After the American Revolution (1775-1783), the founders of the United States argued that education was essential for the prosperity and survival of the new nation. Thomas Jefferson proposed that Americans give a high priority to a “crusade against ignorance.” Jefferson’s plans for universal education and for publicly funded schools formed the basis of universal education in the country.

Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, public school students in America attended classes for only a few weeks each winter, often in poorly equipped schoolhouses with untrained teachers. Horace Mann (1796-1859) surveyed the condition of the state’s elementary schools, established training institutes for teachers, increased the length of the school year to six months, and gathered support for more funding for teacher salaries, books and school construction. His changes came to be called the common school movement.

Speech and literacy in public elementary schools

Eighteenth century public schools included instruction in literacy, grammar, and public speaking or elocution. Caleb Bingham was a private and public school teacher in Connecticut as well as an author of popular school-books for children. His activities and writings are representative offer a window on was going on in 18th century public and private elementary schools.

Bingham’s first book was The young lady's accidence; or, A short and easy introduction to English grammar. It was intended for use in his private girls' school but had a much broader appeal. It went through 20 editions and sold 100,000 copies. It was the second English grammar published in the United States

Bingham’s book The child's companion: Being a concise spelling book was published in 1792. Although outsold by Noah Webster's American spelling book (1787), Bingham's book appeared in at least eleven editions through the late 1830s.

In 1794, Bingham published another of his school books: The American preceptor. This was a reading book that contained moral and entertaining poetry and prose designed to have children read aloud. It was to be Bingham’s most popular book that went through seventy editions. In 1797, Bingham published The Columbian orator, a reader and elocution manual. It contained material that children used when practicing their reading as well as public speaking skills.

Secondary schools

The first publicly supported secondary school in the United States was the Boston Latin School, established in 1635. The focus of the curriculum was on classical education and on Latin texts. This resulted in a difficult curriculum and low school attendance.

The demand for skilled workers in the middle of the 18th century called for a more vocational technical high school education. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) responded to the call by establishing a new kind of secondary school, departing from the Latin-based classical tradition. Franklin established the American Academy in Philadelphia in 1751.

Franklin’s high school curriculum included arithmetic, accounting, geometry, astronomy, geography, history, and ethics . The coursework also included natural history and gardening, the history of commerce and principles of mechanics. He also included ways to help students “write a fair hand” and to create “something of drawing.”

The methods of education Franklin proposed included field trips, such as visits to neighboring farms. It also provided students with a background in scientific methods including opportunities for natural observations and experiments with scientific apparatus. Finally, there was time set aside for physical exercise.

Franklin’s high school curriculum emphasized rhetoric. Students were taught English grammar and how to write essays and to write personal and business letters.

All education, according to Franklin, should be “suffused with a quest for benignity of mind,” which Franklin saw as the foundation of good breeding, and a spirit of service, which he regarded as “the great aim and end of all learning.”

Rhetoric in higher education

It was also in the 18th century that the institutions of higher education, began in America. Included in this early group were Yale University, established in 1701, Princeton University in 1746 and the University of Pennsylvania in 1791.

Like for the high schools, the curricula of these universities emphasized rhetoric. For example, the curriculum devised by Benjamin Franklin for the University of Pennsylvania included grammar, reading, public speaking, and writing. The levels of the curriculum were organized as follows:

The newly formed faculty for America’s first universities specialized in the history and teaching of aspects of rhetoric and oratory. They based their teachings on the classic writings about rhetoric such as those by Quintilian, Cicero, and Demosthenes. They also drew on the rhetoric and elocutionary writings of their former compatriots in England—those who had studied and written about aspects of what was called delivery. This included emotional expression, vocabulary, phonetics, and grammar.

Special education

The 18th century America saw the beginning of special segregated institutions for people with disabilities, and with it, segregated education. In the asylums for the mentally ill, for example, moral education methods were instituted. The methods used with the mentally ill shifted from 17th century intervention physical approaches such as bloodletting, physical punishment and bondage to psychological therapies. Foucault described several instances in Europe of the cruelty of this new 18th century psychological warfare. He described harsh tactics, such as the following as described by Pinel the director of a Parisian asylum who assumed a brutal stance toward a mentally ill man who is afraid he will be damned if he eats. To combat his fear the director implemented tactics that were:

…likely to produce fear—an angry eye, a thundering tone of voice, a group of staff armed with strong chains that shook noisily. They set some soup beside the madman and gave him precise orders to eat it during the night, or else suffer the most cruel treatment. They retired and left the madman in the most distressed state of indecision between the punishment with which he was threatened and the frightening propest of the torments in the life to come. After an inner combat of several hours, the former idea prevailed, and he decided to take some nourishment” (Foucault, 1965, p. 265-266, from Pinel, 1801).

