Book review: Janak, Politics, Disability and Education Reform in the South: The Work of John Eldred Swearingen.
John Eldred Swearingen was a revered and important educational figure in South Carolina, where he was state superintendent of education between 1908 and 1922. A product of the post-Civil War era and Reconstruction, his family were prominent cotton farmers. At the age of thirteen, John was blinded in a shooting accident, and his life was forever changed. His mother took over his education, focusing on literacy, orientation, mobility and independence. After receiving an initial education from her, Swearingen was sent away to a special school, which at the time was the only formal education option for a child with significant disabilities. Although he was unhappy in school, Swearingen excelled. After secondary school, he applied to and was rejected from South Carolina College because of his disability. However, he was finally allowed to enroll, but only if he could meet the standards set for all students. Although meeting standards was difficult for a student who was blind, Swearingen again proved himself highly successful, primarily due to his extraordinary abilities, perseverance, and willingness to adapt how he learned. For example, although the university did not provide assistance to Swearingen, he asked fellow students to assist him by reading his textbooks aloud and writing for him. Swearingen graduated with honors and took a teaching position at a special high school (his only option for employment as a person with a disability).
Perhaps because of his disability and ability to succeed academically, politically, and socially, Swearingen ran for public office as state superintendent of schools. He was very successful in that elected position, and promoted educational opportunities for those traditionally excluded from public schools, including mill workers' children and African American children. Swearingen also reformed the structure of the public high school for all students, not just some students. His transformative ideas moved southern public education in the direction of a longer school year, equal school funding, better qualified and better paid teachers, and an improved, standardized curriculum that included vocational education.
In presenting Swearingen's life, author Edward Janak draws on archival sources, family correspondence, oral interviews, newspapers, and secondary sources. He provides evidence that Swearingen was motivated to advocate for all children because of the deep personal rejection he experienced due to his own disability. Swearingen was also encouraged by his mother's insistence that he receive an education and become independent, and by his own desire to meet the role expectations of southern white masculinity. These expectations included learning to "act as a man" in running the family farm, engaging in physical activities like hunting, and taking a paternalistic attitude toward marginalized populations, like African Americans. Swearingen made great strides in the education of marginalized populations, despite obstacles that included his own and his family's racism, his prominent politician uncle's racism, and racist views held by the society at large.
Although two other biographies have been written about John Eldred Swearingen, neither provides an analysis of why he took particular actions. For example, neither of these previous biographies discuss why Swearingen assumed positions in opposition to his family and society, or how race, class, disability, and gender impacted his decisions and career. Janak seeks to tell why John Swearingen made particular decisions about public education in South Carolina. In doing so, Janak provides greater detail about the context in which Swearingen lived, including how the political environment affected him.
Janak uses a multifaceted framework to construct this biography, which is based on best practice in biographical research and writing. He writes about Swearingen through multiple perspectives, analyzing Swearingen's psychological and physical self as well as the political realities that shaped his world. In particular, Janak focuses on the local, state, and national happenings that reciprocally influenced Swearingen's actions. Such comprehensive research allows Janak to analyze Swearingen with respect to race, class, disability, and gender, thereby closing gaps in knowledge that exist in previous scholarly works. For example, Janak notes that Swearingen was unable to participate in the normal socialization (e.g., hunting, fishing, physical activities) of boys in the South because of his blindness and that he felt marginalized and rejected when he was initially denied admission to South Carolina College because of his disability. This context, Janak proposes, contributed to Swearingen's interest in providing public education to marginalized populations, like African Americans and mill workers' children. Janak offers additional insight on Swearingen in recounting the outbreak of World War I during his tenure. Many South Carolina men, both white and African American, enlisted and served during the war. When white soldiers came home they were hailed as patriotic, while returning African American soldiers were marginalized. Swearingen used this context as an opportunity to improve public education for African Americans to help correct the injustice.
Against the backdrop of a racist South, a wealthy family, a personal disability, and traditional masculine role expectations, Swearingen made decisions about schools that were contrary to the milieu in which he was raised and lived. In part, he was successful because of his persistence during times when citizens and the governor did not support his educational initiatives. He also benefited from an ability to take advantage of times when his ideas won voters' and the governor's approval. Among the important, progressive changes within South Carolina public schools that are credited to Swearingen are a standardized secondary curriculum, compulsory attendance, improved teacher training and salaries, textbook adoption, and state funding for schools. Swearingen accomplished all of these while improving the education of the children who had been marginalized.
I was particularly interested in Janak's analysis of disability, given societal attitudes toward people with disabilities during Swearingen's life and tenure as state superintendent. Education policy is partly shaped by case law, legislative law, and parent advocacy. During the time period that Swearingen lived and worked, case law supported the exclusion of students with disabilities from public schools. Swearingen was a prime example of how disability affected families and how all children with disabilities either stayed home or attended special residential schools. Around 1910, the White House initiated a special conference recommending remedial programs for children who were in need and, in 1922, the Council for Exceptional Children was founded, promoting education of students with disabilities. Swearingen's life of mobility and independence, his high level of education, his ability to overcome societal barriers to disability, and his success in influencing education throughout South Carolina suggest he was far-advanced for the time. Meaningful change in public schooling for students with disabilities did not even begin until 1954, with the landmark court case Brown v. Board of Education. Therefore, this book would be of interest to scholars studying early role models for people with disabilities, as well as other marginalized populations.
Mary Konya Weishaar
Southern Illinois University
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|Author:||Weishaar, Mary Konya|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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