It is often assumed that current disability constructs exist in conceptual isolation from one another. This article explores the tangled historical relationship between “mental retardation” and learning disability in the writings and speeches of special education pioneer Samuel A. Kirk. Beginning in the 1950s, Kirk repeatedly told an educability narrative that described children with low IQ scores as capable students worthy of instruction. However, when he tried to clearly distinguish between the new learning disability construct and the older mental retardation, Kirk altered his standard tale. True intellectual potential then shifted to the learning disability, leaving mental retardation doubly stigmatized as the disorder of educational infertility.
Authoritative and scientific organizations wholeheartedly support the assumption that learning disability and intellectual disability are distinct and unrelated disorders of human learning, each bearing no etiological, diagnostic, or behavioral association to the other. The Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a publication of the U.S. Department of Education (2007), would have us believe this assertion. The yearly federal data catalog filled with pages of student counts, percentages in all states, and disability categories, delivered most recently in its 27th edition, has yet to include a single table detailing the number of public school students who have both a learning disability and an intellectual disability. In America's schools, there are no such children (e.g., U.S. Department of Education, 2007).
Leading national disability advocacy organizations concur. A comprehensive search of the website of the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), the most prominent organization supporting research and services for persons with learning disabilities, turns up no mention of intellectual disability (LDA, 2009). A thorough examination of the Web site of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD, 2009) yields not a single sentence on learning disability either (American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. At present, the conceptual and practical meanings of each of these disorders are so fully cleaved from the other that any discussion of how they relate, overlap, or integrate would appear to be a waste of time.
Historically, the disentanglement of the two is a relatively recent happening. Intellectual disability, as enacted and defined in America for centuries under such terms as “feeblemindedness,” “mental defect,” and “mental retardation,” is, by far, the older of the two notions (Ferguson, 1994; Trent, 1994). On the other hand, learning disability is a recent invention that was born, so to speak, in the historical and conceptual lap of mental retardation. It was primarily developed by researchers working with children with mental retardation and it was crafted as a conceptual outgrowth of the mental retardation construct.
The early contours of a scientific construct of learning disability arose in the research of Alfred Strauss, Heinz Werner, and Laura Lehtinen at the Wayne County Training School between 1937 and 1947. Conducting research with a population of institutionalized children with mental deficiency, the Wayne School researchers distinguished between residents whose learning difficulties were due to peri-natal brain injury and those who had a more traditional form of general mental defect. What was called the “Strauss Syndrome” (Cruickshank & Hallahan, 1973, p. 324) a particular constellation of behavioral and cognitive symptoms with a neurological etiology, became the conceptual and diagnostic basis for learning disability in the 1960s (Danforth, 2009; Strauss & Lehtinen, 1947). As the learning disability construct gained recognition among educators in the 1960s and 1970s, the assemblage of psychological and educational meanings that populated the more established disorder—mental retardation—was subject to modification in relationship and contrast to the cultural territory staked out under the newer disorder.
To explore how the development of the newer learning disability construct related to and perhaps influenced the content and meaning of mental retardation, in this article we provide an historical analysis of the conceptual and practical relationship between the two disorder constructs in the speeches and publications of Samuel A. Kirk. Celebrated as the “father of learning disabilities” (Chalfant, 1998, p. 3; Minskoff, 1998, p. 20) and the “father of special education” (Mather, 1998, p. 35; Minskoff, 1998, p. 20), Kirk was a University of Illinois professor who made significant contributions to the political and intellectual foundations of modern American special education. In the historical rise of the profession of special education in America after World War II, Kirk was arguably the most influential figure. He worked to create many of the essential elements of contemporary special education practice, including “the basic format of the IEP [individualized education plan]” (Minskoff, 1998, p. 16), the standard scheme of psychoeducational assessment (Minskoff, 1998), the federal definition of learning disabilities (Bos & Vaughn, 1998; Danforth, 2009), and the common framework and content of the university special education textbook (Brantlinger, 2006; Kirk, 1962). Furthermore, Kirk was a key political advisor and advocate in the development and passage of federal legislation that undergirds the current profession of special education, most notably the Learning Disabilities Act of 1969 and Education of Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (Danforth, 2009; Gallagher, 1998).
Our goal in this article is to examine Samuel Kirk's understanding of the complex relationship between mental retardation and learning disability in light of his belief in the educability of children traditionally viewed as lacking potential to learn. In the two decades prior to the landmark federal legislation, Kirk was a tireless proselytizer who carried an uplifting message across America, in speeches delivered to a variety of professional audiences, of human learning capacity and educational power. He spoke of the many handicapped children who had academic learning potential if provided with the proper special education. This was an unusual message in an era before this foundational mantra of special education became widely accepted and legally required.
Our specific focus is how Kirk used an educability narrative, an often-repeated story that packaged ideas from the psychological science of Alfred Binet, Harold Skeels, and Kirk's own research into a highly persuasive account of reclaiming human potential previously unacknowledged and generally dismissed. The educability narrative was Kirk's stump speech, his standard tale about psychological research and childhood learning potential that he repeated in slightly varied form to professional audiences across the United States and abroad throughout the 1960s. Working within the environmentalist tradition of American psychology, following in the footsteps of influential researchers such as George Stoddard, Beth Wellman, and Harold Skeels of the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station, Kirk preached that so-called “mentally deficient” children understood by schools, families, and popular culture to be devoid of intellectual potential did, in fact, have the ability to learn. The thesis that children with mental defects were amenable to educational improvement—an old idea supported by noted historical figures such as Jean-Marc Itard, Edouard Seguin, and Samuel Gridley Howe—was revived and furthered by the Iowa Station researchers as they battled against the hereditarians throughout much of the 1930s (Cravens, 1993).
