Words Made Flesh

Nineteenth-Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture

263 pages

January, 2014

ISBN: 9781479883738



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R. A. R. Edwards is Associate Professor of History at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, New York.

All books by R. A. R. Edwards

During the early nineteenth century, schools for the deaf appeared in the United States for the first time. These schools were committed to the use of the sign language to educate deaf students. Manual education made the growth of the deaf community possible, for it gathered deaf people together in sizable numbers for the first time in American history. It also fueled the emergence of Deaf culture, as the schools became agents of cultural transformations.
Just as the Deaf community began to be recognized as a minority culture, in the 1850s, a powerful movement arose to undo it, namely oral education. Advocates of oral education, deeply influenced by the writings of public school pioneer Horace Mann, argued that deaf students should stop signing and should start speaking in the hope that the Deaf community would be abandoned, and its language and culture would vanish. In this revisionist history, Words Made Flesh explores the educational battles of the nineteenth century from both hearing and deaf points of view. It places the growth of the Deaf community at the heart of the story of deaf education and explains how the unexpected emergence of Deafness provoked the pedagogical battles that dominated the field of deaf education in the nineteenth century, and still reverberate today.


  • "R.A.R. Edwards' Words Made Flesh: Nineteenth-Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture is a brilliant study of the emergence of a deaf community in nineteenth-century America . . . . Beyond a more nuanced account of the emergence of the American Deaf community, this monograph is ultimately a revisionist history of the ongoing conflict over pedagogical methods in deaf education. Building on the established historiography produced by a small cadre of deaf historians, Edwards represents a new generation of scholarship in the field, offering a revisionist thesis of the ideas originally presented by Van Cleve and Crouch over twenty years ago. Words Made Flesh is a fine addition to New York University press's history of disability series."


  • "[This book is] provocative, detailed, and a welcome examination of the emergence of a signing deaf culture."

    American Historical Review

  • "Words Made Flesh is a stimulating, beautifully written, and thoroughly engaging book."

    —James W. Trent , American Studies

  • "[A] useful addition to the still-developing history of the nation's evolving deaf community." 

    The Journal of American History

  • “In this gracefully written book, Edwards offers both a fascinating narrative and a provocative, revisionist thesis. Scholars and general readers interested in the Deaf community and American cultural history will find it a rewarding read.”

    —Douglas Baynton, University of Iowa