hearing. Her tragic fate would have remained outside historical notice had not a doctor named Samuel Gridley Howe heard about her and brought her to his Boston school for blind children...[Laura] became the first deaf and blind child in [Howe's] care, and he took great interest in her education...Freeberg's rich narrative offers readers Laura's story within the larger social context of mid-19th-century New England.
— J. Sochen

Daniel Walker Howe
Ernest Freeberg knows how to tell a story, and he tells two fascinating ones here: that of Laura Bridgman, the deaf and blind child who became one of the most famous women in the nineteenth century, and that of the man who penetrated the silent darkness of her world. Freeberg places their poignant relationship in the context of their times, showing the significance that the scientific community attached to Laura's education, as well as why the general public took such a keen interest in her case. I couldn't put the book down.
Jean-Christophe Agnew
Ernest Freeberg has given us a model of intellectual and cultural history. Out of the tangled tale of one doctor-patient relationship, he has woven an even more complex epic of dramatic theological, philosophical, and social change. The great "awakening" that Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe struggled to elicit from his blind and deaf charge was a characteristically Victorian one, but The Education of Laura Bridgman speaks with equal power to our own needs and our own times.
Andrew Delbanco
In these pages, the story of Laura Bridgman and her teacher Samuel Gridley Howe becomes both a compelling human drama and a revealing episode in cultural history. With scholarly authority and narrative flair, Freeberg shows how the mixed motives of personal and national pride, intellectual curiosity, and reformist charity impelled one zealous New Englander to take charge of a terribly damaged young girl and lead her into the realm of complex human communication. In the process we get an unusually vivid impression of antebellum American culture. An engaging and informative book.
Conrad Edick Wright
From the intertwined lives of Samuel Gridley Howe and Laura Bridgman, Howe's most prominent student, Ernest Freeberg has deftly crafted a compelling picture of pioneering American efforts to educate the deaf and blind. This is a sophisticated and important book.
Steven Mintz
Half a century before Helen Keller, Laura Bridgman became the first deaf and blind person to learn to speak with her fingers. This insightful biography provides an unrivaled account of how her experience chipped away at centuries of accumulated prejudice about disabled people and of a fateful shift in thinking about disabilities, from romantic optimism towards biological determinism.
Boston Magazine - Brian Wilder
Freeberg delivers a...compelling perspective of [Laura Bridgman's] life and education at Boston's Perkins Institution for the Blind.
New York Times - Richard Bernstein
There was a time in the 1840's when a bright, difficult but above all tragically afflicted girl named Laura Bridgman was one of the most famous people in the world...Bridgman has long been forgotten, overshadowed in the public memory by the more brilliant and articulate Helen Keller...If we had only the story of Bridgman and how she mastered language, including abstract language, that would already be interesting enough. [The Education of Laura Bridgman] provides a lucid explanation of the philosophical and religious stakes involved, an explanation that goes back to the pioneering explorations of human nature in 16th- and 17th-century Europe by Descartes, Locke, the Earl of Shaftsbury and others.
Choice - J. Sochen
The disabled have rarely received historical recognition. Freeberg offers an important corrective. Born in 1829 in New Hampshire, Laura Bridgman contracted scarlet fever at the age of two and lost her sight and hearing. Her tragic fate would have remained outside historical notice had not a doctor named Samuel Gridley Howe heard about her and brought her to his Boston school for blind children...[Laura] became the first deaf and blind child in [Howe's] care, and he took great interest in her education...Freeberg's rich narrative offers readers Laura's story within the larger social context of mid-19th-century New England.
New York Times
There was a time in the 1840's when a bright, difficult but above all tragically afflicted girl named Laura Bridgman was one of the most famous people in the world...Bridgman has long been forgotten, overshadowed in the public memory by the more brilliant and articulate Helen Keller...If we had only the story of Bridgman and how she mastered language, including abstract language, that would already be interesting enough. [The Education of Laura Bridgman] provides a lucid explanation of the philosophical and religious stakes involved, an explanation that goes back to the pioneering explorations of human nature in 16th- and 17th-century Europe by Descartes, Locke, the Earl of Shaftsbury and others.
— Richard Bernstein
Choice
The disabled have rarely received historical recognition. Freeberg offers an important corrective. Born in 1829 in New Hampshire, Laura Bridgman contracted scarlet fever at the age of two and lost her sight and hearing. Her tragic fate would have remained outside historical notice had not a doctor named Samuel Gridley Howe heard about her and brought her to his Boston school for blind children...[Laura] became the first deaf and blind child in [Howe's] care, and he took great interest in her education...Freeberg's rich narrative offers readers Laura's story within the larger social context of mid-19th-century New England.
— J. Sochen
Boston Magazine
Freeberg delivers a...compelling perspective of [Laura Bridgman's] life and education at Boston's Perkins Institution for the Blind.
— Brian Wilder
