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Thirteenth Annual Report Of The Trustees Of The Perkins Institution And Massachusetts Asylum For The Blind
Samuel Gridley Howe’s final scientific goal for his work with Laura Bridgman was to prove that despite her impairments, Bridgman could be taught the nature of God. He had a more personal goal as well, to prove that liberal Christians, not orthodox Calvinists, had the proper conception of God. Like other Unitarians, Howe conceived of God as a kind yet distant lawgiver; he rejected the angry, judgmental God of orthodox Calvinism and the forgiving, personal God of evangelical Christianity. Moreover, since phrenologists thought that the religious faculty was the last to develop—and that it could only develop properly if the physical, intellectual, and moral faculties had already been properly trained—Howe decided to wait to teach Bridgman about religion until adolescence. He hoped that, in the meantime, she would demonstrate a natural curiosity about God and religion, in accordance with liberal Christian and phrenological doctrine. Orthodox Calvinists, however, reacted to Howe’s decision with horror, fearing that without exposure to the gospel, Bridgman’s soul would suffer eternal damnation.
Bridgman, meanwhile, had other plans. Despite Howe’s efforts to protect her from learning about religion, she had come across the Bible in the Perkins Institution’s library. She pestered him and her other teachers for more information about God and religion. Bridgman’s intense moral scrutiny, moreover, made her long for an all-forgiving God along the lines offered by evangelical Christianity. Howe’s year-long honeymoon to Europe (April 1843-1845) provided Bridgman with the opportunity to finally learn about religion. Howe, however, believed his experiment ruined.
TO THE TRUSTEES.
I have the honor to lay before you the following Report upon the history and instruction of Laura Bridgman.
In preparing it I have introduced some speculations which may appear trite, or uninteresting to those conversant with metaphysics; I have also indulged in some reflections upon such points as seemed to have any bearing upon common instruction, and these may seem trivial and unnecessary to practical teachers. But in apology, let me say, that there are a vast number of persons who take a deep interest in the case, who are neither metaphysicians nor teachers, and they will perhaps prefer even my crude speculations and reflections to a bald narration of facts.
To such let me say, in the first place, that nothing can show in a more clear and forcible manner, than Laura's case, the difficulties to be overcome when we learn our vernacular tongue, and the inferiority of artificial to natural methods in the acquisition of language.
The difficulties in the way of the deaf mute are very great; so great indeed that we may safely say they are never entirely overcome; because, although ingenious men by centuries of labor have built up a beautiful system by which the mutes are enabled to read, to write and to converse with ease and with pleasure, still they must, in spite of education, remain insensible to many of the charms of conversation, and the beauties of style, both of prose and of verse. But this beautiful system is addressed entirely to the eye, and poor Laura has no sight.
She has a good intellect, she has been seven years under instruction; her teachers have not been wanting in zeal and diligence, and she has been herself untiring in her efforts, and yet she is now on the verge of womanhood, without so much acquaintance with language as a common child of six years old. This often excites the surprise of visitors who have known the history of her case for a long time, and have taken great interest in it.
In truth people seldom stop to reflect upon the nature of arbitrary language, upon its essential importance to to -sic- the development of the intellect, or upon the wonderful process by which we gradually advance from the power of naming single objects, to that of condensing many of them into one complex term; -- from the Alpha of language, mamma! -- up to its Omega -- Universe!
How much is asserted in the simplest sentence, as this, for instance; "we might have been more truly happy had our widowed father remained contentedly with us" -- here is the assertion of the plurality of persons; of their condition in past time; of the fact of their having been moderately happy in the society of their father; there is the negation of their entire happiness; the implied doubt whether after all they would have been happier; their relation as children; their regret at their father's departure: of the other person it is directly affirmed that he had been with his children; it is implied that he had been married; that he had lost his wife, not by separation, but by death; that he was not contented to remain with his children; that he had gone away from them; that he might have remained with them, &c. &c.
When we reflect upon that principle of the mind which requires that all possible objects, qualities and conditions must be linked so closely with signs that the perception of the signs shall recall them necessarily and instantly; and when we consider how much is attained by young persons, who a few years ago could hardly master baby's prattle, but who now have all the vast sweep of thought, the great amount of knowledge, the degree of reflection, of separation, and of generalization necessary to comprehend such a phrase as
"Count all the advantage prosperous vice attains,
we may say with the ancient -- "there is but one object greater than the human soul and that one is its Creator."
The space between the starting point of the infant and that obtained by the mature man, is immense; but our minds, aided by language which give to them wings, skim swiftly and delightedly over the whole, as the wild fowl flies from zone to zone; while Laura is like one of those birds shorn of its wings and doomed to attempt the vast distance on its weary feet. If persons will only make these reflections they will be inclined rather to wonder that she has gone so far, than to feel surprised at her not having gone farther.
With these preliminary remarks, I proceed to a notice of her progress during the year 1844.
I was in Europe during the first half of the year; and the most serious cause of regret which I have for my absence, is the interruption which it caused in my supervision of her education. It may be that I should not have been able to prevent all unfavorable impressions upon her mind, even had I been always here; they were perhaps inevitable at her age, and with her increased capacity for conversation with others, but at any rate I should have tried.