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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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He has to manage delicate relations with the Legislature or corporations to insure the financial existence of the Institution. He has to keep open general and private communications with the public, and with the families of idiots: most parents needing to be educated to the point of understanding what their children are, and what may be done for them. In these respects he can scarcely do too much; since here, after fifteen years of voting, paying, printing, lecturing in favor of idiots, and notwithstanding the practical training of above five hundred pupils by State munificence, nine-tenths of our well-educated population, and more than one-half of physicians, ignore the very existence of the New York State Institution at Syracuse.


Two other points require his special attention. When the parents of idiots have become familiar with the object of the school, he must make the mother understand the advantage of her coming with her baby often, to be advised on her future course, to see what training she can pick up and carry home, to not allow idiocy to be aggravated by inactivity. And he must take advantage of favorable incidents to sound the truth as to what she considers the circumstances which had an influence on the anormal condition of her child. All she says about it must be recorded, probable or unlikely, simple or monstrous, vulgar or supernatural. Time alone can permit a judgment, not upon hundreds of such sayings, but upon the comparisons of thousands. Provisionally these records are allowed to sleep in their annual and alphabetical order. But when the subjects of them become older, and application is made for their admission, these notes are confronted with the actual status of the grown child; double foundation, copious and minute elements of a future monograph. In this expectation no pains must be spared to give the second report the fulness and clearness it requires to be used as the starting-point of a scientific observation. In it the Superintendent insists upon the circumstances of locality, hereditary constitution, parentage, alliance, conception, gestation, labor, lactation, impressions of the mother and nurse, dentition and infantile ailments, early or progressive backwardness of the vital manifestations, closing by a thorough description of the same at the time of writing. The Superintendent who interrogates the parents and asks from the functions of the child an answer on all these points, begins to possess his subject. What the family or child cannot tell, his means of investigation shall reveal. Next, the functions of organic life are analyzed; heat, respiration, circulation, blood, urine, saliva, sweat, feces, are submitted to the tests of the new senses of observation and comparison created by the use of chemical reagents, the microscope, the thermometer, the stethoscope, spirometer, dynamometer, etc. The child is weighed, measured in his diverse proportions; his capacity for endurance and activity is tested; his powers of intelligence and speech are ascertained; his will and habits delineated; a pen- and-ink portrait is drawn of his whole being, and kept together with his photograph, as witnesses to the point at which he began to be taught. Then the Superintendent, with a perfect knowledge of his subject, may launch him among the other children, not yet as an accepted pupil, but as a probationer on an experimental treatment of observation.


Therefore the superintendent must have an absolute understanding of the children. Others may be more familiar either with their habits, capacities, or peculiarities; but none must know them so completely himself. Then come what may, resistance, obstacles in the training, etc., he knows what to believe and who to distrust, and can truly superintend the work. This possession of the character of his pupils and of his subordinates is the store which supplies his capacity; out of it he draws his best resources for the accomplishment of his subsequent functions.


The most important of them is to take the lead of the school movement; operation by which the children are distributed in efficient groups, and in which sufficient exercise of each of their functions is apportioned to every one of them. He follows, throughout the general training the impressions made upon the health, progress, habits, of every child; from which he deduces the propriety of continuance, change, or simple modification, either in the nature, length, or intensity of the multiform objects of training. It is very difficult to understand how he can delegate this duty for any length of time, without losing the meaning of what is done in his name; or how he can relinquish it entirely, without assenting to a potential abdication.


This active observation is particularly required for the new pupils received on probation. Before their final admission these children are to be studied in diverse aspects. Being generally undersized and brought up in inactivity, they are not expected to be as robust as others; though not more sickly than the average; but more than the average afflicted with epilepsy, paralysis, chorea, or secondary affections considered as obstructing the channels leading to improvement. At any rate, any one of these infirmities superadded to idiocy cannot improve it. However, the Superintendent is to call discretion and discrimination to his aid in the appreciation of the character of both ailments. Is idiocy primary, or consequent to, or simultaneous with the other affection? Does idiocy aggravate the other disorder, or is the reverse true? Does idiocy require a treatment entirely opposed to the cure of the accessory disease? Or does the accessory disease need to be cured prior to treating idiocy, or vice versa? What impediment or what help may the treatment of one bring to bear upon the issue of the other? What influence may the accessory affections of one or of several children have upon the general training, or upon the nervous, imitative, or intellectual faculties of an undetermined number of pupils? Will these accessory infirmities act by contagion, example, or like dead weights on the institution? These questions are not of the kind for which written answers will do; each case containing its own solution, to be read from the symptoms, as they are evolved during the process of observation.

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