Education's Histories

methodological grist for the history of education

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

November 15th, 2016 by

Of Methods

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.

Part 1

A 1908 article published in the Journal of Psycho-Asthenics by Miss E. E. Farrell, Inspector of Ungraded Classes of New York City, begins with a curious clarification:

The special classes in the public schools of the city of New York had their beginning in Public School 1, Manhattan, in 1899. It is interesting to know that this class, which was to demonstrate the need for further classification of children in public schools, was not the result of any theory. It grew out of conditions in a neighborhood which furnished many and serious problems in truancy and discipline. This first class was made up of the odds and ends of a large school.2

Farrell’s insistence that while New York City’s special classes were “not the result of any theory,” they would nonetheless demonstrate “the need for further classification of children” involves a circular logic common to Progressive Era special education, a logic which insisted that the science of classification only empirically validated the biological traits of those being classified and was thus “not the result of any theory.” This logic makes Progressive Era special education appear as though it emerged fully formed despite needing constant self-definition.

Figure 1. Three ways of understanding the relationship between special and “general” education. Figure by author. Graphic by Sara Clark.

Figure 1. Three ways of understanding the relationship between special and “general” education. Figure by author. Graphic by Sara Clark.

The ways in which education defines itself through classificatory schemes is evident, for example, in the replacement of the classification of idiocy by feeble-mindedness and the gradation of this latter classification into low, medium, and high grades, each of which corresponded with a limit of intelligence and a plateau of cognitive development. As Image 3 of Figure 1 above illustrates, these limits and plateaus produce categorical spaces within education that work to define education generally. These spaces are categorical both because they rely on classifications (categories) of human difference and because, despite their allure of impermanence, they absolutely segregate students according to indeterminately defined differences. Gradations, of course, require a way of determining which bodies belong to which grades, which introduces the problems of definitional fluidity and borderlinity.

In an effort to resolve these problems, experts established determinations predicated on mental age, a concept newly derived from the cultural epoch conclusions of child studiers like G. Stanley Hall who argued that, despite being adult in appearance, those “savage” populations encountered through Western colonialism were, in fact, cognitively childlike.3  This conclusion provided the intellectual undergirding for the science of classification, which sought to make visible through the technology of intelligence testing that which appearance might conceal; that is, experts who advanced the science of classification were concerned with the possibility that individuals with retarded cognitive faculties might pass as normal and thus put the general population at risk of diminished prosperity. It thus became increasingly important to identify which bodies were feeble-minded and to define the categorical spaces of normality and abnormality within education.

Such efforts were, of course, illusory, as definitional fluidity and borderlinity are necessary requirements of any classificatory scheme. As each produces the necessary conditions for classification to exist as a science, and each ensures that the shortcomings of any particular classification do not undermine the science itself, but instead only warrant the need for greater scientific accuracy. A difficulty with this warrant is that more science becomes the only way of redressing bad science, a circular logic that easily allows for previous classifications to be forgotten once they have been replaced by newer, more accurate ones. Contra this tendency, this essay seeks to remember the classificatory schemes of Progressive Era special education as illustrative of how in working to define the categorical spaces of normality and abnormality education itself becomes generally defined.

What is forgotten in this essay’s act of remembrance, then, is the incrementalism of scientific discovery, which because it always already presupposes revisionism can hide how and why classificatory schemes are defended and revised. Also assumed by this process is insularity; that is, scientific discoveries have no influence outside their own epistemic borders. Hence, for example, Henry H. Goddard’s discovery of the moron in 1910 can be understood as a purely scientific discovery that incrementally improved upon the previous discovery of Alfred Binet. Denied by such reasoning is the fact that the moron classification did just define particular subjectivities but also education generally. This was because education was both a location for identifying morons and a procedure qua training for treating moronity. This essay asks that this view of incremental scientific discovery be forgotten and that the contingency of classificatory schemes be remembered instead as a way of imagining an education that is different from the one these schemes readily provide.4