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Where Elisabeth Gitter emphasizes Laura Bridgman's intelligence in The Imprisoned Guest (see review, above), perhaps emphasizing it over the ingenuity of her teacher, Samuel Howe, Freeberg brings a more measured and clinical approach to the story of the deaf and dumb girl's education in 19th-century Boston. Freeberg, an assistant professor of humanities at Colby-Sawyer College, whose interest in Howe's experiment began as his dissertation, focuses in great detail on the scientific, theological and social debates of the day. He expertly details Howe's specific methods, influenced by liberal Unitarianism and phrenology, which turned "Laura's education into a showcase of `moral discipline'" so that he "might glean insights into the fundamental forces that shape human nature." He gives a marvelous, incisive explanation of Howe's reluctance to teach Laura about religion early on, allowing her to arrive at her own innate understanding of Goda plan that infuriated orthodox Calvinists who wanted to save her from original sin and that was ultimately foiled by Laura's insatiable curiosity and the interference of religious do-gooders. "Disillusioned" by this "crisis," Howe renounced his prior accomplishments with Laura. But while Freeberg surpasses Gitter's solid rendering of the 19th-century cultural climate, he does so at the expense of fully realizing his subjects' characters, merely nodding towards their personal lives. Ultimately, Freeberg presents an exhaustive and intriguing narrative, championing mid-1800s progressivism and one man's efforts to use it effectively. Readers interested in a straightforward yet subtle social history will delight in Freeberg's moderately paced, if anticlimactic, approach. (May 4) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Left blind and deaf at the age of two, Laura Bridgman became a 19th-century celebrity as the prot g of Samuel Gridley Howe, who successfully taught her to use language. Both of these scholarly studies are based on primary sources and describe Bridgman's education firmly in the context of the social reform, educational, and religious movements of the time. Gitter (English, CUNY) offers more biographical information on Bridgman and Howe; Freeberg (humanities, Colby-Sawyer) emphasizes educational and philosophical theory. Scrutinized and manipulated much of her early life as the subject of educational theory, Bridgman nevertheless maintained a sense of self-assertiveness. Late in her life she met Helen Keller, then a child, who would entirely eclipse her fame. These two studies reveal as much about the motives of her teachers and the intellectual climate of the time as they do about Bridgman herself. Either title would be appropriate for academic collections in education or women's studies, but the writing is accessible and engaging enough for public libraries. Patricia A. Beaber, Coll. of New Jersey Lib., Ewing Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A well-crafted study of the treatment of the disabled in early American society. At an international exhibition in London in 1851, writes Freeberg (Humanities/Colby-Sawyer Coll.), the American exhibit consisted of "a model of Niagara Falls, some false teeth, and a large collection of pasteboard eagles." A disappointed American editor remarked that the nation should have sent Laura Bridgman there, for everyone in Europe had heard by then of this now-forgotten marvel of American culture. A deaf and blind farm girl from New Hampshire, Bridgman had been placed (at seven) in Boston's Perkins Institution for the Blind. There, under the tutelage of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, she had learned how to read, write, and even talk by means of a "manual alphabet." Howe's triumph in teaching these skills to Bridgman, writes Freeberg, had bearing not only on the treatment of the supposedly unimprovable handicapped, but also on contemporary philosophy and theology-for it demonstrated that nurture could overcome nature. Howe, a Unitarian, was also interested to learn whether religious inclinations were innate, reasoning that if Bridgman showed any spiritual sensibilities this would prove, against Calvinist doctrine, that humans were not "deeply alienated from God." His widely published reports on his findings throughout the course of Bridgman's education made her an international cause célèbre, and Charles Dickens himself made it a point to visit Bridgman while on his famed American tour. No one ever thought to ask Bridgman of her own views of her experiences, however, on the assumption that "she could never understand the issues involved and would only be shocked and confused to learn thatsomany people were scrutinizing her every word and deed"; although the omission seems paternalistic, the author points out that Bridgman, in fact, seems to have developed no ability to think deeply or abstractly-a matter that fueled still further debates. Still, Howe's humane treatment afforded her at least some measure of happiness, and his ideas influenced the education of others with disabilities-notably, Helen Keller, whose teacher (Annie Sullivan) read all of Howe's reports and interviewed Bridgman herself. (For a competing biography of the subject, see Elisabeth Gitter's The Imprisoned Guest, below.) A thoughtful and fascinating account.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674010055
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2002
  • Pages: 276
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.58 (d)

Meet the Author

Ernest Freeberg is Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee.
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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • 1. In Quest of His Prize
  • 2. Mind over Matter
  • 3. In the Public Eye
  • 4. Body and Mind
  • 5. The Instinct to Be Good
  • 6. Punishing Thoughts
  • 7. Sensing God
  • 8. Crisis
  • 9. Disillusionment
  • 10. A New Theory of Human Nature
  • 11. My Sunny Home
  • 12. Legacy
  • Abbreviations
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index

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