Gloomy Saint and Wandering Virtues
The tragedy of Alexander Graham Bell's destructive benevolence
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Alexander Graham Bell is an exemplar of how experts and geniuses can simultaneously do unimaginable good and unspeakable harm, all with the best of intentions. In 1876, Bell introduced the world’s first practicable telephone, bringing the whole world into intimate contact as never before. In that same period, he successfully demanded worldwide changes in the teaching of deaf students and, in so doing, ruined their educations, communities, and lives for nearly a century. Decades later, he feared the raging excesses of eugenics while continuing to lend his name and prestige to that movement—just as it ramped up its agenda of forced sterilizations, rigid segregation, restricted immigration, and state control over who could marry whom.
For me, Bell’s story offers profound lessons concerning the state of American education in 2023. Rather than saying why, I’ll let readers comment on whether they agree and, if so, what parallels they see.
Much of what is disturbing about life today resides in four related quotes: A prayer of Teresa of Ávila begged: “God, save us from gloomy saints.” Vikram Seth wrote, “God save us from people who mean well.” T.S. Eliot observed that, “O Lord, deliver me from the man of excellent intention and impure heart: for the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage.” (Similar statements are attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, Ayn Rand, Isabel Paterson, C.S. Lewis, and Krister Stendahl.)
Ironically, Eliot was an enthusiast for the degenerate science of eugenics while Chesterton was perhaps the world’s fiercest anti-eugenicist. In “G. K. Chesterton & T. S. Eliot: Friends or Enemies?” theologian Joseph Pearce describes the complex relationship between these two men, whom he calls, “two of the most important figures in the Christian Cultural Revival.”
Alexander Graham Bell was a world leader of eugenics, which sought to improve the human species via biological and social engineering. Eugenicists had some towering achievements—the development of mathematical statistics, for example. But the whole enterprise became an exercise in groupthink—a scientific framework for applying confirmation bias to prior bigotries and snobberies. Today, the name “eugenics” is irretrievably sullied by its practitioners’ shoddy science, intolerance of dissent, and monstrous agenda.
Bell served as chairman of the board of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO)—the beating heart of American eugenics. Contrary to many eugenicists, he called for careful accumulation of data and was capable of introspection. In War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race, historical journalist Edwin Black described Bell’s discomfort with the ERO and its founder, Charles Davenport. In 1912, Bell wrote to Davenport:
“The whole subject of eugenics has been too much associated in the public mind with fantastical and impractical schemes for restricting marriage and preventing the propagation of undesirable characteristics, so that the very name ‘Eugenics’ suggests, to the average mind … an attempt to interfere with the liberty of the individual in his pursuit of happiness in marriage.”
Black described Bell’s further discomfort three years later:
“‘14 million to be sterilized’ was the warning from the Hearst syndicate of newspapers in late September of 1915. Alexander Graham Bell, long queasy about Davenport’s obsession with defectives, reacted at once, contacting [the ERO] for some reassurance. … Davenport assured Bell he would warn others ‘against believing things … in the Hearst papers.’ Bell, only briefly comforted, wrote back, ‘Your note … is a great relief to me, as I was naturally disturbed over the newspaper notices—even though I didn’t believe them.’ The articles did not stop, however.”
Bell chaired one more ERO meeting in 1916 and then severed his ties to the organization. Nevertheless, he remained a leader of the eugenics movement and served in 1921 as honorary president of the Second International Eugenics—a gathering that helped turbocharge an increasingly virulent agenda.
Bell’s impact was particularly strong and damaging in the field of deaf education—a gloomy saint with the best of intentions. Bell’s mother was hard of hearing, his wife was deaf, and both he and his father were renowned teachers of deaf students. On certain points, however, he would prove dead-wrong, closed-minded, and tragically influential. He fell into a familiar pattern of zealous reformers—reforms first, evidence later.
Bell became the driving force behind “oralism” (spoken language only) and enemy of “manualism” (use of sign language) in deaf education. To understand what this means requires a brief introduction to sign languages and their relation (or lack thereof) to spoken languages.
Primer on Sign Languages
Sign languages are fully formed languages, with vocabularies, syntaxes, and grammars equivalent to those of spoken languages. Furthermore, sign languages, of which there are many, have virtually no relationship to the spoken languages of their geographic locales. For example, American Sign Language (ASL), the common language among deaf people in North America, has virtually no relationship with spoken English. ASL is an offshoot of and similar to French Sign Language (FSL), whereas British Sign Language (BSL) is incomprehensible to ASL- and FSL-speakers.