Kirk first embraced the environmental position during the early 1930s when he spent 4 years with Thorleif Hegge, research director of the Wayne County Training School, creating a remedial reading program for children with mental retardation (Kirk, 1936). Hegge's concern was that the “problem of reading disability has hardly been touched upon in connection with the mentally retarded” (Hegge, Sears, & Kirk, 1932, p. 152). The general assumption among psychologists and educators was “that special reading disability in cases of lower IQ is an aspect of mental deficiency and that the case therefore is untrainable” (Hegge, 1934, p. 298). Hegge mentored the young Kirk in “a more optimistic attitude” (Hegge, 1934, p. 298) toward the treatment of reading problems among mentally deficient children, particularly those with IQs above 60.
Kirk's ambitious message, distributed widely in his many speaking engagements and publications beginning in the late 1950s, reclaimed an entire population of mentally defective children while casting special education as the scientific profession capable of training conditions of learning difficulty through instructional treatments (Kirk, 1959a, 1959b, 1960b, 1964a, 1964b, 1966a, 1966c, 1967c, 1973).
By the mid-1960s, not only was Kirk the leading proponent of a nationalized system of special education in the public schools built on the educability thesis. He was also the most visible advocate of the new concept of learning disability as a scientifically legitimate disorder of childhood learning requiring educational treatment. He came to believe that he could not promote the new learning disability construct without clearly distinguishing it from the older, more established condition of mental retardation. By 1967, Kirk was deeply concerned that the young field of learning disabilities had already become too cavalier and ambiguous in using the new construct. As the learning disability movement expanded, many professions and numerous instant experts became involved with the new target population. It seemed to Kirk that virtually any learning problem was called a learning disability (Kirk, 1967a, 1967b). A central aspect of Kirk's worry was the conflation of learning disability and mental retardation (Kirk, 1967c).
In this article, we unpack Samuel Kirk's educability narrative, displaying how he channeled the power of near-mythic psychological pioneers Alfred Binet and Harold Skeels into a compelling account of psychology discovering a hidden storehouse of untapped human intellectual potential. We explain how this narrative raised the educational status of persons with mental retardation, due to their newfound potential, to new heights as it also elevated the professions of psychology and education. We also explore what we are describing as an act of “turning the educability narrative,” Kirk's revision of that story to a new purpose and with quite different results. When confronted with a need to more clearly distinguish between learning disability and mental retardation, Kirk changed his standard tale to address the challenge. He twisted the plot of his educability narrative such that true human potential was now accorded to learning disability, thereby leaving mental retardation as a doubly stigmatized remnant, an infertile field after the professionals had thoroughly harvested all useful learning potential.
Science and Narrative
In speeches delivered to audiences of psychological and educational researchers and practitioners across the United States between 1959 and 1973, Kirk told the educability narrative (Kirk, 1959a, 1959b, 1960b, 1964a, 1964b, 1966a, 1966c, 1967c, & 1973). He used of a form of rhetoric called narrative as a way of providing audiences with instruction about specific psychological studies and theories to persuade them of the educational merits of teaching children often viewed as uneducable. To thoughtfully examine how Kirk employed a narrative rhetoric as a means of communicating scientific research, we turn first to decades of research and theory from the interdisciplinary field of science studies. Through ethnographies of laboratory research and rhetorical analyses of scientific writing, science studies scholars from multiple disciplines have examined the many social processes, cultural contexts, and discursive strategies that scientists use in producing scientific research. The theories and findings of science studies supply theoretical depth to our attempt to analyze how Kirk used a narrative rhetoric when talking about psychological science.
Science studies scholars often view the language used by scientists, within the multiple activities of doing research as well as the writings of scientists, as a form of rhetoric subject to social and linguistic analysis (Bazerman, 1983; Cetina, 1999; Curtis, 1994; Gross, 1999; Harré, 1990; Landau, 1984; Latour & Woolgar, 1979; McCloskey, 1990; Myers, 1990; Nigel & Mulkay, 1984). Although the language of science and literary criticism both rely on rhetoric, there are marked differences in the kinds of rhetoric used across these domains. Furthermore, the type of rhetoric used has implications for the knowledge it produces in that the assumption of authority weighs more heavily on scientific than literary texts (Myers, 1990). As Harré (1990) noted, “Scientific discourse is marked by a peculiar rhetoric. The ostensible claim of scientific utterances is for agreement, since they are presented as knowledge” (p. 81).
Social agreement on scientific claims requires rhetoric that seeks to persuade and audiences who, at least with some frequency, are in fact persuaded. A central feature of scientific rhetoric is its ability to simultaneously persuade while using a language that is viewed as lacking in both the strategies and purposes of persuasion. In their ethnography of Nobel Prize–winning biochemist Roger Guillemin's scientific laboratory at the Salk Institute, Latour and Woolgar (1979) noted,
They [the scientists] are so skillful, indeed, that they manage to convince others not that they are being convinced but that they are simply following a consistent line of interpretation of available evidence. Others are persuaded that they are not persuaded, that no mediations intercede between what is said and the truth. (p. 69)
As the linguistic phrasing achieves a level of facticity and authority, the rhetorical style conceals that achievement as a social fact. Audiences are swayed by a language that ironically convinces readers and listeners that it does not persuade.
