Cretins And Idiots (1858)
“Cretins And Idiots”
By Linus P. Brockett, The Atlantic Monthly, February 1858
AMONG the numerous philanthropic movements which have characterized the nineteenth century, none, perhaps, are more deserving of praise than those which have had for their object the improvement of the cretin and the idiot, classes until recently considered as beyond the reach of curative treatment.
The traveller, whom inclination or science may have led into the Canton Valais, or Pays-de-Vaud, in Switzerland, or into the less frequented regions of Savoy, Aosta, or Styria, impressed as he may be with the beauty and grandeur of the scenery through which he passes, finds himself startled also at the frightful deformity and degradation of the inhabitants. By the roadside, basking in the sun, he beholds beings whose appearance seems such a caricature upon humanity, that he is at a loss to know whether to assign them a place among the human or the brute creation. Unable to walk, — usually deaf and dumb, — with bleared eyes, and head of disproportionate size, — brown, flabby, and leprous skin, — a huge goitre descending from the throat and resting upon the breast, — an abdomen enormously distended — the lower limbs crooked, weak, and ill-shaped, — without the power of utterance, or thoughts to utter, — and generally incapable of seeing, not from defect of the visual organs, but from want of capacity to fix the eye upon any object, — the cretin seems beyond the reach of human sympathy or aid. In intelligence he is far below the horse, the dog, the monkey, or even the swine; the only instincts of his nature are hunger and lust, and even these are fitful and irregular.
The number of these unfortunate beings in the mountainous districts of Europe, and especially of Central and Southern Europe, is very great. In several of the Swiss cantons they form from four to five per cent. of the population. In Rhenish Prussia, and in the Danubian provinces of Austria, the number is still greater; in Styria, many villages of four or five thousand inhabitants not having a single man capable of bearing arms. In WÃ¼rtemberg and Bavaria, in Savoy, Sardinia, the Alpine regions of France, and the mountainous districts of Spain, the disease is very prevalent.
The causes of so fearful a degeneration of body and mind are not satisfactorily ascertained. Extreme poverty, impure air, filthiness of person and dwelling, unwholesome diet, the use of water impregnated with some of the magnesian salts, intemperance, (particularly in the use of the cheap and vile brandy of Switzerland,) and the intermarriage of near relatives and of those affected with goitre, have all been assigned, and with apparently good reason; yet there are cases which are attributable to none of these causes.
The disease is not, however, confined to Europe. It is prevalent also in China and Chinese Tartary, in Thibet, along the base of the Himalaya range in India, in Sumatra, in the vicinity of the Andes in South America, in Mexico; and sporadic cases are found along the line of the Alleghanies. It is said not to occur in Europe at a higher elevation than four thousand feet above the sea level.
The derivation of the name is involved in some mystery; most writers regarding it as a corruption of the French ChrÃ©tien, as indicative of the incapacity of these unfortunate beings to commit sin. A more probable theory, however, is that which deduces it from the Grison-Romance Cretira, “creature.”
The existence of this disease has long been known; references are made to it by Pliny, as well as by some of the Roman writers in the second century of the Christian era; and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries its prevalence and causes were frequently discussed. Most of the writers on the subject, however, considered the case of the poor cretin as utterly hopeless; and the few who deemed a partial improvement of his health, though not of his intellect, possible, merely suggested some measures for that purpose, without making any effort to reduce them to practice. It was reserved for a young physician of Zurich, Doctor Louis Guggenbuhl, whose practical benevolence was active enough to overcome any repugnance he might feel to labors in behalf of a class so degraded and apparently unpromising, to be the pioneer in an effort to improve their physical, mental, and moral condition.
