Epistemologies, Deafness, Learning, and Teaching

Article excerpt

THE STUDY of Deaf epistemologies is in a nascent stage relative to, e.g., the study of feminist or African American epistemologies. It has only recently begun attracting the widespread attention it deserves. The present article addresses Deaf epistemologies as they relate to the sometimes conflicting trends in American society and education. In a relatively short period, the education of deaf students has gone from an independent enterprise under the aegis of special education to heavy influence by No Child Left Behind legislation that applies to virtually all American students. American education at one and the same time embraces and celebrates diversity, imposes uniform, rigid learning standards for all children, and mandates that all children be tested in the same way. An oxymoron exists of individualized educational planning and one-size-fits-all curricula and assessment of academic achievement. Implications for teaching and learning of deaf students are explored.

In considering epistemologies it is tempting, but intellectually misleading, to think in dichotomous terms. In the introductory article in this special issue of the American Annals of the Deaf, Peter V Paul and I presented some characteristics of a Deaf epistemology, or epistemologies, and contrasted them with a standard epistemology, which may not, in reality, be the standard anymore. Deaf epistemologies, as they relate to education and instruction, typically contain certain beliefs including, but not limited to, the idea that deaf education has been controlled by hearing educators who harbor a deficit or deficiency model of deafness and who are insensitive to the needs and learning styles of deaf learners. In essence, the argument goes that general theories of instruction and research do not apply to the education of deaf students.

In addition, Deaf epistemologies posit that there is no specific psychology of deafness, but there are differences in the ways that deaf and hearing individuals learn; deaf learners are visual learners, and, consequently, the deaf brain may be organized differently from the hearing brain. Another consistent theme is that a sign language should be the natural language of a deaf child from birth.

A standard epistemology, or epistemologies, has a more general or universal perspective. It operates under the assumption that there are external knowable realities that can be discovered or developed through the scientific method. Theories can be tested, with the result being closer approximations of truth (Lehrer, 2000).

An epistemology, stripped to its barest essence, is a way of knowing, of understanding and structuring, of interacting with the world. It focuses on the nature, uses, and limitations of knowing. Among those who think about such matters, the consensus is that there has existed a standard epistemology that represents a White male Weltanschauung, or view of the world. Its literary canon consists of White males (Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, Dostoevsky Twain, etc.), with analogous representation in art (Da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt, DaIi, Picasso, Michelangelo), philosophy (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard), music (Bach, Beethoven, Verdi, Rimski-Korsakov), and numerous other fields of endeavor. Such a worldview excludes most of the human race. In the United States this exclusion applies to women, racial and ethnic minorities, and deaf people, among others who, to one extent or another, have been marginalized.

If one believes that a standard epistemology is, by definition, inadequate and misleading, that there is no external, knowable reality, and that knowledge and truth are relative and situational constructs, how do the constructs of gender, race, and deafness situate knowledge and how does the production of knowledge affect women, racial minorities, and deaf individuals? To a large extent racial minorities, women, and deaf individuals have been excluded from inquiry, portrayed as inferior, and denied access to power; thus, the production of knowledge has not been beneficial to them. …