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Modern Ideals Of Education Applied To The Training Of Mental Detectives

Creator: Mrs. M. C. Dunphy (author)
Date: 1908
Publication: Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction
Source: Available at selected libraries




Among the many problems of modern sociology, none presents a broader field of interest than that of training, developing and disposing satisfactorily of the mentally deficient -- those who come into life so inadequately equipped, both mentally and physically, to meet the struggle for existence. Centuries ago, their fate was decided by "the survival of the fittest." In the Middle Ages when more humane feelings prevailed, defectives were treated with respect and consideration, being looked upon as creatures afflicted by God, but no effort was made to elevate or educate them, so they remained burdens on charity all their days.


With the spread of the great humanitarian movements of the last century over all the civilized world and the increasing sense of the responsibility of the state towards its individual members, began, also, the first systematic endeavors to ameliorate the conditions of these neglected wards of society.


The efforts of the pioneer educators and philanthropists, who advocated the training and development of defectives, have reached a point of success scarcely dreamed of by those earnest workers in the cause of human progress. Step by step, interest in this branch of social enterprise has grown until now the sympathy of all those striving for the betterment of humanity has been aroused on behalf of these innocent unfortunates, and any scheme that can further their welfare or render their conditions less dependent, meets with instant and enthusiastic support.


Tangible evidence of this interest and sympathy are met with on every side in the schools and institutions established for the care, education and manual training of atypical children. There they may be classified according to their varying degrees of mental ability and then carefully developed along the lines of modern educational thought in the esthetic and utilitarian branches which they are capable of assimilating.


The general ideal of educational aim at the present day is to render the individual socially efficient and thereby enable him to adjust himself satisfactorily to his environment. The question naturally arises, is it possible to realize even in a small measure, these ideals of education with the atypical child?


To a limited degree and under certain well-defined conditions, we may answer yes to the above query. In other words, we can render the defective socially efficient and comparatively self-reliant, provided we confine his efforts at usefulness within the sphere of a community of his mental equals. It would be futile to assert that any amount of training will sufficiently develop defectives to a point of usefulness that will enable them to cope with the problems of the world at large, and it would be manifestly unjust to exact from him the same measure of mental poise demanded of the normal human being.


In my judgment, based upon years of experience, the conditions upon which we can claim to approach the ideals of modern educational aim in dealing with defectives are as follows:


First -- The segregation of these children in a school or institution devoted to their special needs, where they may be properly classified and brought under judicious, well-regulated control.


Secondly -- That the training given them there should rest on a definite, practical basis, as it is only by constant employment in some congenial field of useful occupation that an economic return for the time, care and expense necessary to develop defectives to a point of usefulness can be obtained from them.


Thirdly -- That the teaching of these children be confided to teachers experienced in the best ways and methods of arousing and holding their attention. Any loss of time is to be avoided, if possible, as with defectives mental growth is not the indefinite life-long process it is with normal beings and every moment of the period of mental receptivity must be utilized if we are to make any real, definite impressions on their feeble brains.


To revert to the first condition for successful application of modern principles to the development of the atypical child -- the segregation of this class should be made while the child is in its earliest years, as in the subsequent development of the individual the significance of these early years cannot be overestimated. This is the time when the mental and physical organism can best be studied and classified and the natural activities be diverted into the proper channels. Children of this type should be kept under careful supervision day and night or they form habits which later on are ineradicable. Moral instincts are almost always lacking in the mentally deficient, so even in the ordinary intercourse of home and social life they are a menace to the welfare of the community.


This unfortunate tendency, coupled with the undesirable surroundings in many of their homes and the danger of the unrestrained play of the streets, tends to nullify any ethical lessons or impressions gained by a few hours in school. Therefore, in the interest of the public weal as well as for their own sakes, it is of paramount importance that atypical children be prevented from coming in contact with those of normal minds, in order that their abnormal personality may not react unfavorably upon the latter.


Let the defective child be brought under the influences of right thinking, careful discipline and moral control during the period of plasticity and there is a real opportunity to develop and foster whatever good inclinations or latent abilities he may possess.