It is now twenty-one years since this noble philanthropist, then just entering upon the duties of his profession, was first led by some incidents occurring during a tour in the Bernese Alps to investigate the condition of the cretin. For three years he devoted himself to the study of the disease and the method of treating it. Two years of this period were spent in the small village of Seruf, in the Canton Glarus, where he was successful in restoring several to the use of their limbs. It was at the end of this period, that, with a moral courage and devotion of which history affords but few examples, Doctor Guggenbuhl resolved to dedicate his life to the elevation of the cretins from their degraded condition. Consecrating his own property to the work, he asked assistance from the Canton Bern in the purchase of land for a hospital, and received a grant of six hundred francs ($120) for the work. His investigations had satisfied him that an elevated and dry locality was desirable, and that it was only the young who could be benefited. He accordingly purchased, in 1840, a tract of about forty acres of land, comprising a portion of the hill called the Abendberg, in the Canton Bern, above Interlachen. The site of his Hospital buildings is about four thousand feet above the sea, and one or two hundred feet below the summit of the hill; it is well protected from the cold winds, and the soil is tolerably fertile.
There are few spots, even among the Alps, which can compare with the Abendberg in beauty and grandeur of scenery. Doctor Guggenbuhl was led to select it as much for this reason as for its salubrity, in the belief which his subsequent experience has fully justified, that the striking nobleness of the landscape would awaken, even in the torpid mind of the cretin, that sense of the beautiful in Nature which would materially aid in his intellectual culture.
On the southern slope of the Abendberg he erected his hospital buildings, plain, wooden structures, without ornament, but comfortable, and well adapted to his purpose. Here he gathered about thirty cretin children, mostly under ten years of age, and began his work.
To understand fully what was to be accomplished, in order to transform the young cretin into an active, healthy child, it is necessary that we should glance at his physical and mental condition, when placed under treatment.
Cretinism seems to be a combination of two diseases, the one physical, the other mental. The physical disorder is akin to Rachitis, or rickets, while the mental is substantially idiocy. The osseous structure, deficient in the phosphate of lime, is unable to sustain the weight of the body, and the cretin is thus incapacitated for active motion; the muscles are soft and wasted; the skin dingy, cold, and unhealthy; the appetite voracious; spasmodic and convulsed action frequent and the digestion imperfect and greatly disordered. The mind seems to exist only in a germinal state; observation, memory, thought, the power of combination, are all wanting. The external senses are so torpid, that, for months perhaps, it is in vain to address either eye or ear; nor is the sense of touch much more active. The cretin is insensible to pain or annoyance, and seems to have as little sensation as an oyster.
It was to the work of restoring these diseased and enfeebled bodies to health, and of developing these germs of intellect, that Doctor Guggenbuhl addressed himself. For this purpose, pure air, enforced exercise, the use of cold, warm, and vapor baths, of spirituous lotions and frictions, a simple yet eminently nutritive diet, regular habits, and the administration of those medicinal alteratives which would give tone to the system, activity to the absorbents and vigor to the muscles, were the remedial measures adopted. As their strength increased, they were led to practice the simpler gymnastic exercises, — running, jumping, climbing, marching, the use of the dumb-bells, etc.
The body thus partially invigorated, the culture of the mind was next to be attempted, — a far more difficult task. The first step was, to teach the child to speak and as this implied the ability to hear, the ear, hitherto dead to all sounds, must be impressed. For this purpose, sound was communicated by speaking-trumpets or other instruments, which should force and fix the attention. The lips and vocal organs were then moulded to imitate these sounds. The process was long and wearisome, often occupying months, and even years; but in the end it was successful. The eye was trained by the attraction of bright and varied colors, and little by little simple ideas were communicated to the feeble intellect, — great care being necessary, however, to proceed very slowly, as the cretin is easily discouraged, and when once overtasked, will make no further attempts to learn.
