Guide to reading history

The Ten Commandments of Historical Research 

The history of “learning disability,” “intellectual disability” and “developmental disability” has till recently been a marginal activity, coming usually from interested professionals in medicine, psychology or services [Bibliographies]. While there was much that was of value in this work, it also contained many unsupported assumptions which were uncritical of the basic psychological and medical concepts and have continued to resurface in the subsequent literature.

This contrasts sharply with the history of mental illness, which for the past half-century has provided a rich vein of critical inquiry for historians and sociologists as well as for professionals. Lack of interest in learning disability reflects the tacit assumption that it is a relatively unproblematic concept, its history limited to a self-congratulatory account of progress in care and treatment. Unlike madness, it has not experienced the same depth or breadth of debate. Unlike the aura of madness, it does not enhance an academic’s glamour: precisely the opposite, as it lies at the opposite end of our everyday assumptions about cleverness. The very possibility that such an apparently unproblematic concept may be fully a product of history rather than an objective, empirically definable diagnostic category still makes people nervous, including many who may otherwise be involved in pursuing equality, advocacy and social inclusion.

Nevertheless, the history of learning disability has come a long way in the past ten years.  From a handful of medicalised accounts there have emerged more probing lines of inquiry. Though much remains to be done, this increasingly detailed picture of the history has brought into sharper focus the question, “What is learning disability?” The wealth of historical interpretations of things that are mistakenly assumed to be the same thing as our  own concepts of learning disability creates a basic problem for the historian. How do we know what constitutes the history of learning disability if we can’t identify who the “learning disabled” were historically?  For example, would the early twentieth-century British legal category of “moral imbecile” fit the current diagnostic scope?  Would the eighteenth-century “changeling” or the medieval “natural fool”? Conversely, would the person labelled today as having “foetal alcohol syndrome” fit any pre-modern concepts?

These questions suggest that critical inquiry into the history of learning disability destabilises the concept itself.  If no definitive historical concept can be identified, do we not need to question current practices and our current conceptual models? [Key Principles] And for the purposes of historical inquiry, in order to avoid just chasing shadows, we need some rules:

10 Commandments

(1) Avoid assuming that labels such as “mental defective,” “idiot,” “fool” etc. mean the same thing or refer to the same people across different historical periods.

(2) In primary source-texts, always check the characteristics that are being used to define the label: do they correspond with a modern “learning disabled person”? Assume they do not, as a way of testing the hypothesis out. Research all possible alternative interpretations.

(3) Avoid cross-historical assumptions in general about what constitutes learning disability.

(4) The further back in time you go, the more you will have to read translations, and the less you can rely on them. You don’t need a degree in languages, but you do need to get at the underlying sense of the original (often only a single phrase or very short passage is at issue).

(5) When studying the constructs of any particular era, remember that once you move away from that era they will fade and crumble.

(6) Research into social history and the position of individuals and groups in past societies is pointless if it does not take into account the broader conceptual history: and vice-versa.

(7) The primary context for the history of learning disability is cultural. Science, medicine and psychology follow, when and only if appropriate.

(8) The most relevant research areas to the history of learning disability are the history of social status (class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion) and moral status (species membership), rather than the history of madness, sensory impairment or physical disability.

(9) Recognising how radically different the past was does not necessarily commit you to “disability denial” or relativism. However, it does necessarily commit you to envisaging a different future.

(10) The “intelligence society” and its trailblazing academics have a huge vested interest in nudging you away from the task of rendering visible, on a scholarly basis, the history of people whom that society needs to make invisible. Never forget this.

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