A common but frequently unacknowledged aspect of scientific rhetoric is the variety of narrative styles. Articles intended for highly specialized research audiences tend to use what Myers (1990) referred to as “a narrative of science,” whereas those meant to appeal to a more general public utilize “a narrative of nature” (pp. 141–142). Although these two narrative styles are strikingly different in form, they serve a common function: to convince their respective audiences of the authority of the scientific knowledge presented. Researchers attempt to demonstrate to other scientists that their findings are “real” by endorsing community standards of “scientific expertise” (Myers, 1990, p. 189). By conforming to certain rhetorical conventions common to scientific writings, such as a “rigid empiricist or inductive” style (Curtis, 1994, p. 419), researchers adhere to disciplinary standards as a means of convincing their scientist colleagues that findings are true (Bazerman, 1983; Myers, 1990). Researchers aiming to impress the general public of the facticity of their findings take a strikingly different narrative approach. Aiming to appeal to common sensibilities, the scientists–authors of popular science writings tend to emphasize their “unmediated encounters with nature” (Myers, 1990, p. 189). By presenting themselves as mere observers of some great scientific phenomenon, scientists convince nonscientists that their findings are true.
Standard features and tropes of literary narratives are also employed in the narratives told by scientists. For example, Harré (1990) explained how science has effectively adopted the narrative expectation of happy ending:
Anyone who has ever done any actual scientific research knows that this is a tale, a piece of fiction. The real-life unfolding of a piece of scientific research bears little resemblance to this bit of theatre. The first point to note about it, apart from its empirical falsity as a description of events, is that it is a “smiling face” presentation. All has gone well. The apparatus has worked and/or the questionnaire has been fully understood and the answers properly encoded. No fuses have blown, and no one from the sample population has fallen ill, gone away, or inconveniently died. If anyone tried to publish a story more like real life, in which hypotheses were dropped for lack of support, apparatus couldn't be made to work within the parameters of the original experiment, and so on, it would be turned down. Journals do not publish inconclusive work. Articles devoted wholly to disproofs of hypotheses are rare. Science must present a smiling face both to itself and to the world. Again, this is not just a matter of adopting an optimistic rhetoric, but of a narrative convention: how a story is to be told. (pp. 86–87)
The narrative account of a research study, often tightly packed in standard-procedure phrasing in the Method section, provides formulaic process details while concealing the social dramas and ambiguous interactions that make up any human endeavor. The general message is inevitably that all went well, just as logically planned.
Paleoanthropologist Misia Landau (1984) used stories of human evolution to detail several characteristics of narratives common to scientific theories. According to Landau (1984), it is important to recognize that “many scientific theories are essentially narratives” (p. 262) because stories are critical for describing and shaping human experiences. That is, as researchers interpret science into stories, they excite ideas of how the natural world must, should, or could be, resulting in “not only different versions of stories but different versions of reality which are shaped by these basic stories” (Landau, 1984, p. 262). The narratives of human evolution described by Landau (1984) serve as good examples of how “rhetorical links” form “a chain of descent” (Gross, 1999, p. 108), which ultimately serve to inform new arguments. In her work, Landau drew extensively from Vladimir Propp, a structural linguist who studied the “morphology” of folktales, ultimately identifying 31 “functions,” or meaningful actions within narratives (p. 19).
To the scientist confronting a conceptual or practical dilemma, laboratory stories of prior events provide possible solutions. Current arguments wanting scientific reason are often won on the basis of persuasive oral or written narratives of past, personal experiences, a phenomenon of what Gross (1990, p. 98) called “rational conversion.” Gross (1990) described 16th-century Rheticus' Narratio Prima as the first published work of Copernican theory, predating Copernicus' own De Revolutionibus by 3 years. Rheticus was a student of Copernicus. Central to rhetorical strategy employed by Rheticus was a dual biographic account of how both teacher and student experienced a gradual conversion from Ptolemaic astronomy to heliocentrism. Once a common scientific rhetoric, the conversion narrative has receded in modernity with the shift to less personal, more authoritative accounts of scientific work. Today's scientist as storyteller conceals subjective beliefs in more objective narrative styles, using literary conventions as effectively as facts to persuade audiences of the veracity of findings.
The Educability Narrative
The educability narrative was a standard story that Kirk told and retold many times in professional speeches, often with slight variations in content or emphasis. The general purpose of this story was to persuade audiences of psychological and educational researchers and practitioners that children with mental retardation had intellectual capacities that professionals should nurture and enlarge. Kirk was battling against the long history of low or nonexistent educational expectations for children with low IQ scores and learning difficulties. His goal was to change minds, influence professional practices, and usher in a new era of dramatically enlarged special education.
Kirk's strategy reengaged and reinvigorated an old argument in the field of psychology. During the 1930s, two groups of psychologists had waged war over the plasticity of human intelligence and the power of education to possibly raise low levels of intelligence in children. The hereditarians were lead by such well-known figures as Stanford professor Lewis Terman, noted for his research and development in IQ testing, and H. Henry Goddard of the Vineland Training School. To Terman and Goddard, intelligence was a unitary, innate intellectual trait that remained unchanged over time and greatly dictated the course of a person's economic and social career. The vertical scale of status and wealth within society was a strong reflection of an underlying hierarchy of innate intellectual prowess across the population (Goddard, 1912; Gould, 1981; Minton, 1988; Zenderland, 1998). The hereditarian thesis generally dominated the training and thinking of most psychologists and physicians prior to World War II (Whipple, 1928). It was the lingering hangover of this ideology that Kirk confronted with his educability narrative.
