Aberdeen has a long and well known relationship with education.
It’s a matter of not inconsiderable civic pride that the city was home to two universities when the entirety of England was home to just two (Marischal and Kings colleges and Oxford and Cambridge respectively).
In February of 1495, Bishop William Elphinstone petitioned the pope on behalf of James the Fourth to be allowed to set up Kings College. Though the founding date is given as 1495, teaching didn’t start for another decade. Elphinstone’s effigy is still displayed outside the main building of what is now the Kings campus of Aberdeen University.
In 1593 a second university was founded by George Keith, 5th earl Marishal. There was great rivalry between the students of the two institutions, and many attempts were made to join the two into a single unit. The first of these was undertaken by Charles the First. This was called the Caroline University of Aberdeen. Although this attempt was relatively short lived (despite being ratified during the Cromwellian period), Charles the First is still held up as one of the modern University’s founders for his role at this time. During the Restoration, Charles the Second rescinded all acts of the Cromwellian Commonwealth and the two universities went back to being rivals.
Numerous plans to join the two universities were suggested over the following centuries, but the only one to stick was the 1860 merger which created the modern university.
The history of the University is fascinating, but how does it relate to disability?
Well, what is less well known is Aberdeen’s relationship with the education of deaf people, and how it all started with one Aberdonian student.
George Delgarno (1616- 1687) was born in Old Aberdeen. He went on to be a student at Marsichal College where he studied areas such as Philosophy and Linguistics, before becoming a school teacher in Oxford.
As with many intellectuals of the 17th century, Delgarno worked on other projects besides his main job. He was an early doubter of Aristotle’s opinion that deaf people could not be educated.
Delgarno was very interested in how communication works. His works included building a system of shorthand writing as well as penning two books of note.
The first of these books was Ars Signorum (the Art of Signs) published in 1661, which despite what we might assume from the name, was not particularly aimed at people with hearing loss or profound deafness- it was an attempt at creating what he referred to as a “philosophical language”. This was an attempt to bridge communication barriers between people who had different native tongues.
Delgarno’s second work, Didascalocophus, or The Deaf and Dumb Man’s Tutor, published in 1680, proposed an entirely new language for deaf people and deaf-mutes. This language was based on writing and largely consisted of spelling words using the fingers, with the idea that speech, which he accepted would be imperfect but comprehensible, could be taught later if it was deemed needed.
In this work, Delgarno argues that all language is made of signs, be they verbal or physical, and those signs are completely arbitrary. Therefore, by changing the nature of the signs used, it should be possible for anyone to communicate and learn.
By introducing signs in infancy, much as a hearing child is introduced to verbal language, Delgarno reasoned that deaf children were as capable of learning as blind or any other children. His method of finger-spelling still forms part of the basis for American Sign Language.
Jumping forward to 1817, Aberdeen started to establish a specialist school for the deaf- the first moves being two years before Glasgow started to found its own school. Before this, the only methods of education for deaf pupils from Aberdeen was via private tutor or being sent to Edinburgh, putting it out of the financial reach of many parents.
This new school was called the Aberdeen Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb.
Interestingly, the origins of this institution seem to have come from a fundraising tour for the already established Edinburgh School which was housed at Dumbiedykes house- people feeling that Aberdeen was big enough to justify its own rather than supporting one so far from home. Public meetings were held and the society behind the formation of the school was formed.
Funds were hard to come by in the early days, but by 1818 it was decided to push on with what was available. A teacher (Mr Robert Taylor, a divinity student) was sent to Paris for 9 months to study deaf education and in 1819, the first pupils were welcomed to the school, which was housed in a room in Upper Kirkgate. To begin with there were only 3 pupils, but this number soon increased to 9 and continued to increase. By the start of the 20th century, there were 21 pupils.
Briefly, starting in 1818, a private venture led by a Mr England provided day schools for the deaf in Aberdeen which ran in competition to the Aberdeen Institute. These capitalised on the desire for an Aberdeen based school for deaf pupils and the early lack of public funds. They were unsuccessful and the school closed within a few years. Very little record of Mr England’s venture seems to exist today, but Mr Kinniburgh of the Edinburgh school claimed that the pupils received very little benefit.
The significance of Mr Taylor being sent to Paris rather than Edinburgh is that the method of teaching he learnt was ‘silent’-that is, sign based- as he was taught by the deaf-mute teacher Sicard. The School in Edinburgh used an oral method at the time and the skills of their teacher (Mr Kinniburgh, who had led the fundraising trip to the North East which drove the desire for a school in Aberdeen) were jealously guarded by strict terms from his own teachers, the Braidwoods of Hackney.
Although unintentional, this use of the ‘silent’ method echoed George Delgarno’s thoughts on the teaching of deaf children rather neatly.