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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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The legal status of idiots relative to property is that of minors, without reservation or attenuation for the kind, the degree, the stage, the tendency of their infirmity. Cases susceptible of improvement or not, cases of limited but rational understanding, or of unsound reasoning and ungrounded aspirations, are reduced by law to the same present and future incapacity of possession and usage. It seems unjust, now that idiots are improved, can work, spare, behave more or less, to submit them to the same legal incapacities which must rule the maniac who mistakes gold for cinders, and vice versa, or the imbecile ready to make a fortune out of incessant barterings in which he means to cheat, and is himself cheated. The patrimony of the child who may improve at some cost, must not be left without control in the hands of persons interested in keeping him incapable. In England the Sovereign, here the Governor of the State is the guardian of the idiot. Evidently this trust is too distant to be effective. The Governor should delegate his guardianship to the Superintendent of the State institution, who is competent to advise about what might be profitably expended for the improvement of the child, and what part of his property or income may be progressively intrusted to him as a means of learning the management of his worldly affairs. Anything short of this is unjust, and leads to legal spoliation.


Their personal rights are no more respected; though, under the steady improvement of their aspirations idiots are known to have become worthy of the blessings that society offers and religion sanctifies.


Criminal legislation treats idiots yet worse. As we just said, out of their institution nothing prevents them from falling into the snares of bad company but their good natural tendencies. But, if they succumb, tossed between lawyers who hold them up as the lowest fellows, or the most cunning of criminals, findings and judgments agree in sending them where they cannot improve, but must grow worse. Although any kind of confusion is painful to the mind, one might conceive that the dement might be allowed to rot in the same place of confinement where the maniac raves; but who could see without sorrow the idiot sent, for an unconscious or doubtful crime, where the imbecile finds himself at home among men of his stamp, instead of being sent to the institution where he might be educated, or to an asylum where he might be protected against bad influences, as the case might demand.


We can, therefore, already perceive that social and legal exigencies, and the recent creation of schools for training idiots, naturally lead to the complementary foundation of asylums for such as have no family, or are only partially improved. This asylum shall be a happy home for those who could have no other, if its management be given as a reward to those devoted women and men who have already spent many years and turned white their young hairs at the task of educating idiots; any other persons would perpetuate in the new asylum the hard practices of the hospices and the poor-house.


But while we demand more social love, more legal protection, more home comforts for idiots to keep up with the recent improvement, we must not forget that the institutions already founded for them, and the physiological methods of teaching, will shed more lustre on this century than the institutions and methods for teaching deaf mutes did on the last, if we are as conscious of our duties as we are of those of society toward our children. In their name we have asked and received palaces, annuities, and we may even say the incubation of their feeble capacities from hundreds of devoted persons; but are we sure that we have understood our subject in all its grandeur, and kept it on the high philosophical ground upon which it can stand equally the test of criticism and of admiration?


True, idiots have been improved, educated, and even cured; not one in a thousand has been entirely refractory to treatment; not one in a hundred who has not been made more happy and healthy; more than thirty per cent, have been taught to conform to social and moral law and rendered capable of order, of good feeling, and of working like the third of a man; more than forty per cent, have become capable of the ordinary transactions of life under friendly control, of understanding moral and social abstractions, of working like two-thirds of a man; and twenty-five to thirty per cent. come nearer and nearer to the standard of manhood, till some of them will defy the scrutiny of good judges when compared with ordinary young women and men.


But this success, honorable as it is, constitutes only one of the objects to be attained as the honest return due to society for the generous support afforded to those who took charge of the new establishments. If these were founded for idiots, idiots seem permitted to exist and are expensively gathered and treated, not only for their own welfare, but for some social and scientific objects which disclose themselves, when we advance in the road of progress, as so many new duties for us to perform. Among these raisons d'ĂȘtre of idiocy, the most urgent, the most neglected arises from the light to be thrown on all the branches of anthropology by sound and complete observations of idiots from the cradle to the slab. But to this day there is not one complete observation followed thus far. This point we must reach. Being given children whose condition prior to birth, in infancy, youth, and manhood is perfectly established; having studied the deficiencies and the disorders of their functions, their intellectual progress and physical development under a physiological training, our love for them and their fellows must follow them with scalpel and microscope beyond life, to mark the peculiarities of their organs as we have done those of their functions. It will be impossible to collect and compare fifty such observations (and that would be about one for each institution) without being surrounded by new light on every important point of human philosophy; not only upon the questions bearing directly on idiocy, but upon all human questions pertaining to causality between organs and functions. These questions vainly asked from commonplace subjects, or from the sick or the insane, will be promptly answered by the comparison of a few monographs of idiots. That these exceptional children are better subjects, are in fact nearly the only subjects fit for the study of the impending questions of anthropology, will be readily admitted; considering the relative sameness of the organs and of the functions in ordinary subjects; the alteration of organs rarely followed by corresponding alterations of functions in the sick; the functional disorders not often accompanied by alteration of organs in the insane. And on the other hand, considering that idiocy is not an accident like illness or insanity, but a condition of infirmity as settled as other permanent conditions of life; that it presents to our comparison all the elements of a norma, whether we analyze the functions, whether we observe the organs; this correlative status of the organs and functions in idiocy is at the same time so certain and so extreme that it affords unequalled data to the student of comparative biology.

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