The hereditarians of the 1930s were opposed by the environmentalists, a group primarily housed at the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station. Under the leadership of outspoken director George D. Stoddard, the Iowa Station provided the leading advocacy for a more progressive notion of child development. During the 1930s, Station researchers conducted empirical studies that challenged the traditional notion that the individual intelligence was static, stable, and immune to environmental influence. Stoddard, prolific child development researcher Beth L. Wellman, and the soon-to-be-famous Harold Skeels proposed that intelligence was highly variable, especially during the first 5 years of life and that environmental stimulation played a central role in fostering intellectual development. With educational stimulation, young minds could literally and quite dramatically grow (Skeels, 1938, 1940; Skeels & Dye, 1939; Stoddard & Wellman, 1940; Wellman, 1940a, 1940b).
Kirk's educability narrative represented his effort to bring the environmental message of the Iowa Station researchers to groups of educational and psychological professionals, who still clung to the hereditarian thesis after World War II. It was an account of Kirk and his own career as a psychologist, a conversion tale about how he gradually became convinced by empirical findings of the scientific and practical validity of the environmental position. It was also a story about the field of American psychology, how it had originally gravitated toward the technical allure of mental measurement while failing to sufficiently pursue the ripe possibilities of intelligence treatment, of boosting mental capacity through educational intervention. In many speeches, primarily in the 1960s and early 1970s, Kirk weaved together a narrative that was both deeply personal and rigorously psychological. He used the psychological research and the dramatic personae of Alfred Binet and Harold Skeels within a compelling account of finding and enhancing human potential hidden in children with low IQs.
Crucial to Kirk's educability narrative was his report of a chance dinner meeting in 1939 with Harold Skeels of the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station. Skeels delivered two important messages that Kirk described as profoundly shifting his beliefs and future work in a decidedly environmental direction. The first message was captured in Skeels' story of his own conversion experience. In 1934, Skeels had accepted a job administering IQ tests to children placed in a Davenport, Iowa, orphanage. By state law, all children in the orphanage were given an IQ test. Those found to be too feebleminded for foster placement or adoption were sent to live at the state institution in Glenwood. Skeels's responsibilities included checking on the well being of the children that he had sent to the state institution. On one of those routine visits, he discovered that two infants, a 13-month-old with an IQ of 46 and a 16-month-old with an IQ of 35, had been placed on an adult female ward. Due to chronic understaffing, the care of the youngsters had been entrusted to a group of women institution residents (Cravens, 1993; Danforth, 2009).
When Skeels returned again 6 months later, he saw a dramatic improvement in the two infants' behavior. They were much more playful and interactive than he expected, given their intellectual level. Fearing that he had made a terrible error in his original assessment, he decided to retest them on the Binet IQ measure. This time, the two children scored 77 and 81, an increase of 31 and 46 IQ points respectively in only half a year. When tested 21 months later, the two children scored 95 and 93, well within the average range. He transferred the children back to the orphanage where they were permanently adopted by families. The helpless toddlers had been saved from a life of institutionalization by Skeels and the powers of environmental stimulation. The melodramatic quality of the story was only enhanced by the fact that women with mental retardation, seemingly incompetent and destined to a life of institutional degradation, had rescued the two children from their own unfortunate fate (Cravens, 1993; Danforth, 2009)).
The findings of this accidental miracle were then confirmed in a larger, experimental study in 1939 by Skeels and Dye. Thirteen children were placed in the care of feebleminded adolescent females, with a control group of 12 children remaining in the orphanage without this attention (Kirk, 1973, 1984; Skeels & Dye, 1939). A follow up 2 years later revealed that the infants receiving the attention from the females scored an average of 28.5 points higher in IQ, whereas the unstimulated control group decreased 26.2 points. Skeels' first message to Kirk was that the deficient human mind could be corrected by a program of environmental stimulation.
The second message that Skeels passed to Kirk in that 1939 dinner meeting was really a posthumous communication from the famous French intelligence test inventor Alfred Binet. Between 1905 and 1911, Binet created three versions of his intelligence scale. In 1909, he published a book called Les Idees Moderne Sur les Enfants (Binet, 1909). At the time, it was only published in French. The first English translation, entitled Modern Ideas About Children, was published in 1975, over 3 decades after the dinner meeting between Skeels and Kirk (Binet, 1975).
Skeels presented Kirk with a hand-typed, unofficial English translation of one chapter from Binet's 1909 volume entitled, “The Educability of Intelligence” (Kirk, 1976, 1984). In this chapter, Binet designed a “curriculum to develop memory, attention, reasoning, language and other vectors of intelligence” (Kirk, 1984, p. 35). Binet had developed his test with the specific purpose of training intelligence. The assessment of mental activity served as only the first of a two-part process of education. When Binet died in 1911, the crucial second half of his psychological program about educating intelligence (captured only in French) never reached the American shores. As a result, Skeels told Kirk, American psychologists had mistakenly accepted the measurement of intelligence as a valid psychological procedure in and of itself. American psychologists gravitated toward the mathematical beauty of intellectual measurement without seriously undertaking the educational treatment of mental defect. The message that Skeels carried from the deceased French psychologist to the young Samuel Kirk was the lost portion of Binet's psychological communiqué. Without the second half of the code, the first half made no sense. Educational diagnosis requires the practical application in instructional practices. Instruction must follow intellectual diagnosis or else diagnosis is empty and meaningless.
