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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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With what success? Dacier, the Perpetual Secretary of the French Academy, summing up the opinion of that scientific body on this subject, wrote officially in 1806 as follows: "This class of the Academy acknowledges that it was impossible for the institutor to put in his lessons, exercises, and experiments more intelligence, sagacity, patience, courage; and that if he has not obtained a greater success, it must be attributed, not to any lack of zeal or talent but to the imperfection of the organs of the subject upon which he worked. The Academy, moreover, cannot see without astonishment how he could succeed as far as he did; and thinks that to be just towards M. Itard, and to appreciate the real worth of his labors, the pupil ought to be compared only with himself; we should remember what he was when placed in the hands of this physician, see what he is now; and more, consider the distance separating his starting-point from that which he has reached; and by how many new and ingenious modes of teaching this lapse has been filled. The pamphlet of M. Itard contains also the exposition of a series of extremely singular and interesting phenomena of fine and judicious observations; and presents a combination of highly instructive processes, capable of furnishing science with new data, the knowledge of which can but be extremely useful to all persons engaged in the teaching of youth." It is curious to see that Itard himself did not measure as justly as Dacier the compass of his physiological teaching, when he speaks thus on the same subject: "Leaving out the end aimed at in my self-imposed task, the education of the Savage of the Aveyron; considering this undertaking from a more general point of view, you cannot fail to see with some satisfaction, in the various experiments I instituted, in the numerous observations I made, a collection of facts capable of enlightening the history of medical philosophy, the study of uncivilized man, and the direction of certain kinds of private education." (3)

(3) Itard; Rapport, etc. 1807. P. 12.


In the practice of physiological teaching Itard never went farther. He had undertaken the education of the Savage of the Aveyron, because he did not believe him idiotic; whilst Pinel warned him not to undertake it, on the ground of a contrary diagnosis: both thus giving their sanction to the doctrine of letting idiocy alone. When he first suspected that his savage might also be an idiot, his belief in the incurability of idiocy made him exclaim: "Unfortunate! Since my pains are lost and my efforts fruitless, take yourself back to your forests and primitive tastes; or if your new wants make you dependent on society, suffer the penalty of being useless, and go to BicĂȘtre, there to die in wretchedness.(*) He, of himself, never educated any other idiot, but directed "certain kinds of private education," which applied to a large range of cases, from idiotic to morally depraved; our common pupil was from among the former. Confined to these accidental and isolated instances, Itard never so much as hinted at the possibility of systematizing his views for the treatment of idiots at large, nor at organizing schools for the same purpose.


(*) Itard. De L'Education d'un Homme Sauvage. 1801. Pp.45, 46.


But he was the first to educate an idiot with a philosophical object and by physiological means. If he did not conceive a philosophical method of education, he expressed and realized the first views on this subject; generalizing on his savage idiot the sensorial experiments made by Pereire on the touch of deaf mutes; and specializing on the same forlorn pupil the theories enunciated by Rousseau for the education of mankind. In this double process consists the completeness of his labors; alternately analyzing and synthesizing, he followed his special aims without deviating from his general object. Others may have continued his task, even enlarged, completed, and systematized it, but we do not know of any one who would not gladly exchange all subsequent titles for the authorship of the two pamphlets on the "Savage of the Aveyron." Even at present, we quit with regret his few unrivalled pages, to follow the evolution of his idea through other minds, after his bodily death.


The idea of Itard came to its most comprehensive realization under trying circumstances. The philosophical school to which he belonged in 1800, had gone to rest before him. In 1830-40 three schools were disputing the ruling of this century. The one called of Divine Rights, because it attributed a divine origin to the oppression of the many by the few, according to certain laws of heredity and priesthood; nothing between the parties but obedience and authority; education a limited privilege. The Eclectic school, whose highest aim was "classification according to capacity, and remuneration according to production;" perpetuation of classes if not of castes; education, like the rest, to the presumed capable; in fact, a liberal school classifying from the embryo, un-equalizing from the foetus. The Christian school (St. Simonism), striving for a social application of the principles of the gospel; for the most rapid elevation of the lowest and poorest by all means and institutions; mostly by free education. The idea of Itard being congenial only to this last school, was nursed in it; in it experienced its natural growth and transformation; becoming from individual, social; from proportionate to the relief of special cases, commensurate with the wants of many idiots; and from adapted to this class of sufferers, competent to do the training of mankind. It is an undeniable fact that that school, and nobody out of it, has produced, among many works of eminence, the only didactic treatises on idiocy, and the last of these closed in the following words:

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