It was only by gaining the love of these poor creatures that they could be led to make any progress; and at an early stage of their training, Doctor Guggenbuhl deemed it wise to infuse into their dawning minds the knowledge and the love of a higher Being, to teach them something of the power and goodness of God. The result, he assures us, has been highly satisfactory; the mind, too feeble for earthly lore, too weak to grasp the simplest facts of science, has yet comprehended something of the love of the All-father, and lifted up to him its imperfect but plaintive supplication. That the enthusiasm of this good man may have led him to exaggerate somewhat the extent of the religious attainments of his pupils is possible; but the experience of every teacher of the cretin or the idiot has satisfactorily demonstrated that simple religious truths are acquired by those who seem incapable of understanding the plainest problems in arithmetic or the most elementary facts of science. God has so willed it, that the mightiest intellect which strives unavailingly to comprehend the wisdom and glory of his creation, and the feeblest intelligence which knows only and instinctively his love, shall alike find in that love their highest solace and delight.
The phenomena of Nature were next made the objects of instruction; and to this the well-chosen position of the establishment largely contributed. Sunshine and storm, the light clouds which mottled the sky and the black heaps which foreboded the tempest, the lightning and the rainbow, all in turn served to awaken the slumbering faculties, and to rouse the torpid intellect to greater activity.
The next step was, to teach the cretin some knowledge of objects around him, animate and inanimate, and of his relations to them. The exercise of the senses followed, and gayly colored pictures were presented to the eye, charming music to the ear, fragrant odors to the smell, and the varieties of sweet, bitter, sour, and pungent substances to the taste.
When the perceptive faculties were thus trained, books were made to take the place of object lessons; reading and writing were taught by long and patient endeavor; the elements of arithmetic, of Scripture history, and of geography were communicated; and mechanical instruction was imparted at the same time.
Under this general routine of instruction, Dr. Guggenbuhl has conducted his establishment for seventeen years, often with limited means, and at times struggling with debt, from which, more than once, kind English friends, who have visited the Hospital, or become interested in the man, during his occasional hasty visits to Great Britain, have relieved him. His personal appearance is thus described by a friend who was on terms of intimacy with him; the place is at one of Lord Rosse’s conversazioni. “Imagine in the crowd which swept through his Lordship’s suite of rooms a small, foreign-looking man, with features of a Grecian cast, and long, shoulder-covering, black hair; look at that man’s face; there is a gentleness, an amiability combined with intelligence, which wins you to him. His dress is peculiar in that crowd of white cravats and acres of cambric shirt-fronts; black, well-worn black, is his suit; but his waistcoat is of black satin, double-breasted, and buttoned closely up to the throat. It is Dr. Guggenbuhl, the mildest, the gentlest of men, but one of those calm, reflecting minds that push on after a worthy object, undismayed by difficulties, undeterred by ridicule or rebuff.”
In his labors in behalf of the unfortunate class to whom he has devoted himself, Dr. Guggenbuhl has been assisted very greatly by the Protestant Sisters of Charity, who, like the Catholic sisterhood, dedicate their lives to offices of charity and love to the sick, the unfortunate, and the erring.
Dr. Guggenbuhl claims to have effected a perfect cure in about one third of the cases which have been under his charge, by a treatment of from three to six years duration. The attainment of so large a measure of success has been questioned by some who have visited the Hospital on the Abendberg; and while a part of these critics were undoubtedly actuated by a jealous and fault-finding disposition, it is not impossible that the enthusiasm of the philanthropist may have led him to regard the acquirements of his pupils as beyond what they really were.
A greater source of fallacy, however, is in the want of fixed standards for estimating the comparative capacity of children affected with cretinism, when placed under treatment, and the degree of intellectual and physical development which constitutes a “perfect cure,” in the opinion of such men as Dr. Guggenbuhl. It is a fact, which all who have long had charge of either cretins or idiots well understand, that a great degree of physical deformity and disorder, a strongly marked rachitic condition of the body, complicated even with loss of hearing and speech, may exist, while the intellectual powers are but slightly affected; in other words, that a child may be in external appearance a cretin, and even one of low grade, yet with a higher degree of intellectual capacity than most cretins possess. On the other hand, the bodily weakness and deformity may be slight, while the mental condition is very low. In the former case, we might reasonably expect, on the successful treatment of the rachitic symptoms, a rapid intellectual development; the child would soon be able to pursue its studies in an ordinary school, and a “perfect cure” would be effected. In the latter case, though far more promising, apparently, at first, a longer course of training would be requisite, and the most strenuous efforts on the part of the teacher would not, in all probability, bring the pupil up to the level of a respectable mediocrity.
