THE EDUCATION OF LAURA BRIDGMAN: First Deaf and Blind Person to Learn Language

Ernest Freeberg, Author . Harvard Univ. $27.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-674-00589-1

Where Elisabeth Gitter emphasizes Laura Bridgman's intelligence in The Imprisoned Guest (see review, above), perhaps emphasizing it over the ingenuity of her teacher, Samuel Howe, Freeberg brings a more measured and clinical approach to the story of the deaf and dumb girl's education in 19th-century Boston. Freeberg, an assistant professor of humanities at Colby-Sawyer College, whose interest in Howe's experiment began as his dissertation, 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 explanation 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. "Disillusioned" by this "crisis," Howe renounced his prior accomplishments with Laura. But while Freeberg surpasses Gitter's solid rendering of the 19th-century cultural climate, he does so at the expense of fully realizing his subjects' characters, merely nodding towards their personal lives. 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, if anticlimactic, approach. (May 4)

Reviewed on: 04/23/2001
Release date: 05/01/2001
Ebook - 272 pages - 978-0-674-03722-9
Paperback - 264 pages - 978-0-674-01005-5
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