Classrooms and Clinics: Urban Schools and the Protection and Promotion of Child Health, 1870-1930

By Richard A. Meckel | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
Defective Children, Defective Students
Medicalizing Academic Failure

The examinations that medical inspectors gave to schoolchildren showing symptoms of disease revealed not only an urban student body plagued with minor contagious skin and eye conditions, but also one in which physical defects were almost universal. Although not charged with detecting such defects, medical inspectors could not help noting them. As they looked for evidence of infection in students’ throats, they were all too often confronted with mouthfuls of carious teeth and swollen gums. As they watched students make their way around their school, inspectors saw some with obvious signs of heart diseases and others with bodies bent or twisted by scoliosis, rickets, or tuberculosis. As they stared into students’ faces, they detected the pallor of the malnourished, the squint of the myopic, the twitch of the chorea inflicted, or the open-mouth breathing of a child with hypertrophied tonsils or adenoidal growths. And as they questioned students and listened to their responses, inspectors discovered some who clearly had hearing and speech defects or seemed cognitively impaired.1

As medical inspectors made their observations known, some urban education and health officials began lobbying for the expansion of medical inspection to include the detection of physical and mental defects and incapacities. One argument offered for such expansion was that it would assist in the identification and segregation of students who were so physically and mentally incapacitated that they were all but uneducable in a regular school. For some time, urban school officials had been complaining that the enforcement of compulsory attendance laws was bringing into their schools children who were not only educationally behind but also physically and mentally unfit for the

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