Education: Lesson Details


Educational reform is not a new phenomenon. One of the most fruitful periods of educational ferment was the antebellum era. If the decades prior to the Civil War were marked by intense reforms such as abolitionism and temperance, educational reform -- for both children with disabilities and for those without them -- was an important part of the overarching effort to improve and even perfect American society. Modeled on the middle-class home, educational institutions of the period sought to nurture children into self-controlled, orderly, respectable, and productive citizens.

The readings in this lesson highlight the linkages between educational programs aimed at children with disabilities, today known as special education, and those for nondisabled Americans. We compare curricula and goals in a variety of educational settings during the antebellum period. Although this lesson focuses on schools for children with sensory and cognitive disabilities, we also include Horace Mann’s common school movement in order to to illustrate ongoing changes in public schools and mainstream pedagogy.

“Education Reform & Common Schools” complements classes on life in the antebellum North. The modernization of the North required a new emphasis on education for all citizens. Ultimately, the new educational offerings had both positive and negative consequences for people with disabilities.

Questions To Consider

1.) In what ways were all the institutions discussed here alike? In what ways were they different? What might explain their similarities and differences?

2.) What were the goals of early deaf schools? What were the goals of early blind schools? What were the goals of the “idiot schools”?

3.) Why did Horace Mann seem to admire the methods used in the United States by blind educators but was far less favorable about those used by deaf educators? How did those attitudes reflect his quest for a “common school”?

4.) Based on the evidence presented here, what was life like for students at the various schools? What might explain specific rules?

5.) Were these educators optimistic, pessimistic, or realistic about what education could achieve? What does that suggest about how the educators viewed human nature?