In 2004, when I first started to investigate the history of the learning disability construct, I quickly found that the available literature on the topic fell into two categories, valid historical scholarship and celebrationist narratives. There were a small number of serious historical works by Carrier (1983, 1986, 1987) and Franklin (1987, 1994), who examined the growth of the learning disability diagnosis as a political and scientific development over many decades.

I framed my own research in the tradition of Franklin (1987, 1994) and Carrier (1983, 1986, 1987), upholding the standards of research methodology and critical analysis set by historians (e.g., Danto, 2008; McDowell, 2002). My goal has been to determine where this notion of learning disability came from and how it grew in the work of many scientists over time. I have assumed neither that learning disability is a correct way of understanding the learning difficulties of some children nor that this construct was built as some sort of farce. I view the construct as a historical product, an idea cultivated through scientific practices and theories over generations of research.

My research efforts resulted in a book entitled The Incomplete Child: An Intellectual History of Learning Disabilities that chronicled the scientific ideas and practices that brought about the learning disability construct (Danforth, 2009). It is a story of multiple lines of intellectual traditions conflicting and melding, of pre-WWII German holistic science blending with Chicago School functionalism and the environmentalism of the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station.

In addition, I have written a recent series of articles, including the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities piece that I co-authored with Laura Slocum and Jennifer Dunkle. In these historical articles I addressed topics ranging from the pronounced social class bias of learning disability researchers of the 1960s and 1970s (Danforth, in press, a) to the 1970s epistemological shift toward objectivism (Danforth, in press, b).

The Mather and Morris (2011) response paper belongs to the celebrationist category of historical writing that does not meet the standards of methodological rigor and critical analysis set by professional historians. This paper continues a professional line of insider accounts, self-congratulatory, poorly researched historical overviews written by special educators that celebrate the field and its pioneers (e.g., Cruickshank & Hallahan, 1981; Hallahan & Mercer, n.d.; Hallahan & Mock, 2003; Wiederholt, 1974). These works, although often informative, are overwhelmingly acritical. The authors fail to ask serious and troubling questions about the development of the field and the social impact of the ideas in the field. The purposes and the work in the field are lauded without the kind of rigorous scrutiny that historians apply to their subject matter.

In their paper Mather and Morris's (2011) attempt to preserve “the legacy that Dr. Samuel A. Kirk left behind” (p. 118). Their primary goal is to perpetuate a purified narrative of a man living, thinking, and acting without contradictions and errors, without moral uncertainty and fallibility.

The truth of the matter is that Sam Kirk was far from clear and definitive in his handling of the learning disability construct. In fact, he articulated 16 substantively different versions of the learning disability construct.

I devote an entire chapter in my 2009 book to this issue. In this short rejoinder, I briefly illuminate Kirk's multiple contradictory articulations of the concept of learning disability between 1960 and 1984. Then I probe for possible lessons we might draw from Kirk's inconsistencies.

The Building Blocks of Learning Disability Definitions

In the course of my historical research, I examined every published work that Kirk ever authored or co-authored. Further, I conducted a thorough exploration of his archival materials—many boxes of personal papers such as letters, notes, unpublished presentations—stored at the University of Illinois, Urbana, which allowed me to gather many speeches to professional groups that were never published.

Archival research is considered a foundational method of doing historical research. I note that Mather and Morris (2011) did not reference the extensive Kirk archives, suggesting that they took a highly problematic short-cut. I gathered documented records of 18 professional speeches and published writings in which Kirk offered a complete description of the learning disability concept between 1960 and 1984.

In order to focus on the actual ideas used to build the learning disability construct, I have identified 15 separate conceptual components that Kirk used and reused over the years. Each component was a semantic building block, a single meaningful element that made a substantive contribution to the larger definition of the disorder.

Table 1 presents the 15 conceptual components present in each of the 20 articles or speeches that Kirk made between 1960 and 1984. The components utilized in describing the learning disability concept are labeled with the letters A through O.

Table 1 

Components of the Learning Disability Construct in Kirk's Writings and Speeches, 1960–1984

Components of the Learning Disability Construct in Kirk's Writings and Speeches, 1960–1984
Components of the Learning Disability Construct in Kirk's Writings and Speeches, 1960–1984

Components A through C involved etiological theories that posited a causality for the learning difficulty.

  • A. Intrinsic cause—deficit in psychological processes

  • B. Intrinsic cause—defect in neurological or biological processes

  • C. Intrinsic cause—emotional or behavioral disturbance

Components D through I were exclusionary factors, reasons for the learning difficulty that, if present, indicated that the problem was not a learning disability.

