Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life

Price, Margaret

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol
  • Date of entry: Mar-22-2012


Margaret Price, a university professor with expertise in disability studies and rhetoric, alerts us to rhetorical and institutional strategies that marginalize or exclude from academic life people regarded as mentally disabled.  Her term "mental disability" subsumes an array of cognitive and psychological conditions--autism, attention deficit disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, difficulties processing spoken language or speaking in a group, among others--that are generally identified as falling outside definitions of normative cognitive or psychological functioning.  Whether a student or a teacher, manifesting such conditions can label one unfit for school.  Price asks us (1) to consider whether such conditions rightly disqualify one from academic life, (2) to question the validity of some assumed criteria for academic success, and (3) to design institutional infrastructures that accommodate neurodiversity. 

Price's analysis and her insights into forms of exclusion point to an underappreciated relationship between academia and medicine, which after all generates diagnoses of mental illness or fitness and the presumed teachability of students.  Price's book thereby engages the wider culture, which can deem the "unteachable" unfit for society.       

Probably the most startling chapter, titled "Assaults on the Ivory Tower: Representations of Madness in the Discourse of U.S. School Shootings," analyzes the rhetoric of the stories told within academia and throughout print and televised media about two campus shootings: the ones at Virginia Polytechnic and Northern Illinois Universities in 2007 and 2008.  The chapter uncovers the easy acceptance of stereotypes about mental disability and of the presumed, but unsubstantiated link between mental disability and violence that these stories insistently repeat.             

Three chapters have direct bearing on pedagogic and professional practices and assumptions.  Chapter 2 scrutinizes typical classroom practices and Chapter 3 questions criteria for professional excellence in academia, such as collegiality and productivity, from a disability perspective.  Both chapters uncover the often hidden problems that those with mental disabilities have meeting what Price views as a limited range of academic expectations and practices.  Together the chapters propose ways that academia can become more accommodating and ask what it might lose by not doing so.  In Chapter 6 Price interviews disabled independent scholars Cal Montgomery, Tynan Power, and Leah (Phinnia) Merridith.  Questioning the "rhetoric of ‘choice'" that infuses discussions of the institutionally unaffiliated or marginally affiliated, Price asks to what extent disabled scholars become independent by default.  By interviewing people she knows and who share her experience of living with a mental disability, Price also challenges models of research that assume that disengagement with its subjects generates the most valid knowledge.    

Another chapter examines three examples of autobiographical writing about mental disability:  Susanne Antonetta's A Mind ApartLauren Slater's Lying , and Wendy Thompson's essay "Her Reckoning."  Price finds "transgressive power" in autopathographies written by those "who are not (conventionally) ‘articulate'" (178).  Part of that power, Price proposes, arises from the narrators' unconventional use of pronouns (Who is "I"?) and ways of "refiguring the rational" (195).  


Mad at School unsettles the biomedical model of mental disability and urges respect for the variability of human mental response.  Margaret Price's brave, controversial argument about educational inclusiveness needs to be discussed by anyone who teaches, is concerned about educational processes and academic culture, wants to understand some of their unintended consequences, or thinks about constructions of mental illness or cognitive disability.  Readers already familiar with Disability Studies and the current work on neurodiversity will find themselves in familiar territory.  But Price's accessible prose and patient voice welcome readers new to those fields as well.        



University of Michigan Press

Place Published

Ann Arbor



Page Count