This plastic period is the time in which to help the child to gain control of the motor activities. If he has systematic physical exercises from the beginning -- preferably the natural sports of children, running, leaping, swimming and ball playing, combined of course with special drills and gymnastics adapted to give him the requisite motor control, much of the awkwardness which distinguishes defectives as a class may be obviated. Through the games he gains not only robust physical organism, but derives real ethical culture from the lessons of fair play, give and take, and social reinforcement which they inculcate. There is no means by which a child can more readily absorb the necessary principles of subordination, self-control and obedience than in the ranks of the ball team or similar association for the purpose of sport.


Many defects of sight, hearing, articulation and carriage are easily corrected during this period; but they offer stubborn resistance to treatment later on. Then, too, in the very early years, while the defective child is in the kindergarten, the inner activity of the feeble brain can be stimulated by many and varied devices to arouse his interest and quicken his powers of observation. The kindergarten process of unfolding and awakening the dawning intellect is of inestimable value in directing the first groping mental efforts of the defective. The discipline, though of the mildest, tends to control and modify the natural impulses while at the same time allowing full play to the activities of childhood. The training of voice, manner, habits of respect and obedience go hand in hand with the increasing mental growth through the medium of games and occupations. This being also the imitative stage of growth in every child, when he unconsciously copies the manners, language and modes of life of his neighborhood and home surroundings, it can readily be seen how imperative it is that the environment during these years should be of a quality likely to react favorably upon his later development.


That all mental work should be of short duration and varied by manual exercise is an axiom of modern educational methods for the normal child, and is doubly necessary with the restless, nervous defective. There must inevitably be a lack of creative power and spontaneity of thought and expression on his part, but in the cheerful, bright surroundings of the up-to-date schoolroom, helped by the sympathy and understanding of the experienced teacher, it is quite possible to organize and amplify to a large extent the ideas gained in the previous years and to develop successfully the individual pupil along the lines of his natural inclinations.


While there must be discipline in the school for defectives, there can be no hard and fast curriculum of work prescribed as the mind of each pupil has a different rate of growth and develops through a different avenue of mental activity.


At this point in the child's development we must take into consideration the second condition for successful work with this class, namely: The utilitarian aim in the training of the atypical being, in order that he may not continue to be an entirely useless burden on society.


While still under school instruction and learning the useful branches of manual class-work, sloyd, iron work, bench work, painting, etc., the defective should also be instructed in the elements of some congenial form of industrial employment. This must be in line with the natural bent of the individual, a matter which is not difficult to determine if the child has been under supervision for years. It is the first necessary step to be taken towards making him a self-respecting member of a colony of fellow workers. Learning a trade and feeling himself of use to others is the best way to impress him with the dignity of labor and the social interdependence of workers in all walks of life. Those in charge should be ever on the alert to discover the inclinations or desire in special directions of those in their care.


One child shows a marked interest in nature work, earth study, etc. Encourage him to persevere in these branches and later on it will be easy to initiate him into the duties of gardening and farming. Another displays a talent for color. This can be turned to practical account by teaching him house-painting, decorating, etc.


Many mental defectives have a decided musical ability, and this can be used to further the welfare of the institution by having them taught to play in a band or orchestra. This provides amusement for the other inmates and helps to promote their happiness and contentment, for music in any form is a delight to them, besides its undoubted value as an agent in calming and soothing their excitable nerves. The readiness with which the boys on Randall 's Island mastered the intricacies of instrumental music and the success which has attended the establishment of our band makes me confident that this branch of useful endeavor is one that can be made to appeal to a large percentage of the feeble-minded.


As to the third condition necessary to the effective training of defectives -- the careful selection of teachers for the work -- I can scarcely lay enough stress on this point. Many teachers whose efforts with normal children are most satisfactory find it impossible to adapt themselves to the needs of the defective schoolroom. Their patience is soon overtaxed by the slow mental processes and the nervous physical organism of the atypical child and they often find that the physical strain of contact with this class is too great a drain on their own nerve power. It requires no small amount of patience, skill and intuition on the part of a teacher to find just the factors in the educational process that make a real appeal to the struggling atom of mental activity imprisoned in the brain of the defective. Above all, it is only the experience of years that gives a teacher of defectives the true insight into ways and means by which the individual -- (for it is as individuals and not as a class that pupils in such a school must be regarded) -- under her charge can be reached and benefited.


