'Friction in Our Machinery:' Rhetorical Education at the New York State Asylum at Syracuse, 1854-1884

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Writing Program


Lois P. Agnew


Asylum, Disability, Letter-Writing, Rhetoric, Rhetorical Education, Special Education

Subject Categories

Rhetoric and Composition


Allied with studies of histories of rhetorical education of marginalized groups (A. Cobb, J. Enoch, D. Gold, S.W. Logan, J.J. Royster), this dissertation fills in gaps in rhetorical history by showing how the curriculum and practices within the first thirty years at the New York State Asylum-School at Syracuse (1854-1884) utilized principles of rhetoric. I retrieve remnants from the archives of this "asylum-school" in order to construct a social history of rhetoric that extends our considerations of diverse populations in non-traditional educational settings. While contemporary notions of an asylum reverberate more with confinement tactics than with educational practices, the New York State Asylum-School at Syracuse or what was also known as the New York State Asylum for Idiots was in fact a school that was imagined within the movement towards universal education. Today, the institution is memorialized as the first public school for people considered "feeble-minded" or "idiotic." Rhetorical training at the school, however, did not manifest in democratic decision-making in the public sphere. It did not mean that people gained the right to vote, were trained in how to profess opinions or to persuade in terms of political belief. Rather, training consisted of a bending of the will towards somatic and mental normalcy that ideally resulted in a controllable and exploitable unit of labor. However, while vocational participation was foregrounded in the asylum-school over participation in public deliberation or rhetorical uses of language, pupils were able to expand their life options regardless as to how limited those options may have been.

By utilizing archival documents like case studies, annual reports, patient and family letters, and other institutional and governmental texts, I reconstruct the rhetorical practices and, most importantly, contend that when we think of a nineteenth century asylum-school we must conceive of "disability" and divergent embodiments as complex, historically situated social and rhetorical constructions. I extend previous definitions of rhetorical education by conceiving of it as formal or informal, self-taught or teacher-imposed educational training that develops moral, physical, intellectual/mental,, and vocational aspects of a person. Decidedly, an examination of rhetorical education at the asylum-school calls into question many of our assumptions about embodied differences as they relate to pedagogy and public participation.

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