Among the most important 18th contributors to special education was Jean Marc Gaspard Itard (1775-1838), a French physician and educator. Between 1801 and 1806, Itard worked with a 10 year boy, who was found in the wild. There was, at this time considerable interest in “unsocialized children,” because they were seen as a way to demonstrate the effect of environment on learning. Rousseau considered the infant to be an “uncivilized child” and as inherently good. Civilization and the desire for property was what created avarice and was what corrupted the morals of this “noble savage.” The issue raised by Rousseau offered Itard the intellectual context to accept the challenge of civilizing Victor, called The wild boy of Aveyron. Itard presumed any child could be taught anything. His goals for Victor were the following, in his own words:

Itard’s educational approach drew heavily from the empiricist view of knowledge of philosophers John Locke (1634-1704) and Etienne Condillac (1715—1780). Both of these philosophers argued that higher-level cognition derive from elementary sensations and everyday experience. Sense training, then, was seen as a place to begin an education that was foundational for developing higher-level mental operations.

One of Itard’s approaches to reaching and teaching Victor was through Victor’s sense training. As he said it: To awaken his nervous sensibility by the most energetic stimulation (Itard, 1962, p. 18). His methods included stimulating vision, hearing, taste, and smell and working on eye-hand coordination. He also relied on having Victor imitate what the teacher did and said.

Victor improved some over the six years of Itard’s teachings, and the loving care of his caregiver. But the boy did not meet up to the expectations that Itard had for him. In the end he could read and speak a few words, interpret and execute simple commands, and display emotional attachment to his caregivers. Itard stopped working with Victor at that point and went on to develop educational programs for those who are deaf and hearing impaired. Victor continued to live with his caregiver Mrs. Guerin until 1828, when he died at the age of 40.

Itard’s writings about Victor (Itard, 1801/1962) became an influential treatise for later teachers working with children who were diagnosed as mentally retarded (Scheerenberger, 1983). Near the end of his life, Itard supervised the work of his student Edward Seguin who systemized Itard’s methods into what he called the Physiological method (Seguin, 1866). In 1850, Seguin moved to the United States and became a leader in the education of those with mental retardation.

18th century speech therapies

Most speech therapies of the 18th century were driven by the medical model. Speech problems were seen symptoms of diseases and therapies were designed to cure those diseases. It was within this framework that blistering and bloodletting were used to alleviate the symptom of stuttering.

Uses for the potential of electricity was also in vogue, given its recent discovery. Benjamin Franklin the physician and inventor was strongly associated with discoveries about the nature of electricity. He was therefore in a position for developing medical uses for eletricity. For example, Franklin and others explored electrical therapy to cure paralysis. While he felt the method was not lasting, he used it nonetheless. In a letter to Sir John Pringle, in 1757, he commented:

Some years since...a number of paralytics were brought to me from different parts of Pennsylvania and the neighboring provinces, to be electris'd, which I did for them, at their request. My method was, to place the patient first in a chair on an electric stool, and draw a number of large strong sparks from all parts of the affected limb or side. Then I fully charg'd two 6 gallon glass jars, each of which had about 3 square feet of surface coated and I sent the united shock of these thro’ the affected limb or limbs, repeating the stroke commonly three times each day.

The first thing observed was an immediate greater sensible warmth in the lame limbs that receiv'd the stroke than in the others... The limbs too were found more capable of voluntary motion and seem'd to receive strength... These appearances gave great spirits to the patients, and made them hope a perfect cure; but I do not remember that I ever saw any amendment after the fifth day: Which the patients perceiving, and finding the shocks pretty severe, they became discourag'd, went home and in a short time relapsed; so that I never knew any advantage from electricity in palsies that was permanent (Franklin, 1757)

Jean Marc Itard also applied medically-based theories and methods for treating speech problems. In 1817, for example, he published a treatise on stuttering in which he argued that it was caused by a problem with the nerves that were associated with the movements of the larynx and tongue. His therapy consisted of gymnastics of the organs of speech. He also inserted a gold or ivory fork in the cavity of the alveolar arch of the lower jaw to support the tongue in hopes that that would facilitate fluent speech.

Not everyone based their therapy and education on a medical model. The British elocutionist John Thelwall, for instance, took an aggressive stance against the use of the medical model to guide his approaches to speech therapy. In his Letter to Henry Cline describing his late 18th century elocutionary practices, Thelwall argued that most speech and language problems could be remediated without resorting to medical therapies. For example, he argued against surgeries such as cutting the frenum of the tongue and instead substituted exercises to stretch the tissue associated with “tongue tie.”

Other Thelwall therapies involved educating his students about phonetic placement and prosody. He also had his students practice public speaking by giving speeches to one another every week. This allowed them a liberal education as well a vehicle for practicing what they had learned.

Thelwall’s therapies proceeded logically and were tailored to fit the needs of particular pupils (Duchan, 2010). For example, for students who lacked, in Thelwall’s terms, energy or volition, he provided sensory stimulation, imitation, sound and prosody practice, and education. For those who were neglected or abused, he removed them from their homes and substituted a better environment. For those who lacked motivation, he worked with families to create a more demanding and positive home environment.