  • D. Environmental or cultural disadvantage (a lack of proper intellectual stimulation)

  • E. Poor quality of prior instruction in school

  • F. Lack of prior instruction in school (often due to poor attendance)

  • G. Sensory (hearing, vision) or motor impairments

  • H. Mental retardation

  • I. Emotional or behavioral disturbance

Components J through N described the comorbidity of learning disability with other childhood disorders. J represents a high level of correlation between learning disability and emotional or behavioral disturbance, such that the two disorders were understood to be constitutionally linked. Components K through M indicate a co-occurrence of distinct disorders. Learning disability and each disorder could co-occur to create what Kirk called a “double handicap” (Kirk, 1967a), but the two impairments were framed as essentially unrelated.

  • J. Constitutional correlation with emotional or behavioral disturbance

  • K. Co-morbidity with mental retardation

  • L. Co-morbidity with sensory (hearing, vision) or motor impairments

  • M. Co-morbidity with emotional or behavioral disturbance

Component N involved Kirk's attempt to distinguish between levels of mental retardation in relationship to the learning disability diagnosis. Due to the general and total nature of the intellectual deficit, severe mental retardation was understood to be a disorder quite unlike a learning disability; but mild mental retardation, he sometimes claimed, proved to be only a learning disability concealed behind a diagnostic disguise. Proper educational treatment would bring to light the concealed mental assets, the hidden potentials, in order to demonstrate when mild mental retardation was actually a learning disability.

  • N. Mild mental retardation as disguised or undiagnosed learning disability component

O proposed that students with learning disabilities required a special education program consisting primarily of diagnostic–remedial instruction.

  • O. Need for special education instruction

Of the 18 complete articulations of the disorder, only two pairs (2, 3 and 15, 17) were completely consistent with one another. The record of complete conceptualizations consists of 16 distinct delineations of the disorder over 24 years. Simply put, Kirk devised 16 variations of the learning disability construct.

Making Things Fuzzy

As Kirk worked in the 1960s to promote acceptance of the new learning disability construct, he repeatedly tried to explain how it related to the older, more established, and greatly trusted classification of children with mental retardation. Kirk's seemingly endless struggle to make this relationship clear is a frustrating tale of theoretical ambiguities and rhetorical miss-steps.

In early 1963, separated only by 3 months, Kirk delivered two remarkably different speeches. In January, he spoke to a small conference of brain injury researchers at the University of Illinois, a group that included Newell Kephart, Helmer Mykelbust, and Joseph Wepman. At the Chicago meeting of neurological scientists, he said that learning disability refers to

a retardation, disorder, or delayed development in one or more of the processes of speech, language, reading, spelling, writing, or arithmetic resulting from a possible cerebral dysfunction and/or emotional or behavioral disturbance and not from generalized mental retardation, sensory deprivation, or cultural or instructional factors. (Kirk, 1963a, p. 41)

It was a disorder of the psychological processes with possible etiologies of neurological damage or emotional disturbance. Mental retardation was listed among the excluded conditions.

Later in the same presentation, however, Kirk appeared to backtrack on this, stating that learning disability “does not refer to most mentally retarded children since the discrepancy between their ability and their achievement is not great” (Kirk, 1963a, pp. 49–50). His frequent use of the modifiers generalized and most muddied up his assertion that mental retardation was an exclusion.

Latour and Woolgar (1979) called words such as these “grammatical modalities” that operate as “an expression of the weight of a statement” (p. 84), a register of factual status. A modality can be used to either increase or decrease the degree of rhetorical facticity. Similarly, linguists use the term hedge to describe a word or phrase that effectively dilutes the certainty, authority, or truth value of a statement. Lakoff (1972) defined a hedge as language “whose job it is to make things fuzzier” (p. 195).

Kirk demoted the truth value of his statements, creating some room for doubt or alternative interpretation. Perhaps children whose mental retardation was not “generalized” could also have a learning disability.

Three years later, in 1966, he would more fully assert that very claim. If a child with mental retardation “has discrepancies among abilities, or if he has special abilities and marked disabilities, he could be classified as a child with a learning disability as well as overall mental retardation” (Kirk, 1966, p. 2). One could have a generally depressed profile of intellectual ability that still included significant gaps between high and low areas of functioning. He would articulate this same notion of possible co-morbidity of mental retardation nine times between 1963 and 1984 (see Table 1).

In the second of Kirk's 1963 speeches, speaking to a very different audience of parents and advocates, he presented a definition of learning disabilities that differed dramatically from his statement to the gathering of scientists:

Recently, I have used the term “learning disabilities” to describe a group of children who have disorders in development in language, speech, reading, and associate communications skills needed for social interaction. In this group I do not include children who have sensory handicaps such as blindness or deafness, because we have methods of managing and training the deaf and the blind. I also exclude children who have generalized mental retardation. (Kirk, 1963b, p. 3)

He dropped all possible etiologies of the disorder, including cerebral injury and emotional disturbance.

In this revision, the phrasing concerning mental retardation constituted an unequivocal exclusion. Contrary to what Kirk had suggested with the modifiers “most” and “generalized” a few months earlier, a child with mental retardation could not also have a learning disability.

