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, Ernest 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.
There was a time in the 1840s 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.
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.
Freeberg delivers a…compelling perspective of [Laura Bridgman’s] life and education at Boston’s Perkins Institution for the Blind.
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.
[Freeberg describes] Bridgman’s education firmly in the context of the social reform, educational, and religious movements of the time… Freeberg emphasizes educational and philosophical theory…[and reveals] as much about the motives of her teachers and the intellectual climate of the time as…about Bridgman herself… Accessible and engaging.
Freeberg…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 explanantion of Howe’s reluctance to teach Laura about religion early on, allowing her to arrive at her own innate understanding of God—a 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… 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…approach.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 2001, Winner of the John H. Dunning Prize
- 272 pages
- 5-3/4 x 8-7/8 inches
- Harvard University Press
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