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. 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.
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SYMHC Classics: Laura Bridgman's Education
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She was Helen Keller before Helen Keller. Then her mentor abandoned their studies.
Cite this Email this Add to favourites Print this page. You must be logged in to Tag Records. Broken link? In the Library Request this item to view in the Library's reading rooms using your library card. Details Collect From YY Order a copy Copyright or permission restrictions may apply. We will contact you if necessary. To learn more about Copies Direct watch this short online video. She wore out her teachers with questions. Why do flies not have names, like boys and girls do? Is the worm afraid when the hen eats him? Why do cows have two horns? To push two cows? Why can't we sail to the sun "in boats"?
She had a strict regimen of schoolwork, but what she really wanted to do was sit and spell questions into her teacher's hand hour after hour. There is not much doubt that this inextinguishable curiosity is what inspired her to master reading and writing well beyond the limits of necessity. It is possibly even what kept her alive. When she was unhappy, she starved herself.
But she was a compulsively fastidious person generally—"birdlike" seems to have been a common description. She was particular about her clothes; she cleaned her room meticulously; at one point, she requested a mirror. A psychologist who observed her late in her life, G. Stanley Hall, thought that there was something pathological about her curiosity; and Gitter suggests that Laura may have developed, as a consequence of the scarlet fever, a condition of obsessive compulsion known as pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococci.
The notion that Laura was beyond her obvious sensory deprivation medically exceptional was, of course, a notion Howe wished to avoid. Another reason that Howe wanted to postpone Laura's religious instruction had to do with his Unitarianism.
He regarded the Calvinist obsession with sin and sacrifice as a superstition, and he didn't want his prize pupil's head filled with gloomy fundamentalist dogma. Indeed, that the natural religious instinct is free of gloom and dogma is precisely what he hoped to show. But in , when Laura was thirteen, Howe got married, and he and Julia went to Europe, where they stayed for more than a year.
He left Laura in the care of Mary Swift, a teacher who did not share his liberal religious views, and, under the relentless pressure of Laura's curiosity, Swift allowed her student to be introduced to old-style religion.
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Laura wrote long letters to Howe asking him about God, but his answers were brief and evasive. By the time he returned from Europe, the damage was done. And he was quick, in his imperious manner, to declare her education a failure. He began to withdraw from her, and to withdraw as well from his earlier insistence that blind children are capable of leading normal lives.
The failure of Laura Bridgman's religious education, he later said, was the greatest disappointment of his life. Laura spent her days almost continually in the presence of another person, usually a young woman assigned to be her tutor and companion. She naturally developed deep and affectionate attachments to these people, as she did to "Doctor," as she called Howe. When they went away, to marry or to take another job, she was crushed.
She begged to go with them, sometimes offering to serve as a housemaid, and her fantasies of how she would minister to her friends are heartbreaking. She imagined herself, she once wrote, with half a dozen wings along her back:. My legs would be so powerful to leap a great distance as well as the kangaroo. My arms could be of much utility. I wish so much to run of my accord as swiftly as my strength will allow me. I could visit all of my good friends. As Laura grew older, though, her companions drifted away, and Howe was reluctant to commit the funds needed to find new ones. She was too old to be educated any longer; the experiment was finished.
She began regularly visiting her family in New Hampshire. In , when she was thirty-two, she was baptized, by immersion, in a brook near her parents' house, and she became a pious evangelical Christian. She lived another twenty-seven years, still famous but no longer a phenomenon. She commuted between the Perkins Institution and Hanover. She became close to one of her sisters, but the sister died, and in the last years of her life she had no true intimate companions.
Outsiders found her odd and unappealing. Much of her talk was about Christ and Heaven "a good place that God knew that I could not fall off the edge of the floor," she had once described it. In , she was introduced to the young Helen Keller, who annoyed her by stepping on her foot. A year later, she died. The last word she spelled was "mother. Laura Bridgman received her education in an era when no distinction was generally made between psychology and moral philosophy.
It seemed obvious that science would confirm conclusions that had already been reached by abstract reasoning or handed down by Scripture—for example, that the ability to feel veneration is a "higher" attribute than the ability to perceive three-dimensional space. Phrenology was a particularly crude instance of this tendency, and it was derided by some scientists even in its own time. But Franz Josef Gall was a distinguished neurologist, and he did not think that speculation about the moral order of the universe was beyond his ken as a scientist. Quite the contrary. By the end of Bridgman's life, this had changed.
The two fields split apart, and psychology became a laboratory science. Psychologists studied reaction times and sensory thresholds; they eschewed metaphysical questions. Stanley Hall, the man who diagnosed Bridgman's curiosity as a form of mania, was one of the first of these New Psychologists as experimental psychologists were known in the United States.
The tone of his account of Bridgman's personality, published in Mind a leading journal of the New Psychology in , is clinical, unsentimental, and free of ostentatious moralizing—in almost every way the opposite of Howe's reports on Bridgman forty years earlier. As Freeberg nicely puts it, "Laura Bridgman's sense of balance became far more interesting than her sense of right and wrong. But it is not so easy to keep philosophical questions out of psychology.
Laura’s World | The New Yorker
Every account of the way the mind works seems to imply some theory of conduct, or some belief about what is important in life. In , James reviewed a biography of Bridgman written by two of Howe's daughters. The case presented many opportunities for psychological conjecture, he wrote, but "what is not conjecture, but fact, is the philosophical conclusion which we are forced to draw. Her mental contents were restricted to tactile memories of the small number of things she could touch with her fingers, and to what James called "the pallidest verbal substitutes"—that is, written words.
Yet she found life as intensely absorbing as anyone else does. What this showed, James thought, was that the relations among things are far more interesting and important than the things themselves. This was a philosophical conclusion that suited James because it supported his view that there are many "realities" in the universe, each depending on where you start and what your material is, and that we sense relations as much as we sense things—that there is "a feeling of and , a feeling of if , a feeling of but , and a feeling of by ," as he once wrote.
But his remark also seems to echo Bridgman's own insistence that she had a fourth sense, the sense of "think.
It's the way we weave the sensuous tapestry of the world. From a cosmic point of view, all minds are pathetically underpopulated. We somehow intuit a world from a tiny sample of what is out there—not as tiny as Laura Bridgman's but possibly not as great as we would like to imagine, either. In reports that Howe wrote later, there was a eureka moment.
At first, he wrote, it was as though she were under water, and we [her teachers] on the surface over her, unable to see her, but dropping a line, and moving it about here and there, hoping it might touch her hand, so that she would grasp it instinctively. Then, after months of fishing, Laura bit. She suddenly got language: Her countenance lighted up with human expression; it was no longer a dog or parrot,—it was an immortal spirit, eagerly seizing upon a new link of union with other spirits!