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Two Immigrants Out Of Five Feebleminded

Creator: n/a
Date: September 15, 1917
Publication: The Survey
Source: Available at selected libraries

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IF you had gone over to Ellis Island shortly before the war began and placed your hand at random on one of the aliens waiting to be examined by government inspectors, you would very likely have found that your choice was feebleminded. He would probably have answered your question, "What is a horse?" by replying, "To ride on," or with some other simple reference to the animal's use that did not differentiate it from a bicycle. He would have told you it was July if it was January and would merely have looked uninterested if you had asked him what year it was.


This, at any rate, is the conclusion reached by a study made in 1913 by psychologists of the Training School at Vineland, N. J. The results are now published for the first time by Henry H. Goddard, director of research at the school, in the Journal of Delinquency for September, out today. The SURVEY is permitted to make simultaneous publication of a summary of the findings.


Several members of the Vineland staff spent two and a half months at Ellis Island giving tests to immigrants. The most favorable interpretation of their results is that two out of every five of the immigrants studied were feebleminded. Dr. Goddard admits that this conclusion is startling, but says that "it is never wise to discard a scientific result because of apparent absurdity."


Various tests for measuring intelligence were used, the Binet-Simon being regarded as the most satisfactory. The work had to be conducted through interpreters. At first it was feared that this might be a barrier to efficient testing. Experience showed, however, says Dr. Goddard, that this difficulty was overestimated.


Immigrants were selected for study only after the whole line had passed the government physicians and all whom these officials could recognize as mental defectives had been taken out. The Vineland psychologists then removed the obviously intelligent. That left the great mass of "average immigrants." The number studied was 35 Jews, 22 Hungarians, 50 Italians and 45 Russians. Five Jews, 2 Italians and 1 Russian were children under twelve years of age and so were excluded.


Since the Russians were examined by a psychologist who spoke their own language, Mr. Goddard analyzes the tests of them first. Three of the 30 were found to be normal according to the Binet-Simon scale, 2 were classified as borderline and the remainder, 25, or 83 per cent, were feebleminded.


These results, says Dr. Goddard, are so difficult of acceptance that they can hardly stand by themselves. He, therefore, selects those questions that were passed by 75 per cent of the immigrants and by means of these constructs a new scale with which to measure the individuals in terms of their own group standards. More than 40 per cent of the Jewish immigrants failed to pass even this revised scale and "would be considered feebleminded," says Dr. Goddard, "according to the usual definition." The other groups give similar results.


Dr. Goddard says:


This method of interpretation gives us approximately half as many defectives as we counted by our first method. But even 40 per cent is a startling proportion for the feebleminded among our immigrants. And moreover we cannot escape feeling that this method is too lenient. The standard would seem to be too low for prospective American citizens. This feeling is intensified if we examine the questions that we have thrown out of the scale because not passed by the requisite 75 per cent. To define common terms better than by "use" is the first of the questions omitted. Only 40 per cent pass this test, the rest define a "table" as "something to eat on"; or a "fork," "it is to eat with"; a "horse," "is to ride," and so on. It cannot but give us something of a shock to realize that 60 per cent of this group of immigrants do not define common objects better than to mention the most obvious use for them.


Dr. Goddard does not contend that this study reveals the percentage of all Ellis Island immigrants who are defective. Nevertheless, he declares that "we cannot escape the general conclusion that these immigrants were of surprisingly low intelligence." The experiment helped to impress this upon the government physicians, and the number of aliens deported because of feeblemindedness increased approximately 350 per cent in 1913 and 570 per cent in 1914 over the five preceding years.


A follow-up investigation attempted by the training school two years later, proved disappointing because of the fifty sought for, only two were found and three others heard from; these were apparently doing well. Such meager results, however, says Dr. Goddard, cannot be held to contradict the criterion based on the group standard.