From a great number of cases, narrated in the different Reports of Dr. Guggenbuhl before us, we select one as the type of a large class, in which the development of the intellect seems to have been retarded by the physical disorder, but proceeded regularly on the return of health”C. was four years old when she entered, with every symptom of confirmed rachitic cretinism. Her nervous system was completely out of order, so that the strongest electric shocks produced scarcely any effect on her for some months. Aromatic baths, frictions, moderate exercise, a regimen of meat and milk, were the means of restoring her. Her bones and muscles grew so strong, that, in the course of a year, she could run and jump. Her mind appeared to advance in proportion to her body, for she learned to talk in French as well as in German. The life and spirits of her age at length burst forth, and she was as gay and happy as she had before been cross and disagreeable. She was particularly open-hearted, active, kind, and cleanly. She learned to read, write, and cipher, to sew and knit, and above all she loved to sing. It is now two years since she left, and she continues quite well, and goes to school.”
We think our readers will perceive that this was not a case of confirmed intellectual degradation, but only of retarded mental development, the result of diseased bodily condition. These cases are distressing to parents and friends, and he who succeeds in restoring them to health, intelligence, and the enjoyment of life, accomplishes a great and good work; but it does not necessarily follow that the cases where the mental degeneration is as complete as the physical would as readily yield to treatment; and we are driven to the conviction that the enthusiasm and zeal of Dr. Guggenbuhl have led him to exaggerate the measure of success attained in these cases of low grade, and thus to excite hopes which could never be fulfilled.*
* Dr. F. Kern, Superintendent of the Idiot School at Goblis, near Leipzig, in an article in the Allgemeine Zeuschrift fÃ¼r Psychiatric, published the present year, (1857,) states that he examined a boy in the Abendberg Hospital in 1853, of whom Dr. Guggenbuhl had said, in his work Upon the Cure of Cretinism, published a few months previously, that, “after the painstaking examination of Dr. Naville, he was held to be capable of entering a training school for teachers, in order to qualify himself for a teacher”: Dr. Kern found that he knew neither the day of the week or the month, nor his birthday, nor his age.
There are four other institutions in Germany devoted wholly or in part to the treatment of cretins; they are located at Bendorf, Mariaberg, Winterbach, and Hubertsburg. There are also two in Sardinia. All together they may contain three hundred children. The success of these institutions has not been equal to that of the Abendberg, although the teachers seem to have been faithful and patient. The statistics of the latest census of the countries of Central and Southern Europe render it certain that those countries contain from seventy-five to eighty thousand cretins, and as the cretin seldom passes his thirtieth year, the number under ten years of age must exceed thirty thousand. The provision for their training is, of course, entirely inadequate to their needs.
The limited experience of the few institutions already established warrants, we think, the conclusion, that too high expectations have been raised in regard to the complete cure of cretinism that only a small proportion (cases in which the bodily disease is the principal difficulty, and the mental deterioration slight) can be perfectly cured; but that these institutions, regarded as hospitals for the treatment and training of cretins, are in the highest degree important and beneficial and that, under proper care and medication, the physical symptoms of the disease may be greatly diminished and in many cases entirely eradicated, and the mental condition so far improved, that the patient shall be able, under proper direction, to support himself wholly or in part by his own labor. The hideous and repulsive condition of the body can be cured; the mental deformity will yield less readily yet in some instances this, too, may disappear, and the cretin take his place with his fellow-men.