At this point in his narrative, Kirk stepped fully into the role of protagonist who accepted the mission of delivering the two private messages entrusted to him by Harold Skeels to the fields of education and psychology. It is important to note that Skeels had become, by the 1960s, a featured character in introductory psychology textbooks. He was a public emblem of the malleability of human intelligence, an icon of the power of psychological and educational science to change lives. Encouraged and guided by the iconic Skeels and Binet speaking-from-the-grave, Kirk then moved himself to the forefront of the educability narrative. He would be the historical figure consigned to bear the wisdom of the psychological elders, the almost lost environmental epistle, the mysterious missive that had the power to change the lives of young children across America.
As any research psychologist would know, even sage words handed down from scientific luminaries must be empirically reconfirmed before they can be publicly professed. Kirk did just that, and he incorporated his own research experience into the larger narrative. In 1949, Kirk undertook an experimental study of preschool education that he viewed as his continuation of the environmental work of Skeels and Binet (Kirk, 1970, 1976, 1984). Kirk and his Illinois research team compared four groups of young children with low IQs (between 45 and 80) over 3 to 5 years of development: (a) children living at home who took part in preschool programs, (b) children living at home who did not attend preschool programs, (c) children living in institutions who attended preschool programs, and (d) children living in institutions who did not attend preschool programs. Children who attended preschool, whether in the community or the institution, made strong IQ gains. The control group children did not. The study reconfirmed the impact of education in influencing and shaping intelligence (Kirk, 1958).
Kirk's research created the third act of the drama that asserted and authorized three times the thesis of the educability of mentally deficient children. In the rhetorical style of popular science, Kirk construed the educability thesis, the fact that children with low IQ's could be corrected by educational provision, as a fact of nature that stubbornly and repeatedly reasserted itself to consecutive generations of psychologists. It was as if the truth of human nature would inevitably rise above the historical obstacles to find the light of day. Binet had originally conceived the notion in his 1909 manuscript, a French text seemingly destined for obscurity. Then Skeels stumbled quite accidentally on the thesis, both in his extraordinary experiences at the Iowa institution and in discovering the rare English translation of Binet's chapter. Last, Skeels passed along this battered steamer trunk of ancient wisdom to Kirk, who faithfully reconfirmed the thesis in his experimental investigation. What Kirk told to the professional audiences across America in the 1960s and early 1970s was a provocative scientific story about a fact of human nature that had traveled a circuitous path ridden with obstructions and trap doors to reach their ears. Even viewed in retrospect, it must have been a very difficult narrative not to embrace and believe.
At the Intersection
On May 15, 1967, Kirk gave an invited address to the faculty and students at the University of Minnesota entitled, “Mental Retardation vs. Learning Disabilities” (Kirk, 1967c). The learning disability construct had leaped to almost instant popularity among educators and parents. Kirk quickly grew concerned that the conceptual and diagnostic boundaries of the new disorder were quickly growing porous. It seemed that virtually any child who struggled to learn, whether due to mental retardation or a host of other possible causes, was now being called learning disabled. He hoped to use the Minnesota speech to bring some clarity to the confusion, to sort out the “two somewhat ambiguous concepts” (Kirk, 1967c, p. 1). In that speech, he turned his standard educability narrative in a new direction, reconstructing the two disorders in contrasting opposition. To understand how Kirk revised the narrative and what that rewriting meant for both constructs, we should first provide some background on the historical context of that 1967 speech.
Kirk first coined the term learning disability in a speech in 1960 (Kirk, 1960a). However, the rapid popularization of the learning disability began 3 years later when he offered the term and a definition to an audience of parents and educators. That meeting unified multiple local and state parent groups generally organized around the Strauss syndrome into the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (ACLD; later renamed LDA), the national political advocacy group that played a central role in the disorder's achievement of political and scientific legitimacy (Kirk, 1963b). The ACLD held annual conferences that brought together parents searching for answers with researchers and educators. The 1963 meeting in Chicago involved only about 200 participants. The 1967 ACLD conference in New York burst at the seams with over 6,000 parents and educators in attendance (Kirk, 1981). Quickly, the ACLD boomed, as parents of children with learning difficulties and educators flocked to the new organization.
Edward Frierson, director of the special education teacher education program at George Peabody College, described the early ACLD conferences as overflowing with “evangelical fervor” (Frierson, 1976, p. 139). Filled with desperation and hope mixed in equal parts, parents clamored for solutions. “By the mid-1960's,” Frierson (1976) observed, “the learning disabilities movement had taken on the characteristics of a religious revival period” (p. 139). This national explosion of interest in learning disabilities was fueled by the national print media. Publications such as the Saturday Evening Post, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Look, and Reader's Digest contributed to the drama, with pithy stories with titles such as “Children of the Empty World” and “They Said Our Child Was Hopeless” (Murray, 1958, p. 28; Oppenheim, 1961, p. 23; Staff, 1967; Tompkins, 1963).
