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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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When an idiot commences, not to receive, but to take his food, we overlook, for our present object, the coarse tearing of the meat, the hasty swallowing without mastication, and other depravities equally repugnant and unhealthy, to consider only how intensely animal and selfish he is in his action; how much more he needs the spiritual than the material nutriment of bread; and our duty becomes manifest to make him understand the book of wisdom contained in a mouthful. As he was himself fed by others' hands, as soon as he can carry a morsel to his own mouth, he must be made to present the same to some children incapable, in different ways, of feeding themselves. He must be made, besides, to feed animals chosen for the lessons he may get from their perspicuity of sense, vivacity of movement, and neatness in eating. But these incitations by the example of animals must be carefully selected, otherwise from some of them he might learn vicious modes of mastication, or excessive appetite for flesh, or even confirm himself in his greediness. Then he must be placed at table next persons who give constant good examples, who timely correct his bad habits, and admonish him orally with great discretion, for appetite is deaf.


Appetite naturally speaking louder than morality, the voice of the first must be lowered, that of the second heightened. For this reason, we should not make them eat in large groups, within sight of huge dishes; but they should be served in small rooms. Being few at a family-like table, they have to wait long enough to give each one the chance of controlling the beast which is inside his stomach; not so long as to let it loose in disgraceful manifestations. The same scrupulous care will direct the apportioning of the children's food. Not only the cut or measure requires an ever-changing discretion to meet the requirements of changing appetites and climatic circumstances; but the hand responsible for this duty must never appear tired or careless; for often the child despises his food, or eats it grossly, because it was carelessly served or handed to him. In the same train of care and delicacy, as soon as convenient, the children should be made to wait upon each other, with order and decorum. How can we make them do it? Not by telling, arguing, threatening; for we repeat it, hunger is deaf; but by the incitations of example from birds, animals, other children, and mostly from ourselves; the best example is our own. We must be their teachers in this, by being their servants; our serving teaching them to serve others by imitation, emulation, ambition even; do they not want to do as the teacher does? When this ambition begins to produce its normal effect, we open a new issue to their mind through their food, by asking if they have produced or helped to prepare it; what part they had in this, what part others, etc. Then we must make them realize, in a tangible manner, that the food they will take, and which shall sustain their vitality, is the result of the concourse and combined efforts of hundreds of their fellowmen, who have contributed it for their comfort. We must make them aware of their relations to those who have worked and suffered as farmers, gardeners, bakers, to produce this food, and to those who, less fortunate, hunger and have nothing to eat. In this spirit, the idiots of BicĂȘtre repeated before meals the following blessing: "Our Father, bless the food we have before us, and so let it be that the poorest have the same. Amen." Another equivalent, after meals, and others adapted to their studies, work, etc. By no means would we have it surmised that we were participants in any mummery; but we tried in simple words to convey to simple children the simplest ideas of equity and reciprocity between men under the Supreme Justice, and we think our efforts were partially successful.


Another prominent occasion for the application of the moral treatment is the work. But here the subject is so vast that we cannot even pretend to mention all its important points. Idiots must be made to work for a result. That result, or product, must be sensible and comprehensible in proportion to their perception and intellect; must be, at first, of personal and immediate use, such as to draw water to quench actual thirst, or pull up from the garden vegetables to eat presently, etc. The next and complementary step leads them to do the same, or similar work, for the satisfaction of others. Soon, again, they must be made to work in cooperation; several to help one, one to help several, one helped for his own good, or helping for the advantage of others; all manner of solidarity, either in the work, or in its result; working as a social element, as a moral status.


But here we speak of enforcing the moral and social duty of working, upon unfortunate children scarcely reclaimed from their nothingness, before inquiring if they are in a condition to support, like all of us, the tedious and exhausting burden of labor. Men must work because working is the only way of producing; and produce we must, since we consume. Idiots escape that law as long as their infirmity incapacitates them; otherwise they too must work in the proportion to their strength and capacity. But all that could be expected of the most successfully strengthened and educated among them, is from four to five hours' labor a day; just the share of each one of us if all were working.

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