Definitional fluidity and borderlinity enabled the science of classification to remain operative throughout the Progressive Era and suggests a lesson about the educational use value of indeterminacy, a lesson that is not about the accuracy of this or that classification but about education’s need to classify difference as a way to define itself. The Progressive Era study of feeble-mindedness, then, was not only about defining educational subjectivities but also about establishing categorical spaces within education designed for bodies determined, for whatever reason, to be abnormal. Understood as a process of constant self-definition, the history of Progressive Era special education emerges as a way of thinking about education generally rather than only about the history of a specialized field. This understanding follows James Trent’s history of feeble-mindedness but also suggests that the desire to order difference was a necessary requirement of education’s self-definition.5

The categorical spaces of Progressive Era special education emerged from the purposively indeterminate spaces of intermediate and ungraded classes, spaces that allowed for easy ingress and whose allure was the promise of eventual egress. The movement of students within these spaces suggests that classificatory schemes were the producers, not the result, of a progressive educational order of things.6 The history of Progressive Era special education is thus a history of an attempt to clarify difference through classificatory schemes designed to determine the allowed proximal distance of special to “general” education.7 The parameters of this distance would be discussed and debated within the pages of scientific journals like the Journal of Psycho-Asthenics and point to attempts to validate the emerging field of special education. The science of classification qualified this emerging field and its experts as uniquely capable of interpreting human difference and was the expertise that Farrell sought in her request for a theory of special education.

This two-part conceptual inquiry into the theory of Progressive Era special education proceeds from two perspectives. Part 1 takes up the classification of the laggard and the question of definitional fluidity, as well as education’s administrative tendency toward managing difference out of education. Part 2 discusses the classification of the moron and the question of borderlinity, as well as education’s tendency toward identifying difference within education.

Of Laggards

The laggard, like the dullard, was a classification that described students who did not advance at the pace established by the modern progressive educational system or who might have fallen back from earlier advancement. The laggard was especially important to Leonard Ayres’ study of educational efficiency, in which he sought to quantify the numbers of students who were advancing through or dropping out of education. The laggard reflects an administrative tendency within education concerned with students exiting the formal education system. Ayres’ study statistically agreed with Farrell’s clarification that students were being placed in special classes without a theory and sought to counter such “opinion, guess work, and eloquence.”8 Ayres’ statistical evidence bore out schools with low rates of promotion and high rates of retardation and yet Ayres insisted that retardation “expresse[d] a condition, not a process or explanation,” and was simply a way of referring to students whose advancement was slower than average.9

This classification quickly became part of what Joseph Tropea describes as the “backstage social order” of Progressive Era special education, which required “actors’ tacit understandings and interpretations of their organizational situations” as well as the “learning of backstage roles, rules, and definitions.”10 This backstage social order helped educational leaders deal with the recurrent problem of lagging students through transforming both the organization and rhetoric of education. Educational leaders thus managed students into special classes where they did not count toward general retardation rates. In addition to this administrative tactic, schools also issued work permits that allowed students to be released from compulsory school attendance.11 Thus, despite Ayres’ insistence on the neutrality of the laggard, the condition of retardation still presented an administrative concern that lagging students would drain educational coffers and that their slow advancement would retard the educational progress of all students.

Omnium Gatherum Settings

This administrative concern has organized special education since it emerged concomitantly with the ideal of a common school system. Boston public schools, for example, were from their beginning organized around “separate instructional settings for certain children whose public school attendance was deemed desirable but whose presence in regular classrooms, for a variety of reasons, was not.”12 While intermediate and ungraded classes cast doubt about the commonness the common school movement, Roberts v. Boston (1850) had already established legal precedent for not only excluding black children from public education but for also engendering a separate and unequal logic that continues to order special education.13 The tension between increased school attendance and the concern that not all children were suited for general education led the Boston School Committee to create intermediate schools with the hope that special instruction might enable lagging students to rejoin their common peers.

