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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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Children are our witnesses; unlike animals, they never perceive single, but compound phenomena; from sensational these become instantly idealized by comparison. Mere impressions, being compared, become ideas susceptible of combination, and of themselves producing any number of new ideas; of becoming indeed the mother of actions: for man cannot execute anything that has not been previously born into his mind. Sensation perceived like a notion, notion fecundated to an idea realized in life itself, such is the unbroken spiral of our teaching, and through teaching, of our action on idiocy. From collecting the sparse powers of muscles and nerves disconnected by the absence of will, to the gathering of the faculties in the act of thinking, our progress has been a constant ascension on the steps leading from isolation to sociability.


Though much more might be said on this subject without doing its full justice, we leave it cheerfully at this unfinished stage, where the experience of others may be more proficient to complete it than ours.






Long before physicians had conceived the plan of correcting the false ideas and feelings of a lunatic by purgatives, or the cranial depressions of an idiot by bleeding, Spain had produced several generations of monks who treated with the greatest success all kinds of mental diseases without drugs, by moral training alone. Certain regular labors, the performance of simple and assiduous duties, an enlightened and sovereign volition, watching constantly over the patients, such were the only remedies employed.


"We cure almost all our lunatics," said the good fathers, except the nobles, who would think themselves dishonored by working with their hands." This tradition, handed down to us by Pinel, is corroborated by the testimony of Leuret on the present revival of moral treatment: "See what takes place in idiots. There is nearly always in their brain a vice, acquired or congenital. Is it by physical agents or by education that one succeeds in giving some development to their intelligence? The medical agents would be of no use; nobody thinks any more of using them; but the moral agencies, employed with discrimination and tenacity, produce, on the contrary, in the intelligence and passions of idiots changes almost marvellous. We infer from this that even if there were a true alteration in the brains of the insane, the moral treatment would yet offer the best chances of success." (8)

(8) Leuret, Du Traitement Moral de la Folie. Paris: 1840.


We need more the support of Leuret's authority than he needed ours when, being a daily witness to our efforts, he was pleased to express in these terms his approbation of the part of our method we are going to expose.


The moral treatment is the systematic action of a will upon another, in view of its improvement; in view for an idiot, of his socialization. It takes possession of him from his entrance in to his exit from the institution; from his opening to his shutting his eyes; from his acts of animal life to the exercise of his intellectual faculties. It gives a social meaning, a moral bearing to everything about him. The influences destined to give moral impulse to the very life of the idiot come upon him from prearranged circumstances, from prepared association with his fellows, and, above all, directly from the superior will which plans and directs the whole treatment. We have seen, more than once, in the preceding part, how the moral treatment was blended with the physiological training. We shall see very soon the same element acting like a leaven in labors, occupations, pleasures, or claiming its control over food, clothing, hygiene, or medical attendance. We find it everywhere; and it would be writing the same book over again from another stand-point to describe the working of this training in all parts of the treatment. To be brief, we will expose it only as an abstract power, leaving the commentaries and applications to be determined by circumstances.


The discipline or moral government of idiots, without differing absolutely from that of other children, has its peculiarities. A good many idiots cannot understand nor follow a private discipline expressed by orders, who will follow the general discipline of a school, by a sort of intuition, as if knowingly; they seem to comprehend it through contact with other children. Contrarily, owing to the isolation of idiocy, and to a want of concert among idiots, the mass of them, as such, is on an average refractory to any new impression; small groups receive it better, and individuals best of all. So that individual discipline is at first resorted to, till the group, and then the mass, are familiar with the regular movement of the school.


To enforce, exact, promote, induce, encourage, lead, sustain obedience in idiots, severity would be cruelty. Physical correction is useless, unless blended with the eradication of the wrong. Punishment is to be avoided till it be certain that the understanding of the wrong preceded its commission. Repression cannot be avoided; let it be employed in its mildest forms. A child could not be forced to stand motionless, even were his legs bound, who remains perfectly still in a circle traced with chalk around his feet. The anger of another changes into repentance at the sight of his name written on that part of the black-board reserved for bad records. Indeed, the means of repression are what the intelligence and feelings of the teacher make them.

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