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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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Idiots have been educated in all times by the devotion of kind-hearted and intelligent persons and with the best means they could borrow from ordinary schools; until the progress of physiology opened the possibility of the adaptation of its principles to the general training of children. But other elements were mature. The right of all to education was acknowledged if not yet fulfilled with the imperfect means at command; the deaf and the blind were already instructed by special methods; and several children, marked by nature, accident, or crime, with the characters of idiocy, had been subjected to physiological and psychological experiments. Can idiots be educated, treated, improved, cured? To put the question was to solve it.


There is a sort of mysterious upheaval of mankind in the way new things spring up, which commands our awe. At a given hour, anything wanted by the race makes its appearance simultaneously from so many quarters, that the title of a single individual to discovery is always contested, and seems clearly to belong to God manifested through man. The origin of the methodical treatment of idiots, though apparently of secondary importance, is nevertheless one of these necessary events, coming when needed for the co-ordination of progress. Nothing can give a better instance of the simultaneity of feeling this new idea encountered, than the readiness with which all nations encouraged the formation of schools for idiots, and the unconcerted unanimity of language elicited at the foundation of these establishments by minds separated otherwise by vast intellectual distances.


It was our fortune to be a guest at one of these solemnities, where individuals certainly spoke more the language of mankind than their own; manifesting clearly wherefrom the spirit of the occasion came. It was at the ceremony of the laying of the corner-stone of the first school built expressly for idiots in this country at Syracuse, New York, September 8, 1854.


The Rev. Samuel J. May began in these terms: "Twenty-five years ago, or more, in the early days of my ministry, I encountered, as every man who thinks at all must sooner or later encounter, the great problem of the existence of evil -- the question, how the Good God, the Heavenly Father, could permit his children of earth to be so tempted, tried, and afflicted as they are. I was unable to avoid this perplexing subject; so I met it as best I could, in full faith that the wisdom and goodness of God will be justified in all his works, and in all his ways, whenever they shall be fully understood.


"I endeavored to lead my audience to see what, in almost every direction, was very apparent to myself, that evil is a means to some higher good; never an end; never permitted for its own sake, certainly not for the sake of vengeance.


"I was able easily to trace out the good effects of many evils; to show how they had stimulated mankind to exertion and contrivance, physical and mental; to tell of the discoveries, inventions, and improvements that were the consequences. In particular, I dwelt upon the sad privations those individuals are subjected to who were born deaf or blind. The institution of the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, at Hartford, was then of recent date, and a school for the blind was said to have been opened in Paris. These institutions were then of great interest to the philanthropist; and I found no difficulty in showing that the philosophy of mind, and the science and art of education in general, had been much improved by the earnest and successful endeavors which benevolent persons had made to open communications with the minds and hearts of persons deprived of, one or more of the most important senses.


"But there was idiocy -- idiocy so appalling in its appearance, so hopeless in its nature; what could be the use of such an evil? It were not enough to point to it as a consequence of the violation of some of the essential laws of generation. If that were all, its end would be punishment. I ventured, therefore, to declare with an emphasis enhanced, somewhat, perhaps, by a lurking distrust of the prediction, that the time would come when access would be found to the idiotic brain; the light of intelligence admitted into its dark chambers, and the whole race be benefited by some new discovery on the nature of mind. It seems to some of my hearers, more than to myself, a daring conjecture.


"Two or three years afterwards I read a brief announcement that in Paris they had succeeded in educating idiots. I flew to her who would be most likely to sympathize in my joy, shouting, 'Wife, my prophecy is fulfilled! Idiots have been educated!'. . ."


When men are gathered together for a common purpose, their object being common, their minds become blended; they cease to think as many; the same idea flows from all brains. So was it at this ceremony. Dr. H. B. Wilbur, Gov. W. Hunt, the Hons. E. W. Leavenworth, C. H. Morgan. James H. Titus, the steadfast friends of the new institution, spoke in the same strain. Letters from involuntary absentees, Gov. J. C. Spencer, Simeon Draper, William H. Seward, breathed the same spirit. Dr. S. G. Howe's happy words concluded:

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