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"Cretins And Idiots"

Creator: Linus P. Brockett (author)
Date: February 1858
Publication: The Atlantic Monthly
Source: Available at selected libraries

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There can be no question of the benevolence of attempting the restoration to society, and to active and useful life, of these awkward, undeveloped, and backward youth, -- of educating their hitherto undeveloped faculties, of eradicating those habits which rendered them disagreeable, and often almost unendurable; but these youths are not idiots, and no such analogy exists between them and idiots as would enable us to infer with certainty the successful treatment of the latter from the comparatively rapid development of the former.


In our own country more satisfactory data exist for determining this point. The movement for the instruction of idiots commenced almost simultaneously in New York and Massachusetts. The first school for idiots in this country was commenced at Barre, Massachusetts, by Dr. H. B. Wilbur, in July, 1848; and the Massachusetts Experimental School, by Dr. S. G. Howe, in October of the same year. There are now in the United States six institutions for the instruction and training of this unfortunate class, namely the Massachusetts School, at South Boston, still under the general superintendence of Dr. Howe; a private institution for idiots, imbeciles, backward and eccentric children at Barre, under the care of Dr. George Brown, being the one originally founded by Dr. Wilbur the New York State Asylum for Idiots, at Syracuse, of which Dr. Wilbur is the superintendent; a private school for idiots and imbeciles at Haerlem, N. Y., under the care of Mr. J. B. Richards; the Pennsylvania Training School for Idiots, at Germantown, Penn., under the care of Dr. Parish; and an Experimental School, recently organized, at Columbus, Ohio, under an appropriation from the State legislature, presided over by Dr. Patterson. Of these, only the first three have had an experience sufficiently long to offer any reliable results from which the success of idiot instruction can be deduced.


The solution of the question, whether the idiot can be elevated to the standard of mediocrity, physically and intellectually, is not merely one of interest to the psychologist, who seeks to ascertain the metes and bounds of the mental capacity of the race; it is also of paramount importance to the political economist, who wishes to determine the productive force of the community, physical and intellectual; it is of practical interest to the statesman, who seeks to know how large a proportion of the population are necessarily dependent upon the state or individuals for their support; it is a matter of pecuniary importance to the tax-payer, who is naturally desirous of learning whether these drones in the hive, who not only perform no labor themselves but require others to attend them, and who often, also, from their imbecility, are made the tools and dupes of others in the commission of crime; cannot be transformed into producers instead of consumers, and become quiet and orderly citizens, instead of pests in the community.


The statistics of idiocy are necessarily imperfect. No United States census or State enumeration is at all reliable: the idea of what constitutes idiocy is so very vague, that one census-taker would report none, in a district where another might find twenty. It is very seldom the case that the friends or relatives of an idiot will admit that he is more than a little eccentric; many of the worst cases in the institutions for idiots were brought there by friends who protested that they were not idiots, but only a little singular in their habits.


In Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Ohio, efforts have been made, by correspondence with physicians and town officers, to obtain data from which an approximate estimate might be attained. These efforts, though not so satisfactory as could be desired, are yet sufficient to authorize the conclusion that there are in those three States (and probably the same figures would hold good for the rest of the Union) about one fifth of one per cent. of the population who are idiots of low grade, and about the same number who are of weak and imbecile intellect. This would give us in the United States about fifty-two thousand idiots, and as many more imbeciles. At the lowest estimate, the cost of supporting this vast army of the unfortunate, beyond the trifling sum which a few of them may be able to earn, is more than ten millions of dollars per annum. Nor is this all, or even the worst feature of their case. The greater part of them are without sense of shame, without any notions of chastity or decency, and so weak in moral sense as to be the ready tools and dupes of artful villains, and often themselves exhibit a perverseness and malignity of character which render them dangerous members of society. Their influence for evil, direct and indirect, no man can estimate. The chaplains and other officers of our State prisons and penitentiaries will testify that a large proportion of the inmates of those establishments, though not idiots, are weak-minded and imbecile; and it is by no means a rare circumstance to find persons, who should properly be under treatment as idiots, suffering the doom of the felon.

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