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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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But when we come to the training of groups, in which we require less attention and more spontaneity, in which we teach less new things than simultaneity of comprehension, or of execution, then the moral power of command assumes more the forms of an artistic action; the master really acting before and for an audience, whose mean average intellect he reaches or misses, according to his present power, or to the correctness of his own judgment at the appointed time. Who has taught idiots, and not felt once in a while, when sick or laboring under mental depression, that all his powers failed him, that those once sovereign commands, which but lately could carry the children through almost any undertaking, cannot move them to-day, and fall like broken arrows at their feet? This failure, which every one of us has felt, is the most eloquent demonstration of the reality of the moral power, by which man acts upon man, as upon plastic matter.


Thus command is expressed by attitude, corroborated by gesture, animated by physiognomy, flashed by the look, made passionate by the voice, commented upon by the accent, strengthened by the articulation, imposed by the emphasis, and carried by the whole power of the stronger on the weaker will. This power, as expressed here in the abstract, would be the most wearisome attribute of its possessor, and the heaviest burden on children, if it were not incessantly modified by circumstances, and by passing from one person to another; passage in which it loses its tension for the master, and its grim appearance for the child. Moreover, for reasons easily understood, and insisted upon afterwards, the moral power of command must not be always exercised immediately, directly and from man to man; but by a law of descending gradation, it becomes from immediate, mediate, contingent, negative, etc. It is also modified by habits, studies, moral progress, etc. These forms and circumstances varying ad infinitum by their own combinations with the variety of character, we shall treat them abstractly, as if they were invariable: sole expedient to give them a fixed type.


Immediate command, the most stringent, sometimes painful, must be too often supported at the start by coercion. If idiots were all brought up by intelligent parents, and in sufficient comfort, they would have no occasion to oppose the asperities of their negative will to the moral influence which tries to elevate them. But oppression everywhere creates opposition, and the idiot as well as any other man tells pretty well the tale of his past sufferings by his degree of resistance to any improving intervention. No is his first word; negation is his first action; he spends more strength, and often more ingenuity in resisting than he would require in obeying; he will not. He will not, but we will for him. Here is the point where coercion, when necessary, assumes its importance. Corporal punishment is out of the question, but compulsion is not, because it must be used, or idiocy would be stronger than sociability. Coercion is painful, but less so than the shower bath, cold affusion, straight-jacket, etc. Imperative command is painful, but not in the same manner as 'underhand and fruitless brutalities of servants and keepers, doleful lot of uneducated idiots. On this head let us ponder what Leuret courageously and frankly says: "My object is not to cure by one means or another, but by any possible means; and if to cure my patient I must appear hard and even unjust towards him, why should I recoil from the use of such agencies? Should I be afraid of making him suffer? Strange pity? As well bind the arms of the surgeon ready to perform an operation necessary to save the life of his patient under the plea that such operation could not be performed without suffering. A man has the stone; gorge him with flax-seed tea, daub him with poultices sooner than to relieve him by a painful operation. * * * * Whatever be the cost to your personal feelings, let us have the courage of the surgeon; our instruments are the passions and ideas; let us employ them, even the painful ones if necessary." This rule of conduct, traced by a master in the art of moral training, is worth treasuring. Leuret says besides: "Physical pain serve the insane and idiots as other men, as a means of education; it is one of the motors which lead us to avoid the wrong and to search for the right; but it is not always necessary." And from our own experience, let us add that where coercion is necessary, it lasts but a short time if properly handled. Indeed, the stronger is the coercion, the shorter is the struggle, the less is the suffering. Idiots know this, and whatever may be their low condition, they understand our meaning, can measure the opposed forces, and will behave accordingly.


Fortunately, coercion need not often be called to the support of immediate command, which is itself an instrument of great power. For, to command immediately means to command without the mediation of anything or anybody; means to employ the forms of command which can directly touch the child, and take an anticipated direction of his contingent doings. For instance, if when ordering an immobile idiot to move the dumb-bells, we stand in front of him, near enough, and in the most immediate conditions, he will do it; but if for the same object we stand at his side, though everything else be as imperative, we see his hand on our side working the dumb-bell and the opposite hand motionless, disobeying, because for the former hand our command was actually immediate, whilst it was not so for the second. And this difference is the more surprising if we consider that the simple balancing of the dumb-bells is a coordinate movement of both sides of the body, whose symmetrical duality is the rule, whose dissymmetry cannot be produced but by a special effort of the will, of which idiots do not seem capable. Here, evidently, the propulsor of the child was outside of him; felt only by immediate contact and adaptation of our faculties to his organs, and impotent at a greater distance. But we must remark, as a warning, that immediate does not mean incessant, and that this severe form of authority, well managed, does not require to be used many times, nor in serial succession, to produce its desired effect; but that soon the command may be allowed to drop, as it were inadvertently, some of its stringent pressure; or to present itself here in its armor of battle, there in the more pleasant dress of the mediate command.

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