Refinement of manner and feeling are almost as necessary as intellectual qualifications for the teacher of defectives, as it is impossible to overestimate the immense influence of the personality of their superiors to this class. The classes should be small in numbers as it is impossible to do justice to these children if they are to be treated en masse, besides which, it is altogether too severe a strain to put upon the physical and mental organism of the teacher.


A very cursory review of the points presented in this paper will make apparent the importance of what I stated was the first condition in making the training of defectives of effective value to society, namely: That they be segregated permanently from society, and in conclusion I wish to add a few more remarks upon this basic necessity.


It must be distinctly understood that there is no hope of curing mental deficiency. It is not like lunacy, a case of brain affection as liable to respond to treatment as any physical ailment. It is an ill that is beyond the skill of medicine. No surgeon can supply the missing brain center or create an intellect any more than he can produce sight through an artificial eye. Weak sight may be helped by glasses of varying power. Weak brains can be stimulated to mental endeavor, but a person born without eyes cannot be made to see, nor can a mental defective be given brain power and brought to the level of the normally intelligent being.


Realizing this, can it be deemed wise, either for society or the defective himself, to turn him loose after some years of training to make his fight for existence on his own behalf? No matter how seemingly clever he may have become in his chosen line of activity, would it be reasonable to expect him to compete successfully with skilled labor? No amount of moral training during his school life can render him capable of judging points of morality for himself or make him proof against temptations to which his natural tendencies incline him to yield. The end will almost inevitably be that he will drift back into the care of the state, but through the gates of crime. To avoid this as an economic measure and as a safeguard to public morality, the state should see that the defective, on passing school age, should be transferred to a home or colony wherein he can prove his social efficiency by being of use to others and himself.


He is a member of a community of his equals, a sharer in a democracy and a help instead of a menace to society at large. The economic return from a defective must necessarily be very small, yet a colony for feeble-minded of various grades can be made partially, if not entirely, self-supporting. That is to say, outside the cost of establishment and direction, the inmates can be trained to do most of the labor connected with its maintenance. The highest grades of defective boys, under supervision, of course, can take care of the farming, dairy work, gardening, shop-work, carpentering, etc., while the girls of similar grades can be employed in housework, laundry, serving-room and kitchen, most of them being very apt at these branches of industrial work. The lower grades can do easier forms of the different employments, raking the grounds, carrying clothes, grading walks, etc. In these colonies a strict classification of the varying degrees of mentality should be insisted upon, as contact with the lower grades will rapidly sweep away the fruits of the years spent in training the educable feeble-minded for a useful sphere in life, as unfortunately this type of being retrogrades much more rapidly than he advances. After the eighteenth year he receives but few new mental impressions and, if removed from careful supervision or forced to associate intimately with defectives of a lower grade, he speedily reverts to his original instincts and sinks to the level of those around him.


But, if a certain classification be maintained, the different classes of mental defectives may be associated in different sections or homes in the same colony. On Randall's Island we have defectives of every type, from idiots to high grade mental defectives, but the contact between the different classes is of the most superficial. They meet at church entertainments and outdoor sports, but never come in close contact with each other.


That these colonies, once established, would prove a real boon there is no reason to doubt, and New York is now preparing to follow the lead set by Massachusetts at Templeton and inaugurate a farm colony for all classes of mental defectives at Haverstraw, N. Y.


On Randall's Island we have instituted, to a certain degree, the system prevailing at Templeton, that is, on leaving school the boys and girls are given some definite manual employment and much of the work in the shops, such as basket-making, carpet and rug weaving, dressmaking and tailoring, etc., is performed by them, as well as the housework in the different buildings and considerable work on the grounds.


We shall probably not have to wait long to see each State with its farm colony for defectives organized, established and working in harmony with modern progressive thought toward the aim of all development -- efficiency -- and we shall then find that these ideals of social usefulness and true democracy may be at last realized by these beings -- the most really dependent of all the wards of the State.