Despite their rhetoric of amelioration, intermediate schools, which would became ungraded classes within public schools, functioned more like educational Botany Bays than transitional learning spaces. The early history of common schools thus proves to be one of exclusion rather than cohesion, which relied on students who failed to advance to drop out because absent this practice, intermediate and ungraded classes risked becoming omnium gatherun settings.14 To preclude this possibility, Ayres would argue that twelve was an appropriate age for when lagging students should fall out of education; that is, of course, if these students had not already been passed along into the custodial care of training institutions for the feeble-minded such as the Vineland Training School in New Jersey. Up to twelve, however, ungraded and special classes allowed education to define itself as a common enterprise, as something accessible to all children, despite the administration of separate educational worlds for education’s “odds and ends.”

The tension between intermediate and ungraded classes being spaces of indefinite detention and spaces that would indefinitely collect miscellaneous students would not be resolved by Progressive Era special education. This did not prevent experts like J. E. Wallace Wallin from attempting to resolve this tension through clarifying special education’s classificatory schemes. Noting that “the word special is generic and applies to eight or ten different kinds of special classes,” Wallin argued that special classes should be reserved for “imbeciles, morons, borderline and seriously backward cases,” and that the term ungraded classes “should be applied to classes in which children who are retarded in one or more branches are given individual attention.”15 Despite Wallin’s attempt to cohere the definition of special education, its spaces remained porous, evident in Wallin’s introduction of a third type of class, “the elementary industrial class,” which was designed for young adolescents who “are appreciably backward or who are over age because of inability to cope with regular curriculum, and who withal are industrially inclined.”16 That it was possible for students to be placed in these classes for reasons known only to experts like Wallin suggests how definitional fluidity creates categorical spaces. Indeed, with the discovery of the moron, experts would increasingly rely on this use value of indeterminacy as well as their ability to accurately interpret the borderlands and borderlines of feeble-mindedness to validate their expertise.

The laggard testifies to how difference challenged the vision of a common school system, a system which might be better understood as an administrative belief that while all children should be included in general education, purposively indeterminate spaces for certain “special” children were required. Managing students into the categorical spaces of special education was not the only way Progressive Era special education relied on definitional fluidity. While the laggard could be readily identified by slow progression through schooling, the moron was identified against their ability to pass as normal and reflects an educational tendency toward identifying students within education. Relying on a mental age of twelve as a determinacy of high grade functionality, Goddard asserted his discovery of a previously absent classification of feeble-mindedness.

The moron became a standard gradation for educational subjectivities that appeared normal, but who were determined, for whatever reason, to be abnormal and, like the laggard, testify to education’s reliance of the science of classification as a method of self-definition. Goddard’s discovery also challenged the limits of education’s administrative tendency as falling out of education became an insufficient condition for defining education. No longer would the general classification of feeble-mindedness be sufficient; instead, the classification of the moron signals a desire to identify specific subjectivities within education. In addition to reflecting definitional fluidity, the discovery of the moron came to reflect education’s difficulty with borderlinity, which while similar to the omnium gatherum settings of the common school movement, did not so much rely on students aging out of education as being more accurately identified within education. While the moron was ultimately determined to be an inaccurate classification, it still teaches an important lesson about education’s self-definition. Goddard’s discovery was made possible by a perceived lack of classificatory accuracy, from a borderland or borderline within the general classification of feeble-mindedness.


Benjamin Kelsey Kearl is a Philosophy of Education doctoral candidate in the School of Education at Indiana University. Benjamin is currently an Associate Instructor and Future Faculty Teaching Fellow in the College of Education and Public Policy at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne. He can be reached at The author would like to thank Adrea Lawrence and Sara Clark for their helpful and insightful edits and suggestions.

Robert Osgood of St. Norbert College and Donald Warren of Indiana University served as peer reviewers for this essay. Education’s Histories is grateful for their careful attention to and thoughtful feedback.


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