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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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Another mitigation of the harshness inherent to authority results from the different characters of those exercising it. The child who breathes constantly under the sledge-hammer of not unfrequent paternal rigor, presents a narrow chest; the idiot commanded in the same way becomes automatical, even in his intellectual acquisitions, nearly as much so as he was in his primary isolation. But the rotatory system of training idiots, and its consequence, the natural division of the functions, accomplished in their behalf by persons so indifferent in their moral powers as attendants, teachers, gymnasts, matrons, physicians, does not permit authority to typify itself, even one hour at a time, in one of those oppressive modes which leaves a depressed imprint on a child. If the teacher has been protracting his attention, the attendant soon invites him to a pleasant song; if the series of numbers have been piled up on the black-board, scores of harmonies from the piano take their place; if the gymnast has used a hand to redness, the doctor pats it gently, at the same time that he makes sure of the sanitary condition of the skin, look, pulse, etc. This variety in the manner of handling idiots precludes monotony and aggravations. Ordered in so many ways, the child passes from one commander to another, without suspecting that he is passive. This supple and mobile passivity itself becomes in a certain sense active, and obedience becomes a voluntary action by the simple effect of timely variety and gradual relaxation of authority: the bird is free to soar in all healthy directions, if he will.


Does this mean that our work is done; that we are no more wanted, nor our authority required; that the moral treatment has exhausted itself; and that the negative will being broken, obedience secure, we must rest satisfied in presence of our work, an unresisting, obedient child? No--: evidently we have come to the bifurcation of the road leading to passivity or to spontaneity, whence our pupil may start for a reflex life, whose spring shall be in others' hands, or for a self-regulating life, whose spring is within his conscience. Whole nations and millions of men are yet deprived of this consciousness of their station in ambient society by the total deprivation of moral training. And yet, it would not be difficult to point out young men, former pupils of our institutions, generally from among the most distressing cases of superficial idiocy, who certainly could not have been improved anywhere else; and who, to-day, are far above the average of men in regard to the regulation of their actions by their own conscience of right and wrong. True, there are not many such; but the majority of the others, remaining backward owing to their yet feeble intellects, can govern themselves under a slight and benevolent supervision; since idiots once trained do not require for the maintenance of their social behavior anything equivalent to policemen, gendarmes, etc.; kindness, not force, is their tutor, as it was their teacher.


We bring them to this point of moralization, generally far superior to their intellectual standard, by extreme care and affection, but easily enough; because their infirmity, in uncomplicated states, affects the perceptive faculties, even the spontaneity, but does not create any aberration of the affective faculties, as does imbecility, or some special forms of insanity. Consequently, our success in this matter, which is of the utmost importance, must be considered due as much to their good nature as to our own exertions. Nevertheless, whatever could be their share and ours in the result, to obtain it we cannot too soon commingle the incitations to spontaneity with the most passive or unwilled exercises of the training. Long before we have done away with commanding under all the forms narrated above, we must begin concurrently to use the gentler forms of inducement, which conduct the child insensibly from the diverse degrees of obedience to earnest self-government. Those forms we call incitations to spontaneity, unless we employ the words motor, mover, or motive, whichever may best express our meaning, or be understood. Henceforth, we do not command, we incite; we put the child in contact with motives, and he moves; we create for him, in the artificial atmosphere of the institution, the same relations which impel men of the world to action, and he acts; we present to him attractions, and he is attracted in the measure of his attractability. Hence, he desires, tries, plans, succeeds, fails, gets elated or discouraged, loves and feels of his own free will, as he would under the incitations, apparently accidental, of social life; the only difference being, that we have prepared and graduated to his proportions the contacts to be encountered, or the obstacles to be overcome, whilst, in ordinary social life, such earthly providence is not to be expected. This begins at the lowest point of animal life, but we shall not choose our illustrations lower than the act of feeding.

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