In the heat of the political movement, as the learning disability construct gained national attention and social capital, Kirk struggled to distinguish the new disorder from the more established mental retardation diagnosis. As remedial reading researcher and Kirk mentor Marion Monroe (1932) had once written, psychologists and educators assumed that children who failed to learn adequately in the public schools must “be either lazy or stupid” (p. 1). Some children, perhaps for emotional reasons, simply lacked proper motivation. Others had a limited intellectual capacity, often described as “feeblemindedness,” “mental defect,” or “mental retardation.”
The learning disability concept asserted a new explanation for some cases of learning failure. How those cases related to mental retardation, a condition widely known among psychologists, educators, and the public at large for many decades, was of paramount concern to Kirk. If learning disability was to gain complete legitimacy among researchers, practicing educators, and state and federal policymakers, Kirk knew that it would have to somehow stand apart from mental retardation.
Kirk's own thinking about the relationship between mental retardation and learning disability was multifaceted, involving three specific claims. The most common claim he made placed mental retardation as an exclusionary criterion to learning disability. Between 1960 and 1984, Kirk articulated a complete concept of learning disability in publications or speeches at least 20 times (Kirk, 1960a, 1962, 1963a, 1963b, 1964b, 1966b, 1967a, 1967b, 1967c, 1968, 1972a, 1972b, 1976, 1979; Kirk & Bateman, 1962; Kirk & Chalfant, 1984; Kirk & Gallagher, 1979, 1983; Kirk & Kirk, 1971, 1983). All but 3 of those documented articulations offered mental retardation as an exclusionary criterion to the learning disability. As federal definitions of learning disability have maintained since Public Law 94-142 in 1975, a learning disability could not be “primarily” due to mental retardation (Kirk, 1972b). This etiological exclusion was the central rhetorical feature of Kirk's effort to differentiate the learning disability construct from mental retardation.
Kirk's second claim was undoubtedly a source of some misunderstanding. In sharp contrast to current understandings of the meaning of learning disability in the public schools, Kirk steadfastly maintained that, in some instances, a child could have both a learning disability and mental retardation. In 50% of his public articulations of the learning disability construct between 1960 and 1984, Kirk presented learning disability and mental retardation as conditions that could co-occur in some children. If a child with mental retardation, in addition to a general condition of intellectual deficit, also had one or more specific areas of academic or linguistic functioning that were significantly substandard by comparison to other areas of the child's mental activity, that child could also have a learning disability (Kirk, 1963a, 1966b, 1967c, 1968, 1972b, 1976; Kirk & Chalfant, 1984; Kirk & Gallagher, 1979, 1983; Kirk & Kirk, 1983).
For example, in 1968, Kirk described a child with a learning disability as having “a definite retardation in one or more areas” of learning activity, notably “speech, language, perception, behavior, reading, spelling, writing, or arithmetic.” The key diagnostic concept was a discrepancy among areas of intellectual and communicative functioning. The specific retardation or area of deficit had to be “at variance with certain assets,” occurring “in spite of the fact that the child has certain abilities in other areas.” However, Kirk also held that “this point of view does not imply that a mentally retarded child, diagnosed as such by ordinary mental tests, cannot also have a learning disability.” A child with mental retardation could also qualify as having a learning disability only if “he has discrepancies among abilities, or if he has special abilities and marked disabilities” (Kirk, 1968, p. 398).
Using both a concept of exclusion and the possibility of what he called a “double handicap,” (Kirk, 1967c, p. 8), Kirk's depictions of the relationship between learning disability and mental retardation were complex and even confusing. The exclusion criterion pushed the two constructs apart, seemingly isolating one from the other. His co-morbidity stance complicated the relationship by claiming that, in some cases, a child could have both disorders.
However, that was not all that Kirk had to say on this matter. Adding to this complexity, and likely subverting his own efforts to turn conceptual confusion into diagnostic clarity, Kirk also described a third kind of the relationship between the two disorders. It is this third claim that Kirk asserted as he turned the educability narrative in his 1967 speech at the University of Minnesota.
Turning the Educability Narrative
According to Kirk's records, his telling of the usual educability narrative on that May day was unremarkable. It was the standard account of Binet, Skeels, and Kirk. What was unusual was the level of detail that Kirk provided about a single case of a young boy who had received a preschool education in Kirk's experimental study of early education. As a way of providing dramatic emphasis, Kirk highlighted the one case of a boy who, through the powers of educational stimulation, rose from mental retardation not only to intellectual normalcy but to attend college many years later. It was not unusual for Kirk to use such a striking case example.
Kirk told a story of a boy committed to a state institution at age 2 and a half years. Two physicians had diagnosed the boy as having mental retardation and a convulsive disorder. His measured IQ was 60, and his “babblings were not intelligible” (Kirk, 1967c, p. 5). Fortunately, attending preschool made a dramatic difference.
With six hours of preschool education this boy showed marked acceleration in speech and language development. His IQ rose from 60 to 70, to 80 and to 90. At this point (5½ y.o), it was felt that he was ready for parole from the institution. He was placed in a foster home and in a community preschool. At age 6½ he tested 104 IQ on the Stanford-Binet and was placed in a regular first grade rather than a special class. (Kirk, 1967c, p. 5)
The story would have ended at this point. The child's learning potential had been effectively accessed and enlarged by the educational treatment. Deficiency had been eclipsed. The educability narrative, in typical telling, had been completed with the compelling account of one boy reclaimed from an institution. But, in this case, Kirk continued, for his purpose was not merely to persuade his audience of the untapped intellectual potential of children with mental retardation. It was to distinguish learning disability as a disorder in contrast to mental retardation. That task would require that the narrative continue into new territory.