ASL’s word order is more similar to Japanese than to English. (In English, one says, “I have a white dog.” In ASL, the word order is “Dog, white, I have.” In Japanese, it’s more like “I, white dog, have a.”) ASL has no verb tenses and, instead, uses time-signifiers somewhat like those used by Navajo-speakers. (The English, “I ate” becomes “Last night, I eat.”). As in Hebrew, ASL nouns are often derived from verbs. (The ASL word for “chair” is derived from the word for “sit.”)
A deaf person’s acquisition of signing is neurologically equivalent to a hearing person’s acquisition of speech. One doesn’t “teach” a baby ASL any more than one “teaches” a baby English. Babies learn spoken and signed languages by osmosis, with shards of surrounding conversation gradually crystalizing into very specific neural structures. Once this process occurs for at least one language, the brain is then a welcome receptacle for acquiring other languages. So, a child who becomes proficient at ASL early in life has the capacity to efficiently absorb BSL or English later on.
What Bell didn’t understand is that there is an exceedingly brief time when a child can build these neural structures and, for many deaf children, the structures can only be acquired via a sign language. Bell, the determiend social engineer, wanted deaf children to be fully integrated into the larger society, so he advocated banning ASL in deaf schools. But telling a deaf child to communicate via lip-reading and fingerspelling is somewhat equivalent to telling a hearing child in America, “You’ll communicate only in Dutch, using semaphore flags.” (The fallibility of lip-reading was the subject of a Seinfeld episode starring deaf actress Marlee Matlin.)
Many deaf children cannot learn spoken language and lip-reading, rendering techniques like fingerspelling doubly useless. For those who can learn spoken language, the process is extraordinarily time-consuming and inefficient, with the effect of limiting time available for mathematics, science, history, and other subjects.
The neurology of language acquisition was not understood until the mid-20th century, but Bell’s opponents—notably Edward Minor Gallaudet and his deaf colleague Laurent Clerc—intuitively understood what neurologists and linguists would establish a century later. In a series of debates in the 1870s, Bell advocated rigid oralism, while Gallaudet advocated manualism in class and oralism after class for those students who could benefit from a blended curriculum.
Like Bell, Gallaudet’s father was a noted educator of deaf students. Gallaudet University was named for the father, and both served as its president. While Bell’s mother was rendered hard-of-hearing by childhood illness, Gallaudet’s mother was born deaf. But philosophically and temperamentally, they were poles apart.
A Closed Variety of the Inquiring Mind
Contrary to most of Bell’s eugenicist colleagues, he debated adversaries and, sometimes changed his mind in response to new information. But his open-mindedness had limits. In 1880, at the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf (a.k.a., “Milan Conference”), Bell helped persuade educators worldwide to impose draconian measures to insure the triumph of oralism. In 1883, the year that Francis Galton coined the word “eugenics,” Bell delivered an influential, but scientifically inept paper, “Memoir Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race,” to the National Academy of Sciences.
The Milan Conference followed the Bell-Gallaudet debates. Delegates from at least seven countries voted in favor of eight mostly oralist resolutions. The two most important were adamant and scientifically illiterate:
“The Convention, considering the incontestable superiority of articulation over signs in restoring the deaf-mute to society and giving him a fuller knowledge of language, declares that the oral method should be preferred to that of signs in education and the instruction of deaf-mutes.”
“The Convention, considering that the simultaneous use of articulation and signs has the disadvantage of injuring articulation and lip-reading and the precision of ideas, declares that the pure oral method should be preferred.”
In the aftermath of Milan, oralism swept across schools worldwide, deaf teachers were fired, and deaf education decayed. Students’ career prospects deteriorated. Deaf communities—a fascinating topic for another day—were shattered. In 2023, deaf people drive, fly planes, work heavy machinery, do fine precision work, serve in cognitive professions, and so forth. To a lesser extent, that was true pre-Milan, but oralism depressed such opportunities until the mid-20th century.
[At a Congress some years after Milan, Bell endorsed the exclusion of deaf delegates from the proceedings. In When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf (p.410), psychologist Harlan Lane quotes Bell as saying:
“It goes without saying that those who are themselves unable to speak are not the proper judges of the value of speech to the deaf.”
The eugenic aspects of Bell’s thinking gelled in his “Deaf Variety” paper. Bell feared that marriage between deaf people would lead to a “vigorous, but defective variety of the race of human beings,” which would be “a great calamity to the world.” Bell’s treatise acknowledged that the evidence was insufficient to demonstrate this conclusively. But his education agenda policy presupposed that this was fact. Again from Lane (p.361):
“For someone who believed that Italians were adulterating American racial stock, it was inconceivable that deaf people were not.”
