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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 same remark pertains in relation to the class of persons who really and motherly attend to idiots. Though generally quite illiterate, some of these attendants soon develop in the exercise of their functions moral powers which many educated persons cannot equal, because sociability, not learning, gives it; and though this power is susceptible of being educated, as it is even in idiots, it looks more like a gift than like an intellectual faculty. Whenever that gift manifests, itself, by which a being has an ascendency over another, we recognize in it, in all its shapes and transformations, the qualification for the exercise of moral training; we accept its concourse, whether perfected by education or not, because it qualifies its possessor to work with us in some capacity or another; whenever found, it is the superior goodwill ready to elevate the inferior one.


The relations which this power establishes are those of authority to obedience. We are aware that these relations are in a very confused state, as well in schools as in society. Authority is assumed and denied; obedience is exacted and refused, on grounds so opposite that conciliation seems impossible. However, putting aside extreme theories, authority is, like obedience, a mere function, whose existence is provoked by corresponding incapacities, ceases when its object is accomplished, and is no more inherent to the individual who happens to exercise it, than his coat is adherent to his cellular tissue. This mild view of social equality and of functional inequality fits exactly the exigencies of the moral treatment of idiots.


Our authority over them does not derive from our superiority, but from the desire of elevating them to our standard. Hence, we do not make them feel authority like a pressure, nor obedience like a subjection; but we give them every opportunity of exercising the first themselves in the limits of their aptitude, as well as of acting under the reflex impulse of the second, whenever their spontaneous impulse is yet deficient. When we try to socialize the isolated idiot, we do not mean to teach him reading, music, etc.; we mean to give him the sense and the power of establishing in the limits of his capacity, social relations, rapports sociaux, whose ever-changing scale is expressed by the two fixed words, rights and duties. Duties being less imperative, in an uneducated conscience, than rights, we have often to enforce the former to a certain extent by unmitigated authority, as was done for mankind, till the child becomes conscious of the equivalence of these two terms: the right of one is the duty of all, the duty of one is the right of others. Idiocy being isolation, its victims are not expected to be carried, when already quite old, from their ambient vacancy into a world of contacts and associations, creating incessant rights and duties, without difficulty on the part of the teacher and suffering on their own. This struggle would hardly be noticed if the moral treatment were carried on by the parents from the beginning. But far from this; when an utter neglect does not prevail, a mawkish sensibility opposes itself to any effect at improvement: "The child is naturally miserable enough, do not contradict him," says the mother. And the child, as low as we can suppose him, takes heed of that sickly feeling, and will never do anything until he is kept for a long time away from this deleterious tenderness. We have seen idiots, after a year of obedience and contentment, relapse into their anti-social habits at the sudden reappearance of the weak-hearted person who once indulged their idiotic propensities, and the same children resume their orderly habits at her exit. But soon, for the most extreme cases, and always for ordinary ones, authority need not present itself in its historical features of absolutism, but assumes more tender forms as soon as it is firmly established.


Nevertheless, whatever may be its form, authority, to be obeyed, must command; in the varieties of its expression, and in their opportunity, resides a large part of the moral power of the commanding over the commanded. When we consider the qualities necessary to render commandment effective, we soon discover that those of speech do not come in the first rank; at least that its action must be preceded and corroborated by that of other qualities which enter for very little, if for anything, into ordinary language. Therefore it would be useless to proceed farther, without entering into a complete analysis of the elements of command, as it must be used with idiots. Leaving aside the disputable rank of importance of these elements, we shall simply present them as they come forth in reality.


The first conditions necessary to render command effective are lineainents and shape; the second, proportions and attitude. The lineaments of the face or its features, the shape of the body or its proportions, may offer or refuse their concourse to command. The defects of the former are nearly irremediable; those of the latter may be corrected. It is thus that certain lineaments impress the human face with so deep an expression that no other can ever be substituted; or are so rigid that no intellectual or passionate meaning can pierce through their unmeaningness. Nearly the same thing occurs with the shape of the body and its proportions; some are only ludicrous, and cannot convey any command; others are set naturally in such attitudes of repose, quietness, or the like, as to counteract any command to action. These are only a few of the ways in which features, proportions, and attitude may impair the efficacy of authority. The exercise of these qualities requires a good organization, mobility of the parts, and a fair sensibility, easily controlled by the will: with these advantages, the face and body are ready to command.

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