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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 mediate command is one given in such circumstances that the child can disobey it if he choose; as across a large table; from one end of a room or garden to the other; in the middle of a group of other children; when that command interrupts a more pleasing occupation; or when it must be obeyed after a certain time has elapsed. Thus, in the mediate command, there is a medium of space, time, object, or person between us and the child; and moreover, that medium may be temporary or permanent, insignificant, effective, or absolute, representing the degree of trust which we can repose in the good faith and good-will of the child; it embraces a wide range of relations.


Before going further in our analysis of the various commands, we are to see what can be commanded successfully or not. To the idiot who will do nothing, we have to command something; but the nature of that something is, at the start, of the utmost importance. At first the idiot is determined to do nothing; we are equally determined to make him do something; thus matters stand. Will the idiot, or we, succeed? Can he resist our will, or can we overcome his negation? And if we have the will necessary to succeed, have we the knowledge of the series of actions that we can, or cannot, oblige him to do? For if we cannot enforce our first command, the idiot will feel superior to us, and many trials will be in store before the legitimate accendency can be established. Therefore the line of demarcation between that which the child can safely refuse to do, and that which he may be obliged to perform, is of great practical value. We establish that line by observing that it is generally easier to repress than to produce actions; and that the idiot may sooner be refrained in his instinctive manifestations, than forced to produce some intelligent ones: this is the line. Our first orders, therefore, those which must be obeyed, or else the whole treatment is compromised, must be chosen from the class of the things which can be made to be. For instance, we must not order, at first, a child to open his mouth, for what power on earth can make him open it if he will keep it closed against your order? But, on the other hand, what opposition can he offer to our command not to scratch his face, if we occupy his hands at a distance, at the same time that we forbid him to do it? Consequently, let us only command at first that which we have the power of enforcing; and when the child shall feel, after a succession of such commands, that he must obey, we surreptitiously introduce others of a more arbitrary nature, to which he submits himself without noticing their difference from the first; and soon he obeys any order of ours, not because he cannot avoid it, but because he feels that he ought to do it, and finally, because he likes to please us in so doing.


Then the milder form of command, postponed to make room for his explanation, will be resumed. The most comprehensive form is the contingent, conditional, or even simply optional, which may depend upon actions of the child, or of others, present, past, or future events; taste, and contingencies calculated to leave more room for deliberation iii obedience. These pre-arranged conditions must be simple, and immediately precede the required action; but later some interval may be left between them, and more time allowed for remembrance and reflection; more to evoke and draw conclusions, and more to think before acting, to favor the rise of consciousness. In this degradation of the original command, the passiveness of primitive obedience has made room, little by little, for the judicious execution of orders; this is not yet spontaneity, but discriminative obedience.


At this time, other forms of command succeed; negative, that which results from not leaving any room for disobedience, letting circumstances themselves impose the order; silent, when the simple presence of the master, near or distant, is sufficient to renew the vividness of past orders; imitative, when the preconcerted action of other children carries with itself an implicit command to do the same; attractive, when showing the pleasant result of an act, we make our child venture to do the same; but at this extreme limit of mitigation, command loses its name with the remnant of its harsh features; and authority is no more than a watching kindness.


Command, of whatever character, is alleviated besides by the variety of its modes of application. Where children are submitted to protracted sittings under a single rule and for a single object, command is depressing; but when, as in our case, the rotatory system transfers incessantly the children from occupation to pleasure, lesson, exercise, labor, excitement, etc., the forms of command must vary to meet the feelings of indifference, pleasure, antipathy, attraction, resistance successively provoked; and the result is not depression, but elasticity favored by the constant action of the masters on the children, and vice versa.

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