SECTION 8 REGIONAL THEMES: Deaf Identity and Social Images in Nineteenth-Century France.
Anne Quartararo opens this study by drawing an important distinction between a disability model of deaf history, which emphasizes both difference and integration into a larger population, and a cultural approach, which seeks the roots of the deaf community's social identity in the agency of deaf men and women. While this book fits squarely into the latter category, Quartararo demonstrates that the two must be combined for any real understanding of how the French deaf community emerged during the nineteenth century; the hearing public's anxieties played a significant role in shaping the forms and issues that characterized the mobilization of the deaf. That fear of difference prompted a long-lasting debate on the purpose and most appropriate tools for the education of the deaf. For the hearing, the deaf child represented, as an 1863 commission studying deaf education put it, "a savage in the middle of society". (p. 89) Schooling, therefore, had to focus on methods that would fully integrate the deaf into hearing society, a pedagogy known as "oralism". Many in the deaf community, however, insisted on sign language as the best means for educating deaf children. To Quartararo, this struggle pitted those whose interests lied primarily in "social control" against those who desired "real equity". (p. 64)
This focus on education is appropriate for at least two reasons. First, since most deaf children are born to hearing parents, it is often at residential schools that they begin to relate to one another and to make essential contacts. Second, a common language is typically vital to community identity. In the battle over that language, between supporters of oralism and sign language, each side drew on the pioneering work done by the Abbe Charles-Michel de l'Epee in the late eighteenth century. Epee's method integrated signing with written language. The sign language he advocated was of his own design, however, which he vaunted over the "natural" signs that would later become the basis of French Sign Language. He designed his "methodical" sign language to fit the rules of grammar inherent in written French because he believed that natural sign language was incapable of leading deaf children to sophisticated thought. Only a language that mirrored the complexities of written French could do that. (Auguste Bebian would refute that in 1817 and begin the process of formalizing natural sign language into the French Sign Language that proponents would Later demand as the foundation for all deaf education.) While Epee thus became an important symbol for partisans of sign language, not least because his work sustained the belief that the deaf were indeed capable of intellectual rigor, oralists mirrored his insistence on French as the language of true integration. Oralists insisted upon lip reading and spoken language as the sole means for overcoming the perceived helplessness of the French deaf. This approach slowly gained ground after the death in 1822 of the Abbe Roch-Ambrose-Cucurron Sicard, Epee's successor at the Paris Deaf Institute, until 1884 when the Republican government declared it the sole acceptable pedagogy in French schools for the deaf. Quartararo attributes this development to the long process by which successive governments sought to construct a unified cultural community in France. In short, then, oralism's victory "reinforced the social expectations that the hearing policymakers had for deaf schoolchildren." (p. 136)
Despite this oralist triumph, itself a Reflection of wider trends in French education, nineteenth-century schools for the deaf trod a very different path from other educational institutions. In fact, their development paralleled charitable institutions more than schools, and there is good reason for that. First, from its very inception, education for the deaf was meant primarily to alleviate the poverty that typified the lives of so many deaf people. This was the helplessness to which proponents of oralism alluded. Like depots de mendicites, many of these schools included ateliers meant to teach pupils a vocational skill, in addition to classes in lip reading and articulated speech. Second, schools for the deaf were placed under the purview of the Ministry of the Interior, not Public Instruction. As in the realm of poor relief then, the vast majority of institutions were private, with religious personnel predominating. As Quartararo concludes, aside from the ascendance of oralism, there was thus no typical experience for deaf schoolchildren.
This dispute over oralism sparked the first glimmers of an organized deaf community in the 1830s, though Quartararo is careful to recognize that a less organized community already existed in metropolitan areas where deaf men and women could find each other. Advocates of sign language first organized around annual banquets to commemorate the birthday of Epee, which were replete with toasts that lambasted oralism. At the same time, one of these organizers, Ferdinand Berthier, a deaf teacher increasingly marginalized by oralist pedagogy, began to record the history of the deaf community in France, providing yet another foundation for shared identity. By the end of the century, thanks in part to strides made in deaf education, the community had given rise to a host of associations, newspapers, and congresses, once again mirroring developments within the larger national and international community. Nevertheless, they were unable to achieve their goals of revalorizing sign language and opening more professional careers to the deaf. In fact, French Sign Language achieved official recognition only in 2005. Quartararo sees this as a natural consequence of greater activity and politicization. As increasing numbers of deaf men and women organized, more cracks within the community emerged. "They may have wanted fraternity and unity," she concludes, "but they seemed incapable of forging that lasting solidarity." (p. 191)
While a more sustained analysis of that failure and its significance in French history would be welcome, particularly given the nation's troubled past with minority communities, Quartararo has presented a fine study of how one such group achieved a sense of identity that continues to serve deaf men and women today.
Steven M. Beaudoin
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|Author:||Beaudoin, Steven M.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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