Of Laggards and Morons: Definitional Fluidity, Borderlinity, and the Theory of Progressive Era Special Education (Part 1)

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Education's Histories


This essay treats education biographically and uses special education as a way of discussing how education generally defines itself. While education can be variously defined, this essay is less concerned with definitions of education and more interested in how education, through its various classificatory schemes, defines itself. In an essay that treats the school as trickster, Adrea Lawrence discusses the plasticity of education and the ways that Native American schooling made schools themselves into shape shifters, into contradictory spaces that morphed in relation to the Americanized subjects they desired.1 “General” education is similarly contradictory and likewise shifts and morphs through the use of classificatory schemes. Though scientific in description, special education classifications have a beginning and change over time and thus mark the life history or biography of education. Although biographies are traditionally of people, perhaps also of places, things, or ideas, the biographical approach can also be applied to social institutions.

In employing biography as a method of inquiring, this essay argues that education’s life history is related to how special education classifies the subjects of education. This biography suggests that special education is not something that “general” education does but is what education generally is. To be sure, this methodology reifies education as a persona that acts on its own rather than as something that is enacted by students, teachers, administrators, or policymakers. The language of education defining itself is used here to draw attention to this reification and the ways that classificatory schemes do more than define the subjects of education as this or that label. Classificatory schemes also give education itself coherence as a subject. This methodological implication is important given education’s desire for a theory of special education.



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