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Eighteenth Annual Report Of The Trustees Of The Perkins Institution And Massachusetts Asylum For The Blind

Creator: Samuel Gridley Howe (author)
Date: 1850
Source: Perkins School for the Blind

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Why is it so notoriously difficult for a man to give clear instructions to an agent, to draw up a contract, or even to write his own will, so that his wishes and his meaning shall be clearly understood, when he is not by to explain it? Partly because his ideas of the meaning of language are so vague, that, as soon as he has written down one word, he is obliged to write down others in order to explain its meaning; to reaffirm the same thing in another way, forgetting that, the more he writes, the more room he leaves for doubt, -- the more he extends his flanks, the more he weakens his centre.


It may be the same with the will and testament of a generation, expressed in the form of a constitution. The hands that deliberately wrote it are scarcely cold, before people are quarrelling about its meaning. What a satire upon language is the fact, that the ablest men in our day and generation are employed in trying to teach the people to read understandingly, and succeed with only a few at the head of the class! If our fathers had written down, with Decalogic simplicity and terseness, Thus shall ye do, and Thus shall ye not do, where would have been the necessity of expounding their meaning?


Perhaps, however, the case is not a happy illustration of the principle; for sometimes writers, being afraid or ashamed to show exactly where they are and what they mean, scatter their ink about and make a cloud, after the manner of a certain fish, seeking darkness rather than light. The best illustration might be found in the mode of learning language by children, were it not that they fly on so swiftly from interjections and exclamations to words, from words to sentences, and from sentences to continuous speech, that we can hardly distinguish the steps of the process. When, however, they are kept back, as the deaf mutes are, and obliged to learn slowly, and still more in a case like Laura's, where every step is apparent and costs a great effort, then we can mark the exact course which nature causes them to take.


Laura's case, indeed, furnishes means by which a person of the plainest sense may see, as through a magnifying-glass, the workings of the mind, which are so rapid and subtile in ordinary cases, as to be understood only by the most keen and observing men. In learning words, she derived not so much advantage as other children do from the stimulus of pleasure, which makes what would be otherwise a task delightful play. Pleased and glad was she, indeed, to be able to learn language; but her pleasure was not exactly of the kind which little children feel. Many never think -- happy things! -- of the use which language is to be of to them; they do not perceive that the mind is at work in learning to talk, any more than the lambkin perceives that it is working its muscles when gambolling upon the greensward. The love of imitation, the disposition to name things, the pleasure of comparing them and finding resemblances and differences, and, above all, the unconscious desire to communicate with others, -- all these motives urge on the child to ceaseless prattle. Now in nature there is a time for every thing, and things learned out of season must be learned less easily and perfectly than if learned in season. Laura had passed the season of life when the vernacular tongue should be learned, before the help came by which she was enabled to learn at all. Five precious years, in which, perhaps, as much, if not more, is learned by children than in any other five years of life, had been to her a dark and silent blank. The natural disposition for speech had probably become weakened by long disuse. When she did begin, she was not impelled by sportive playfulness, but by a conscious desire for light, and by a wish to communicate with those who were striving to widen the narrow loopholes of her imprisoned mind. The history of Laura's case, though it teaches us how pleasant may be the pursuit of knowledge at any season, and under the greatest difficulties, teaches us, moreover, that it is most pleasant when conducted according to the indications of nature.


The child of two or three years old keeps continually repeating over the words it hears pronounced, wagging its baby tongue, trying to work its tiny muscles, and to pucker its little lips, without knowing why, or caring wherefore. It chases after new words with as much glee as it would chase after butterflies, and fills its infant mind with names of things and thoughts of resemblances among things, as gayly as it would gather into its apron smooth pebbles and shining shells. This delightful play lasts so long as we let dame Nature keep school, and content ourselves to act as her assistants. She calls out the higher faculties, one after the other, in their proper order, and furnishes them with the kind of knowledge suited to them; so that the exercise and gratification of each one of them give as much pleasure, though of a different kind, to the child, the boy, and the youth, as word-play gives to the infant.

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