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Learning Disability: Social Class and the Construction of Inequality in American Education.

Learning Disability: Social Class and the Construction of Inequality in American Education John Carrier's three-part book attempts to describe the science, meaning, and politics of learning disabilities from a Marxist, sociological perspective. First, he traces the scientific origins of the term. Carrier says that embedded within the clinical explanation of learning disabilities are the beliefs and values that reinforce the prevailing social order, that is, the social order and class systems of capitalism. He suggests that learning-disability theory was confirmed as a scientific truth because of its physiological basis (although it has never been empirically proven). Carrier cites the research of Alfred Strauss, whose work formed the basis for early theories on the disability. Status hypothesized that children who performed similarly to brain-injured soldiers on a cognitive battery that he had devised suffered from a neuropathological brain disorder. Strauss assumed as truth that neural injury interfered with the normal brain pattern in certain children and caused them to perceive the world with a concrete attitude. This concrete attitude, found in primitive cultures, has been viewed by some researchers as inferior and not indicative of civilized western society.

In the book's second section, Carrier attempts to translate the meaning of learning-disability theory. He says that by searching for the pathology within the child who has failed, rather than objectively evaluating the values ingrained in teaching methodologies and curricula, educators have long protected many classroom practices that have been counterproductive for youths with learning disabilities. Carrier suggests that when educational practices are ignored, a proposed critical attribute of the learner--unexplained academic failure not related to IQ--remains intact. This assumption enables the broader social forces that shape educational beliefs to be filtered out of learning-disability theory. Carrier suggests that originally this theiry was used to explain the genetic pathology of the poor and delinquent. Learning-disability proponents believed that by providing additional services for the lower classes, social and economic failure could be reduced.

In the final segment of his book, Carrier explains the political factors that caused the learning-disability category to be championed by the middle class. By citing extensive congressional committee hearings of the late 1960s, Carrier supports the contention that because middle-class parents had the values and attitudes of the intact social order, many of them found this category palatable, even inviting. Their low-achieving children would be able to receive additional educational resources, but escape the special education labels of mental retardation and emotional disturbance that the middle class has long associated with incompetence and failure. Carrier attempts to show that other groups, such as educational psychologists and special education reformers, joined forces with parent advocacy groups to legitimize learning-disability theory. By defining abnormality soley within an education context, both groups wished to free special education from the control of the medical profession. The definition of learning disabilities continued to be modified to meet the needs of different groups vying for resources. Ultimately, financial resources were authorized by the federal government and provided to higher education institutions and state educational agencies. Carrier argues that the dominant social group, the middle class, was sanctioned by society to embrace the learning-disability category. He suggests that this action preserves the established social order and continues to mask America's social ills, such as poverty and social inequality.
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Author:Teitelbaum, Nancy
Publication:Exceptional Children
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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