The boy struggled with reading lessons in first grade, Kirk explained, but not due to mental retardation, for his IQ had already been fully elevated. Psychoeducational testing “revealed some major deficiencies in the integration of sounds, and in the ability to learn words” (Kirk, 1967c, p. 5). Based on these findings, the boy was “tutored in reading in a systematic phonic method,” (Kirk, 1967c, p. 5) such as the one that Kirk had developed years earlier with his wife Winifred and Thorleif Hegge at the Wayne County Training School (Kirk, 1936). It was only through an educational treatment focused on a discrete area of language deficit that the boy's reading defect was corrected.
Kirk's analysis of this case explained that the boy, who, due to the limitations of intellectual measurement instruments, appeared to have mental retardation actually had a learning disability. In fact, quite frequently Kirk had found that children who had subnormal IQs, therefore seeming to have a general condition of “mental defect,” actually had one or more areas of significant deficit within an otherwise normal mind. This juxtaposition of mental areas of capability and defect was the psychological profile of a learning disability.
Many such experiences with young children classified as mentally retarded, but whose abilities and disabilities were obviously discrepant, led me to question our psychological instruments which we use for classifying children as normal, superior, or retarded. What we needed were instruments that would assist us in assessing children in such a way as to give us cues for the amelioration of specific deficits in the cognitive and communication processes of children. (Kirk, 1967c, p. 7)
In response to this need, Kirk developed the Illinois Test of Psycholinguistic Abilities (ITPA; Kirk & McCarthy, 1961; McCarthy, 1961), a mental measure that assessed a range of specific subcategories of mental ability, thereby facilitating the identification of areas of relative strength and weakness.
Kirk placed heavy emphasis on the need to improve diagnostic testing and procedures so that boys like this case example would be identified as having a learning disability and not mistaken as has having mental retardation. The need for such a refinement of diagnostic procedures lay in the differing levels of learning potential between the two disorders.
The label of mental retardation tends to classify a child as belonging to a group who requires certain kinds of care, management, and education. The diagnosis of learning disabilities in educational circles implies that the child has certain assets and certain disabilities, that may be amenable to remediation or amelioration. (Kirk, 1967c, p. 13)
Whereas a child with mental retardation required “care” and “management,” a child with a learning disability had “assets,” intellectual strengths or resources that served as indications that his isolated areas of defect could be effectively corrected. In a psychological profile with marked discrepancies between abilities and disabilities, the peaks showed the potential for growth among the valleys. Assets displayed what educators might achieve by treating the areas of deficit. By contrast, the child with mental retardation, who lacked intellectual assets uniformly, was far less available to the powers of educational treatment.
Kirk's provocative closing appeal to the Minnesota audience was that educators must search the population of children with mental retardation diagnoses for hidden “assets” that might be developed, for true human potential concealed behind inaccurate diagnoses. They should leave no stone unturned in seeking the children with learning disabilities that had been originally diagnosed with mental retardation.
My thesis this evening is a plea that mentally retarded children should be evaluated further so that we may institute remedial procedures for those mentally retarded children who show significant discrepancies in growth, cognition, perceptual, or communication skills. It is possible that a certain percentage, I do not know how large or how small, can be better managed as learning disabilities, than as mentally retarded. (Kirk, 1967c, p. 13)
In this telling, the educability narrative had been completely turned, changing from a tale about the need for psychologists and educators to take seriously the learning capacity of children with mental retardation into an account of how the true intellectual potential of learning disability must be culled from the sterile soil of mental retardation.
On at least 6 occasions in the late 1960's and early 1970's, in publications and speeches, Kirk reiterated this claim that learning disability was often mental retardation in disguise. In cases of severe mental retardation, due to the total nature of the intellectual defect, he viewed the disorder to be quite unlike a learning disability. However, cases of milder forms of mental retardation often proved to be only learning disabilities in hiding. Proper educational treatment could often unveil the concealed mental assets, thereby demonstrating when mild mental retardation was actually a learning disability (Kirk, 1966b, 1967c, 1968, & 1972b; Kirk & Kirk, 1971).
The educability narrative generally served Kirk's purposes very well. It was a story that neatly stitched together findings from empirical psychology with compelling historical figures such as Alfred Binet and Harold Skeels. Above all, it was a morality tale for 20th century American psychologists and educators, a story about how persons of a specific type—children with mental retardation— were suddenly more socially and educationally valuable because they contained the mental resources necessary for possible elevation to normal status. They could be effectively corrected, and that potential to respond to educational treatment constituted a profound reinterpretation of mental retardation as a condition. For Kirk and the many who were persuaded by his message, this meant that children with mental retardation gained new social value, not because they were important or worthy in their own right, but because of the normal people they might become under the guidance of professionals.
The educability narrative was also persuasive because it framed psychologists and educators, specifically, the expanded field of special education that Kirk proposed and that was enacted with the new federal mandate in 1975, as the powerful purveyors of normalizing treatments. If the low IQs of children could be raised and “defect” turned to normalcy, it was at the hands of psychologists and special educators that such a transformation occurred.
