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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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Propositions like the above, concerning the globe, are simple indeed, compared with thousands to which men give unhesitating assent, without the capacity of comprehending them. Some are simple propositions touching mere doctrine, and comparatively unimportant, as, God is three, or God is one; but there are others which are accepted just as readily, though they involve abstract principles upon which depend all the great doctrines of morality and religion. These are learned by rote, and repeated over without being understood or felt, until they become dogmas, articles of faith, to which men cling as pagans cling to their idols. Hence the force of the satire, that some men will write for religion, fight for religion, die for religion, -- do any thing but live for religion. It is only now and then that a man of inquiring spirit strips off the husks of words that cover the kernel of truth. Others are brought to feel the depth and force of what before were unmeaning words by some personal experience, which brings it home to their bosoms. For instance, a man who was taught to lisp the Lord's Prayer from early infancy, may repeat it over every day, -- may seem to feel, comprehend, and accept the sublime doctrine of forgiveness there taught; -- he thinks he can forgive any injury. But let there come suddenly upon him one of those terrible wrongs which pierce the soul with a sharper pang than death of parent, child, or lover, and then let him pronounce the words, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," and he will falter; he will hesitate to ask God to mete out to him only that measure of forgiveness which he metes out to the offender against himself; and the Amen! will stick in his throat. It never stuck in Macbeth's, until the full force and meaning of the "God bless us!" which he had used all his life, was suddenly brought home to him by the fell deed he had just done.


Precepts given before they can be comprehended are apt to degenerate into lifeless and unmeaning dogmas; and it was partly to prevent their doing so that I deferred so long this part of her instruction. It would be absurd, of course, to push the doctrine to its extreme, and never impart an idea beyond the full comprehension of a child, but it is not absurd to keep the doctrine in view.


She was early taught that words must come to her as things bringing some meaning; if they do not show it at once, she challenges them and bids them answer. She will not go over the first chapter of a book, without stopping you at every verse. Tell her God created the world in some way that mortal cannot comprehend, and she lets it pass. Tell her that he created it out of nothing, and she cries, "How can that be? what is nothing?" When told he did it in six days, she simply exclaimed, "How industrious he must have been!" Other children have their capacity for receiving statements so early and enormously developed, that any doctrine is received easily; but Laura, beginning later, strains at gnats while they swallow camels. Of her own accord, she challenged doctrines that she would doubtless have embraced unwittingly if she had been taught in the common way; to say nothing of certain doctrines and dogmas, the piquancy and force of her objections to which might give offence if published. Take, for instance, her view of capital punishment, when first explained to her. The eye for an eye, and the tooth for a tooth, and the precept, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed," and the like, had not prepared her for it; the usual process had been reversed; she had learned the doctrines of the Sermon on the Mount before those of the old dispensation. Hence, she was shocked at the idea of putting a man to death, and taking a second life because one had already been lost, -- punishing a man instead of forgiving him, -- doing him harm instead of doing him good! The manner in which she expressed thoughts, as they first came into her mind, has already been related.


She had been guarded in some measure from the error into which most of us fall, but to which children and uninstructed persons are especially prone, -- that of misunderstanding and perverting the true meaning of words. We are apt to use connotative terms without any precise idea of the connotation; we are satisfied if a word denotes the thing or subject of which we speak, without any definite notion of the attributes connoted by it. Children must, of course, rest satisfied at first with that part of the meaning of words which denotes the particular object of their thought; but they should be taught early to distinguish the attributes connoted by the word; that is, learn what qualities or conditions in the object are implied by its name. The omission of this exercise in the training of children is common, and it is fatal in most cases to all hopes of attaining precision and accuracy of language, because persons rarely learn to correct the fault afterward; and its consequences are felt by them in various ways, and often result in great mischief to individuals and to society.

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