And, from the Eugenics Archive website, Bell:
“emphasized the need for legislation to prevent the entry of what he termed ‘undesirable ethnical elements’ and in order to encourage the ‘evolution of a higher and nobler type of man in America.’”
From that same page, to discourage deaf people from marrying one another, Bell advocated:
“prohibiting the use of American Sign Language in residential schools, eliminating segregated Deaf social clubs and programs, exposing young Deaf-Mute children to teachers and administrators who were not Deaf-Mute themselves, and using oral education in schools. If such steps were taken, then Bell felt marriage between Deaf-Mutes would decrease, and marriage between Deaf-Mutes and others would increase. This would ultimately result in fewer Deaf children being born, and the elimination of the American deaf community.”
And yet, here, too, Bell differed from many eugenicists in that he seemed to favor what we would now call “nudges” over mandates. His wished to minimize instances of deaf people marrying other deaf people, but at times, he publicly opposed legal restrictions on marriage. But he did like nudges. As noted by Harlan Lane, Robert Hoffmeister, and Ben Bahan in A Journey into Deaf-World (p.381):
“Day schools, Bell told Wisconsin lawmakers, allow ‘keeping deaf-mutes separate from one another as much as possible.”
Bell’s genetic theories were problematic, even for the time. His wife and mother were both deafened by childhood illness, not by their genes. Most deaf children were born to hearing parents. Most children of deaf parents were hearing. This dynamic was movingly presented in the Academy Award-winning film, CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) in 2021.
In 1980, the 15th International Conference on the Education of the Deaf (Hamburg) partially recanted the resolutions of a century earlier. In 2010, the 21st International Congress (Vancouver) formally apologized for Milan and its aftermath. Organizations these days are, perhaps, too zealous in apologizing for long-ago events, but this apology, in my estimation, is well-deserved.
The Significance of Bell Today
Alexander Graham Bell is a complex figure and, in fact, a hero of my youth. (He still is, to some extent.) As a child, I became deeply interested in telephones and their history. At age 11, an elderly relative gave me the 1920s candlestick phone shown above—the beginning of the modest collection of phones that still resides in my office. He was unquestionably a genius. In 1881, doctors in Washington struggled in vain to locate the bullet fragments lodged in the dying President James Garfield. Of his own volition, in a matter of weeks, Bell invented a telephone-based metal detector and rushed to the White House in hopes of saving the president’s life. He knew that the failure of his effort to save Garfield could destroy his reputation, but he barreled through that fear. Whether or not the metal detector could have saved the president is uncertain, as the president’s stubborn and incompetent physician, Willard Bliss, impeded Bell’s examination of the president. The story is told magnificently in Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, which provides a splendid window into Bell’s intellect, passion, and personal courage. Additionally, Bell was instrumental in the development of the phonograph and airplane—and led the National Geographic Society.
And yet, there is this disturbing side of Bell—the eugenicist social engineer. For me, this duality echoes in some of the more disturbing trends in American education today—both at the K-12 level and in the realm of colleges, universities, and professional schools. Rather than specifying exactly how, I’ll offer only a pair of quotes that hint at my thinking. Again, from When the Mind Hears (p. 342):
“There are two kinds of people in the world, a teacher of mine once said—those who love other people, and those who love mankind. Bell belonged to the latter group. ‘You are always so thoughtful of others,’ he wrote to his wife, ‘whereas I somehow or other appear to be more interested in things than people, in people wholesale rather than in persons individual.’”
In 2021, Katie Booth authored The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness—a critical account of Bell’s legacy. In his New York Times review of Booth’s biography (“Devoted to the Deaf, Did Alexander Graham Bell Do More Harm Than Good?”), Andrew Solomon chose from the book a particularly poignant quote, from Bell’s wife Mabel:
“Your deaf mute business is hardly human to you. You are very tender and gentle to the deaf children, but their interest to you lies in their being deaf, not in their humanity.”
What does all of this tell us about the state of American education in 2023? The question is yours to ponder. I’m hoping some of you will share your own thoughts in the comments below.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: For a number of years, I had recurring interaction with the Deaf community. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I lectured a few times a year before economics classes at Gallaudet University and helped establish a center for economic education at the school. Some years later, while heading up the National Economists Club in Washington, DC, I made a point of inviting deaf students from Gallaudet to attend some of the club’s signature events. One such event was a major address by then-Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Because the students were present, we hired a sign-language interpreter and were delighted when the Wall Street Journal featured the interpreter’s presence in their article: Interpreters for Deaf Cut Through D.C.'s Political Jargon. For some years, I was relatively adept at ASL though, to my regret, disuse has greatly diminished my capacity to sign.