Kirk ran into trouble when he attempted to use his standard educability narrative of unlocking human potential to illuminate the difference between mental retardation and learning disability. This revision created a dramatic contradiction to his usual thesis that children with mental retardation were amenable to educational treatment. That vaulted status was now transferred over to the more capable children with learning disabilities who were construed as bearing intellectual capacities that were more responsive to educational treatment.
Faced with what he perceived as a need to distinguish the new learning disability construct from mental retardation, Kirk recast his educability narrative to underline the limited learning potential of students with mental retardation. He directed special educators to actively search for the new problem of learning disability languishing in disguise among the population of children of apparently lesser intellectual capability. Students with learning disabilities were nuggets of gold among the coal heap, untapped assets buried within a defective population, awaiting discovery and instructional polishing up. What educators need to do, Kirk advised, was dedicate themselves to meticulously mining the population of children with mental retardation, searching for the rich educational potential that learning disability represented. Mental retardation, as a disorder and as a description of a population of children, took on a revised, re-stigmatized meaning as the dark foil of the new learning disability. Left behind in the wake of that highly refined diagnostic procedure, that search for real potential residing in learning disability, was mental retardation, the unsalvageable remains, the human residue deemed less educable by the optimistic new profession of special education.
It would be a mistake to conclude that Kirk abandoned the educability thesis after making the Minnesota speech in May 1967. In fact, he remained a strong supporter of the educational training of students with mental retardation throughout his career. However, he was also a complex historical figure who communicated numerous shades of meaning to many audiences. Our challenge is in making sense of a single contradiction: the same psychologist who offered decades of leadership to the growing field of American special education by spreading an optimistic message about the educational potential of children with mental retardation also negated that very message in certain circumstances. When confronted with the challenge of explaining the difference between learning disability and mental retardation, Kirk dramatically softened his standard environmentalist stance.
What we can surmise from the available historical evidence of Kirk's many publications and unpublished speeches is that his many attempts to communicate about the new learning disability construct often resulted in conceptual ambiguity and definitional muddiness. In the heated, high-profile context of the learning disabilities movement of the 1960s and early 1970s—a social scene marked by the involvement of many enthusiastic parents and professionals with heightened expectations—Kirk was pressured to simultaneously wear multiple hats. He tried to accurately represent the science of learning disabilities, the findings of a small clinical field that previously had little need for seeking solid consensus on the learning disability construct. Kirk's contemporaries—researchers like Marianne Frostig, Newell C. Kephart, Gerald N. Getman, and Ray Barsch—cared more about treating individual children than creating lucid agreement around a single learning disability concept.
Kirk also pursued at least two policy goals through federal legislation, building a national system of mandatory special education while achieving full legal legitimacy for the learning disability construct. Positioned by many as the most esteemed national expert in special education, faced with a host of simultaneous challenges, Kirk not infrequently entangled himself in a fuzzy and contradictory rhetoric. For example, between 1960 and 1984, Kirk professed, in publications or speeches, no less than 16 different versions of the learning disability construct (see Chapter 6 in Danforth, 2009, for a full analysis of this). For over 2 decades, he struggled to clarify and reclarify learning disability. Often, his efforts at patching what he viewed as old conceptual or definitional problems only created new ones (Danforth, 2009).
Beyond Kirk's rhetorical difficulties in the political fishbowl of the learning disabilities movement, we conclude by asking what lessons we might take away from Kirk's turning of the educability narrative. We briefly offer one but readily admit that more are possible.
This analysis of the meanings generated at the intersection of learning disability and mental retardation compels us to pay more attention to the often-ignored history of disability, specifically analyses of the powerful influence of scientific, professional fields on common cultural understandings of disability. Intellectual disability has been chiefly framed by the fields of medicine, psychology, education, and rehabilitation. Over many decades of the existence of these modern professional fields, their knowledge bases and professional practices have become inseparable from the very social concerns that they attempt to address. For example, one cannot examine intellectual disability in America without also looking closely at the beliefs and practices developed by the field of special education.
Attention to disability history necessitates serious examination of how and why these professions and their scientific research have generated the very disability constructs that we now rely on. Doing so certainly deepens our respect for the depth and complexity of the challenges faced by early research leaders such as Sam Kirk. Yet, doing so is also likely to cultivate a new sense of humility about our narratives and our science. We might notice that our current ways of thinking about intellectual disabilities are contingent historical products rather than natural facts. We might feel that our standard repertoire of stories about intellectual disability offer less guidance and comfort than we had previously imagined. We might find ourselves feeling more restrained and circumspect about the authority and certainty of our science. Perhaps, in the wake of a newfound humility about our own knowledge, we would open up a creative and hopeful space for the telling of new stories that more fully embrace a universal ethic of human dignity and a political solidarity across biological and cultural differences.
Editor-in-Charge: Steven J. Taylor
Scot Danforth, PhD (E-mail: email@example.com), Professor, 250 Arps Hall, School of Teaching and Learning, The Ohio State University, 1945 N. High St., Columbus, OH 43210. Laura Slocum, MA, Doctoral Student, 250 Arps Hall, School of Teaching and Learning, The Ohio State University, 1945 N. High St., Columbus, OH 43210. Jennifer Dunkle, MA, Doctoral Student, 250 Arps Hall, School of Teaching and Learning, The Ohio State University, 1945 N. High St., Columbus, OH 43210.