Review of Words Made Flesh: Nineteenth-Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture by R.A.R. Edwards New York University Press

Words Made Flesh: Nineteenth-Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture. R.A.R. Edwards. New York: New York University Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780814722435

For nearly two centuries, deaf residential schools have been controversial, celebrated as the core of deaf culture at the same time as being torn by educators’ debates over oralism and sign language in deaf education. R.A.R Edwards’s Words Made Flesh contributes to this history. She examines a roughly fifty-year process in which residential schools for the deaf were fundamental in the creation of a Deaf community and culture. Residential schools in the early nineteenth century supported a system of manual signs, known today as American Sign Language (ASL). Edwards contends that use of sign language formed a Deaf identity among deaf students. Those students continued to form bonds well after their time at residential schools. Using a “D” to distinguish Deaf cultural identity, as opposed to “d” which refers to the audiological definition, Edwards argues that the “unexpected transformation of deafness into Deafness” resulted in the rise of a movement in the mid-nineteenth-century to promote oralism—a method of teaching deaf students to speak and read lips (4). Edwards revises the chronology of deaf history, placing the rise of oralism and the debate over deaf pedagogy in the mid-1850s, rather than after the Civil War. The proliferation of residential schools and the Deaf community, Edwards argues, contributed to the shifting of society’s attitudes toward deaf education and deafness. This resulted in a movement not only to educate deaf citizens but also to fully integrate them into hearing society through oralism.

Edwards begins by retelling the well-vetted history of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a hearing minister who traveled abroad to research deaf pedagogy. Gallaudet met Laurent Clerc, a deaf Frenchman and teacher at the National Institute at Paris, and the two returned to the United States to establish the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, the nation’s first school for the deaf. While this story of Gallaudet and Clerc will be familiar to students of deaf history, it is the grounds on which Edwards builds her argument. In chapters 2 and 3, Edwards draws on student records and annual school reports to describe in depth the lives of students at residential schools. She illustrates an emerging sense of Deaf consciousness. Edwards also contributes to our limited understanding of the experiences of deaf African American students at integrated residential schools. Edwards also offers new insight into early educators’ promotion of sign language and the development of deaf culture. They provided a bilingual-bicultural education under the conviction that deaf students gained the most through learning both sign language and written English. Highlighting such bilingual-bicultural education, Edwards provides a different view of hearing educators, arguing that they “made the burgeoning deaf community and the school system allies, and not adversaries, in the birth of Deaf culture in the United States.” (48)

As deaf students graduated from and left their residential schools, they built on their shared language and identity. Relying heavily on secondary sources, Edwards describes this transit of the deaf community from residential schools to a broader nineteenth-century “Deaf world.” She synthesizes a well-established history of deaf civil society institutions, including social clubs, political organizations, churches, newspapers, and the short-lived quest for a separate deaf state. This growth of a deaf cultural identity beyond residential institutions caught the attention of nineteenth-century reformers.

Edwards’s story culminates with the backlash against sign-based education in the 1840s. She traces the influence of educational pioneers Horace Mann and Samuel Gridley Howe on the rise of oralism. She usefully places Mann’s and Howe’s support of oralism within the antebellum history of social reform movements. She argues that the growth of oralism was rooted in Mann’s desire to abolish Deaf culture and restore deaf citizens to a hearing society. Edwards examines pedagogical schisms that divided oralists and manualists, which, she claims, altered the trajectory of deaf education and the Deaf community.

Edwards’s most valuable contribution is connecting deaf and disability history to the broader context of early America. Words Made Flesh brings new archival findings to the familiar narrative of deaf residential schools and community formation in the nineteenth century. It reminds readers of the ongoing debates on deaf education, attacks on American Sign Language, and American society’s views of normalcy, deviance, and disability.

Reviewed by Lindsey Patterson, Elmhurst College
Edited by Sarah R. Hamilton

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]