Education: Lesson Details


During the early part of the nineteenth century, Americans established the first residential schools for blind people and for deaf people. Motivated by the reforming spirit and optimistic humanitarianism of the Enlightenment and the Second Great Awakening, educators developed many crucial innovations. Why did specialized institutions for deaf education and blind education appear when they did? These schools were among the first instances of what we now call special education.

The readings for this lesson focus on the motivations and backgrounds of the founders and early leaders of what would later become the American School for the Deaf and the Perkins School for the Blind. We look at the alliances that were necessary in the formation and funding of the schools, the goals of the education they provided, and the roles of government and individual donors in financially supporting the schools. Students will learn how Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Samuel Gridley Howe publicized and lobbied for their schools and methods.

Many of the participants who built these sorts of institutions during the decades before the Civil War were driven by a strong sense of benevolent duty. Such feelings were an outgrowth of the religious upheavals of the Second Great Awakening. But efforts to improve the world were also a response to the social instabilities produced by the Market Revolution. The larger historical context of the establishment of the first deaf and blind schools was marked by rapid social, economic, and theological developments, an energetic and mobile people, and the decline of traditional communities. A class examining this dynamic period could benefit from “Educating the Senses in the Second Great Awakening” to highlight those larger changes.

Questions To Consider

1.) In what ways were religious motivations at the center of efforts to educate people with sensory disabilities? How were the religious beliefs of the various individuals who established the two institutions similar or different?

2.) What role did government play in financing these institutions? Why would government be involved in such arrangements?

3.) Who was admitted to the schools? Who might have been excluded and why? In what ways did the founders respond to the problem of poverty?

4.) What were the origins of American Sign Language?

5.) Why were the first blind and deaf schools in America founded between 1815 and 1835?