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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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"If it were possible that in endeavoring to solve the simple question of the education of idiots we had found terms precise enough, that it were only necessary to generalize them to obtain a formula applicable to universal education; then, not only would we in our humble sphere have rendered some little service, but we would besides have prepared the elements for a method of physiological education for mankind. Nothing would remain but to write it."


These lines stand, an unheeded appeal to write a work on physiological education. Teachers have plucked here and there some fragments of the training of idiots, as object lessons, imitation exercises, parcels of sensorial gymnastics, etc. Herbert Spencer has insisted upon a large application of the same to ordinary schools and children; but no ex professo book has been written; so that the last page of the treatise of 1846 may appropriately be the first one of that of 1866. This apparent dead-lock in the march of the idea finds its explanation in the fact that the school which developed the idea of physiological training was vanquished. When the power of the method was demonstrated by its success in the treatment of idiots, and when the sanction given it by the French Institute seemed to point to its early application to popular teaching, it became evident that circumstances were unfavorable. For it is not enough for an idea to be ripe in the mind of a thinker, and that it be hailed by the advocates of progress; the social medium in which it falls must be prepared for it as well; otherwise no production ensues from their contact. But generally the ground rejects the seeds which it cannot germinate, and they are carried, by what seems the fancy of the storms, to a more genial soil.


Germany, prepared by the labors of Comenius, Spiner, Francke, and nursed with the ideas of Rousseau by Basedow and Pestalozzi, had spread and enforced popular education from Switzerland to Denmark. England was only second to Germany in the same movement (4) which here received a particular impulse from the character of the American people, and of the institutions of the country. As early as 1635 and 1639, laws for the formation of free schools had been enacted in the colonies of New England. Later, when the fathers of this Republic wished to perpetuate the spirit of independence and the capacity of self-government, they voted lands and money for the foundation of schools for all children of whatever sex or color. So that in every new township the opening of the school-house preceded that of any other public building, even of the post-office. The immediate results of this policy appear in the universal elementary instruction of the natives; in the eagerness for learning of the pupils of both sexes; and in the high character of the teachers, most of them women.

(4) More details might be given concerning the history and development of education in Europe, were it not that the whole matter has been ably and succinctly treated in the History of Education. New York:1860, to which we refer, by a talented writer under the nom de plume of Philobiblius.


With such competition from nearly all quarters, it would be difficult to tell wherefrom will rise the next improvement in education. If we believe in the signs nearest to us, we should think that, supposing the American teachers only equal in point of learning to their European brethren, they have shown themselves so superior in point of understanding of philosophical questions, and of devotion to the down-trodden of our race (when hundreds of them have spontaneously left home and comfort, and foregone the protection of civilization to teach freedom to freedmen), that it is impossible to deny them the virtues necessary to carry into our schools the means of a signal improvement in our race; unless we are greatly mistaken our teachers are ready to spread civilization, not by the old process of overculture of a few, but by the philosophical elevation of the masses. We do not need to tell them, headed by Barnard, Holmes, May, Mrs. Stowe, etc., and by the spirit of Horace Mann, in what the coming progress will consist. Descartes pointed it out in these memorable words: " If it be possible to perfect mankind, the means of doing it will be found in the medical sciences." Pariset (5) said, more explicitly: "The physiological method of education is an example worthy of imitation, of the alliance of hygiene, medical science, and moral philosophy." And the curriculum proposed by Spencer comes nearer to this object than any previous one. A deferential reference to his work on education will allow us to dispense with discussing the matter of the teaching proper, and leave more room for the exposition of the general principles of the method.

(5) Rapport de MM. Serres, Flourens, et Pariset, a l'Academie des Sciences. Paris: 1843.


According to this method education is the ensemble of the means of developing harmoniously and effectively the moral, intellectual, and physical capacities, as functions, in man and mankind.

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