The First Permanent School
The story of deaf education in early America was determined in good part by the fortuitous intersection of the lives of three men: Thomas H. Gallaudet, a Congregational minister without a church, Mason Fitch Cogswell, a physician who happened to be the father of a deaf child, and Laurent Clerc, a Parisian teacher deafened in early childhood.
Etching of the Old Hartford School
Gallaudet was an exceptional student, graduating first in the Yale College class of 1805 at the age of seventeen. Within two years he had earned a master of arts degree, also from Yale, and in 1814 he graduated from Andover Theological Seminary as an ordained Congregational minister. Ordinarily he would have taken a position as a church pastor, but confronted with poor health, he instead returned to live with his parents in Hartford, Connecticut.
His parents’ neighbor, as it happened, was Mason Fitch Cogswell, a successful and well-to-do physician with a nine-year-old daughter, Alice, who had become deaf at age two from meningitis. Gallaudet took an interest in Alice and tried to teach her but soon realized that learning individual words is the least part of learning language. He and Cogswell began to explore the possibility of establishing a school dedicated to teaching deaf children. They made contacts with other parents of deaf children and began to raise money.
Until this time, wealthy parents had sent their deaf children to schools in Europe to be educated. Since no one in the United States had the necessary expertise, the first priority for Cogswell and Gallaudet was to send someone to Europe to study the methods in use there. Gallaudet was not eager to go himself but Cogswell persuaded him to go, and in the summer of 1815 he found himself at the Braidwood Academy, a private school in Scotland where he planned to spend several weeks in observation and study and then to return home. The Braidwood family looked upon education as a market commodity, however, and considered their techniques, which focused on teaching oral communication, as proprietary secrets that they offered only to a select, paying clientele. Their terms for instructing Gallaudet were that he provide several years service as an apprentice and promise never to divulge their methods. Gallaudet refused.
Then occurred another of those significant accidents of history. There was in Paris a publicly supported school for deaf students, the Royal Institution for Deaf-Mutes, founded in 1876 by a Catholic priest, the Abbé de l’Epee, who had pioneered the use of sign language in the instruction of deaf students. Gallaudet learned that the current director of the school, the Abbé Sicard, was in London giving public demonstrations of his methods with two of his former deaf students – Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc – both of whom were now teachers at the school. Audiences flocked to see the “educated deaf mutes,” a wonder of modern civilization.
Gallaudet saw his opportunity, attended one of their lectures and afterward introduced himself to Sicard. As he had hoped, he received an invitation to visit the school in Paris. He ended up spending several months in residence there, much impressed by what he saw. He soon realized, however, that becoming a competent practitioner in this method, which required learning not just a new language but a means of communication radically different from what he was accustomed to, would require him to spend far more time away from home than he had intended. It was then that Clerc, who had been a star pupil at the school and was now, at the age of thirty, an accomplished and gifted teacher, offered to return with him to Hartford.
The Connecticut Asylum for the Education of Deaf and Dumb Persons (later the American School for the Deaf) opened its doors in Hartford, Connecticut on April 15th, 1817, with Thomas H. Gallaudet as principal and Laurent Clerc as head teacher. Clerc brought to America something of greater significance than his skills and knowledge as a teacher, as important as those were. He brought as well the sign language of Paris.