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Idiocy: And Its Treatment By The Physiological Method

Creator: Edward Seguin (author)
Date: 1907
Publisher: Teachers' College, Columbia University
Source: Available at selected libraries

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With this remark, Bonaterre left the boy in the hands of "that philosophical institutor, who has accomplished so many prodigies in this class of teaching; and it is to be expected that the child just confided to his care, may sometime become the emulator of Massieu, Fontaine, and Mathieu" (noted deaf mutes taught in the school of Paris).


This institutor, Sicard, had succeeded the Abbé De L'Epée, and Bonaterre thought him the man to perform upon this savage the miracle dreamed of by De Condillac. But he was mistaken; Sicard soon tired of the uncouth being who was throwing away his clothes, and trying to escape even by the windows; and left him to wander neglected in the halls of the school for deaf mutes. But the child had been seen by all Paris. If the crowd of visitors found him an object of disgust, he continued to excite among thinkers a lively interest. Some of those who had held converse with Franklin and Thomas Paine on the momentous questions of the closing century, were still living; and by them the subject was brought before the Academy, where it produced exciting discussions, in which two men were prominent: Pinel, Physician-in-Chief to the Insane at Bicêtre, who declared the child idiotic; and Itard, Physician of the Deaf Mute Institution, who asserted that he was simply wild, or entirely untaught. This discrepancy of opinion is thus summed up by the latter: (2)

(2) Itard, De 1'Education d'un Homme Sauvage. Paris. 1801. Pp. 14, 15.


"The Citizen Pinel established between several children of Bicêtre, irrevocably struck with idiotism, and the child object of our present study, the most rigorous analogies, which would necessarily give for result a perfect identity between those young idiots and the Savage of the Aveyron. That identity was leading to the conclusion that, affected with a malady to this time looked upon as incurable, he was not susceptible of any sort of sociability or instruction. It was accordingly the conclusion drawn by the Citizen Pinel; which he, meantime, accompanied with the expression of that philosophical doubt spread in all his writings, and to be found in the previsions of any man who appreciates the results of the science of prognosis, only as a more or less certain calculus of probabilities.


"I did not partake this unfavorable opinion; and, despite the truthfulness of the tableau, and the closeness of resemblance, I dared to conceive some hopes. I founded them on the double consideration of the cause and the curability of that apparent idiotism."


Itard, not believing idiocy curable, contrary to the misgivings of Bonaterre, and to the all but convincing demonstrations of Pinel, undertook this education. In devoting himself to this case, his object was not to improve or cure an idiot; it was "to solve the metaphysical problem of determining what might be the degree of intelligence and the nature of the ideas in a lad, who, deprived from birth of all education, should have lived entirely separated from the individuals of his kind." Itard embodied this programme in live propositions:


"1st. To endear him to social life, by making it more congenial than the one he was now leading; and, above all, more like that he had but recently quitted.


"2d. To awaken his nervous sensibility, by the most energetic stimulants; and at other times by quickening the affections of the soul.


"3d. To extend the sphere of his ideas, by creating new wants, and multiplying his associations with surrounding beings.


"4th. To lead him to the use of speech, by determining the exercise of imitation, under the spur of necessity.


"5th. To exercise, during a certain time, the simple operations of his mind upon his physical wants: and therefrom derive the application of the same to objects of instruction."


For more than a year Itard followed this psychological programme, perfectly well adapted to the education of a savage. But he seems, after this time, to have suspected that there were other impediments besides savageness in his pupil; for, though he never formally acknowledged it, he framed, about 1802, an entirely new programme, more fitted for an idiot than for a savage, whose foundation was physiology, and whose generality embraced:


"1st. The development of the senses.


"2d. The development of the intellectual faculties.


"3d. The development of the affective functions."


This evolution of the mind of Itard, founded, no doubt, upon a secret consciousness of his error in diagnosis, forced him to link his labors to more scientific traditions. Therefore we cannot very well proceed in the narration of the history of his idea, without tracing it back to its origin.


Since Morgagni, Boerhaave, Haller, had brought physiology to its proper place, that is to say, ahead of all other medical sciences, it had been considered and used as a reliable element of progress in various branches of anthropology. Among the special labors founded upon its recent discoveries, none had been more conspicuous than those of Jacob Rodrigues Pereire, who taught congenital deaf mutes to speak; communicating to them, not only a natural voice and a correct pronunciation, but even his accent gascon, or peculiar southern emphasis. So says every one who followed his admirable teachings, Buffon, Lecat, Bezout, Diderot, etc. So can we say ourselves, with many living witnesses, Charton, Carnot, Leroux, etc., who have seen and heard in 1831, in the salons of the rue Monsigny, Mlle. Marois, the last surviving pupil of Pereire, when she came from Orleans to visit the then unknown grandsons of her beloved teacher. Yes, we heard, decrepit, that voice which Buffon heard in its silvery tones of youth. Unfortunately we were too young and ignorant to pay due attention to this wonder; and our reminiscences of it are bare of the particulars which could make them valuable.

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