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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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If we insist so much upon the moral turn to be given to the part occupied by the system of object lessons, or qualification lessons in our method, we shall insist not the less upon our disavowing all paternity of this same system. We found it working in the hands of Itard. Pestalozzi applied it at the suggestion of Jean Paul Richter, who might have been its originator if he had not read of it in Rousseau. This is the simple truth about the origin of the object system which could not be found in the "Home and Colonial Schools" of England, nor in Oswego prior to its application at BicĂȘtre and Syracuse. In our estimation, founded upon personal practice, the object lesson, or to speak more correctly, the qualification lesson, derives its most important advantages from its degree of idealization. In the hands of teachers who feel nothing but matter, it is a very lowering instrument; in those of a teacher who loves to disengage an idea from its husk, it is an effulgent means of elevation, Who could tell the difference between the child taught to remember the names of the ultimate substances contained in a vegetable, and the one taught to produce it; or between one taught to produce it for the satisfaction of his own appetite, and another doing the same for the support of children more destitute than himself.


One of the properties of things is to be in isolation or in collection; and in virtue of the law of contrast, it is impossible for us to feel with any of our senses any one thing alone; one is felt because some other thing is felt as being or not being next to it. The first notion of ego implies the existence of a non ego; these are complimentary terms, numerically speaking, one and two. We cannot compare two terms without finding their comparison, third term which makes three; and from the binary and trinary combinations issue mathematics.


The greater number of idiots cannot count three, though among them, or more properly speaking among imbeciles, are found children wonderfully skilled in the mechanical arrangement of figures and in calculations of various sorts. This automatic genius does not belong to them as a class, nor imply in its rare possessors any susceptibility to general improvement. We teach idiots numeration with objects and qualities more than with figures; and cyphering with both; fractions in particular are all substantiated. But between the extreme of simpleton mathematicians and the majority of idiots who realize only very limited combinations of numbers, children are found whose idiocy being due to deficiency of perception more than of understanding proper, take in the course of their training a healthy mental growth, capable of being applied to many objects of learning, mathematics among others. These children are easily distinguished from puny prodigies by a general, not a special adaptation of their newly acquired faculties. They were affected with extensive paralysis and contractures; or deprived from birth of steadiness of touch, or sight, or of hearing; or simply they were arrested in their development by superficial idiocy. One of our pupils in the hospital of the "Incurables," in 1842, M. . . ., and Nattie and Willie in the New York State Asylum, all three very degraded before admission, proved to be of that class. When the impediments to their perceptions were removed, their minds shone brightly, the more so if we take into account the effect of their incapacitation from infancy. These children are worse treated by their infirmities than others, because they seem conscious of the impediment which keeps them down. They deserve, if possible, more care and judicious training than any other class; unfortunately it is too easy to leave them below the point of their natural aspirations, because the means of intellectual communication with them are difficult to establish and painful to sustain. On the other hand it is too tempting to develop in them, as in show-boys, the power of mathematics, of music, or of mechanics, to make them stars among the clouds of idiocy at the expense of the even and useful perfectioning of their general capacity.


Concurrently with being made familiar with ideas of names, qualifications, and numbers, idiots need to receive a distinct idea of what actions mean. Men and things are constantly connected and disconnected by actions; and we express these actions by verbs. If one child does not understand the meaning of the grammatical verb we can make him understand action by ours or his own. For instance we have an idiot and an apple before us. We write the name of the child and the word apple on the black-board, leaving some room between the two words, and we put the child near enough to the apple to enable him to act in relation with it. Then we write between the two words the verb "take," and he takes the apple. We successively write, "let go," " roll," " raise, etc. ; the child does with the apple all the actions indicated by these written and changing verbs. Then one idiot writes the verbs and another does the actions, always establishing all the possible associations between the subject and the object, by the interference of as many verbs as possible, and of as many children as we can, to render the exercise lively and active without confusion.

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