It seems that Kirk's presentation to the conference of parent advocates was, at least to some extent, a case of telling the audience what they wanted to hear. His presentation distanced learning disability from the highly stigmatized category of mental retardation. He avoided any discussion of the causes of the learning problem. If he had used any of the standard etiologies (e.g., brain injury, flawed genetic inheritance, or deficient environmental stimulation), the many parents in the audience might have squirmed at the suggestion of blame.

Quite likely, Kirk felt pressured by parents to make certain statements in his speech. He later admitted to having mixed feelings about providing a definition of learning disability at the conference. He was wary about adding yet one more diagnostic label of questionable pedagogical value to the professional compendium (Kirk, 1976). During the speech, right before providing a definition for learning disability, he professed to the audience his strong reluctance to do so.

I have felt for some time that labels we give to children are satisfying to us but of little help to the child himself. We seem to be satisfied if we can give a technical name to a condition. This gives us the satisfaction of closure. We think we know the answer if we can give a technical name or a label—brain injured, schizophrenic, autistic, mentally retarded, aphasic, etc. As indicated before, the term “brain injury” has little meaning to me from a management of training point of view. It does not tell me whether the child is smart or dull, hyperactive or under-active. It does not give me any clues to management or training. … I should like to caution you about being compulsively concerned about names and classification labels. (Kirk, 1963b, pp. 1–7)

Kirk invested far more time and words attempting to convince the listeners to disregard disability definitions than actually offering a definition of learning disability. Later, he recalled that “several [parents] approached me with the admonition that they needed help in the selection of a name for their proposed national organization” (Kirk, 1976, p. 255). Accompanied by words of caution and even mild protest, Kirk gave the parents what they wanted.

Real Person and Real Politics

What we find in this historical analysis is that Samuel Kirk is not a purified icon or an idealized figure gilded in a glorious legacy. We view him as a real person, someone attempting to deal quite awkwardly with too many concepts, constraints, and pressures. As the most famous special educator in the United States during the period of rapid growth in the years immediately prior to and following the passage of P.L. 94–142, Kirk was a political actor tugged in every possible direction. His scattered and often contradictory words left a zigzag trail that attests not only to the “religious revival” (Frierson, 1976, p. 139) emotional tone of the early learning disabilities movement. It also indicates just how difficult it is to use language to pin down an authoritative concept once and for all.

I do not believe that Samuel Kirk needs defending. The importance of his contributions to the field of special education is undeniable. In the narrative of the growth of American special education in the latter half of the 20th century, Kirk is the clear hero.

Our more practical challenge is to draw useful lessons for today from Kirk's contradictions. Although he was a staunch proponent of the idea that all children can learn, on one spring day in 1967, in a speech at the University of Minnesota, he contradicted his usual message. He used mental retardation as a contrasting foil, a less educable population, in his effort to explain the intellectual capacities of children with learning disabilities (Kirk, 1967b).

What does it mean to us when a special education hero stumbles?

One possible lesson concerns the cultural pervasiveness of an ugly politics of disability that punishes those deemed furthest from notions of “normal.” Even Kirk—even the great Kirk—slipped into this quagmire of disability politics, pushing down on mental retardation in order to elevate learning disability as a disorder likely to respond positively to intervention.

In 1967, just as today, a cruel political discourse that devalues persons with mental retardation labels was readily available and too-often employed, even by well-known educators and psychologists. When Kirk praised the educational potential of learning disability in contrast to that of the lesser mental retardation, he stepped into a political pothole that was not of his invention (Kirk, 1967b). He found it nonetheless. He found it quite easily because it was conventional thinking about persons with mental retardation.

Kirk's stumble may tell us that the cruel politics of disability that diminishes persons with the mental retardation label (or intellectual disability in current terms) to the bottom of the social hierarchy is not completely divorced from the intellectual and practical traditions of the field of special education. Certainly, the modern American field of special education was founded on Kirk's idea that students conventionally thought to have little or no educational potential deserve public school instruction. But the field, like Kirk, is filled with contradictions.

The contribution of the field of special education to the political devaluation of students with disabilities in the schools has been the subject of concern among many scholars (e.g., Brantlinger, 2006; Harry & Klingner, 2006; Ware, 2004). Illuminating the politics of disability in the schools and combating social injustice requires that we honestly and fully acknowledge how standard special education beliefs and practices can operate to stigmatize and isolate children. Toward this end, we should devote less energy to the perpetuation of idealized historical legacies that avoid the unsavory and problematic. We should expend far more energy confronting the cultural devaluation of children with disabilities in our schools and communities.

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For purposes of the discussion in this perspective, the Kirk references are listed chronologically rather than alphabetically.

Author notes

Scot Danforth, PhD (e-mail: danforth.10@osu.edu), Professor, School of Teaching and Learning, College of Education and Human Ecology, 250 Arps Hall, The Ohio State University, 1945 N. High St., Columbus, OH 43210.