Let us now turn our attention to another class, in whom, as a people, we have a deeper interest; for though cretinisin does undoubtedly exist in the United States, yet the cases are but few while idiocy is fearfully prevalent throughout the country.
The possibility of improving the condition of the idiot is one of those discoveries which will make the nineteenth century remarkable in the annals of the future for its philanthropic spirit. Idiots have existed in all ages, and have commonly vegetated through life in utter wretchedness and degrading filth, concealed from public view.
During the early part of the present century, a few attempts were made to instruct them; the earliest known being at the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, in Hartford, in 1818. In 1824, Dr. Belhomme, of Paris, published an essay on the possibility of improving the condition of idiots; and in 1828, a few were instructed for a short time at the BicÃªtre, one of the large insane hospitals of Paris. In 1831, M. Falret attempted the same work at the SalpÃªtriÃ¨re, another of the hospitals for the insane in the same city. Neither of these efforts was continued long in existence. In 1833, Dr. Voisin, a distinguished French physiologist and phrenologist, attempted the organization of a school for idiots in Paris. In 1839, aided by Dr. Leuret, he revived the School for Idiots in the BicÃªtre, subsequently under the charge of M. VallÃ©e. The “Apostle to the Idiots,” however, to use a French expression, was Dr. Edward Seguin. The friend and pupil of Itard, the celebrated surgeon and philanthropist, he had in early youth entered into the views of his master respecting the practicability of their instruction; and when, during his last illness, Itard, with a philanthropy which triumphed over the terrible pangs of disease, reminded him of the work which he had himself longed to undertake, and urged him to devote his abilities to it, the young physician accepted the sacred trust, and thenceforth consecrated his life to the work of endeavoring to elevate the helpless idiot in the scale of humanity.
Previous teachers of the imbecile had not attempted to master the philosophy of idiocy. They had gone to work at hap-hazard, striking at random, hoping somehow, they knew not exactly how, to get some ideas into the mind of the patient, and, by exciting the faculty of imitation, perhaps improve his condition. They succeeded in making him more cleanly, and in inducing him to perform certain acts and exercises, as a well-trained dog, monkey, or parrot might perform them.
Seguin adopted an entirely different course. By a long and careful investigation he satisfied himself as to what idiocy consisted in, and then adopted such measures as he deemed most judicious, for the development of the intellect, and the elevation of the social, mental, moral, and physical character of the idiot.
In his view idiocy is only a prolonged infancy, in which the infantile grace and intelligence having passed away, there remains only the feeble muscular development and mental weakness of that earliest stage of growth. He proposes to follow Nature in his processes of treatment; to invigorate the muscles by bathing and exercise, using some compulsion, if necessary, to effect this; to fix the attention by bright colors, strong contrasts, military manoeuvres, etc.; to strengthen and develope the will, the imagination, the senses, and the imitative powers, by a great variety of exercises and at each step, to impress the mind with moral principles. The mere acquisition of a few facts, more or less, and the capacity to repeat these, parrot-like, he regards as an attainment of very little consequence; the great object should be to make the child do his own thinking, and this once attained, he will acquire facts as he needs them.
Dr. Seguin met with a high degree of success in the instruction of idiotic and imbecile children, and in 1846 published a treatise on the treatment of idiocy, which will, for years to come, be the manual of every teacher of this unfortunate class.
While Seguin was demonstrating the truth of his theory of instruction at Paris, Herr Saegert, a teacher of deaf mutes at Berlin, having attempted, unsuccessfully, the instruction of a deaf and dumb idiot, was led to inquire into the reasons of his failure. Without any knowledge of Seguin’s labors, he arrived substantially at the same conclusions, and devoted his leisure to medical study, in order to grapple more successfully with the problem of the instruction of idiots. In 1840 he commenced receiving idiotic pupils, and has maintained a school for them in Berlin up to the present time. Herr Saegert is inclined to regard idiocy as dependent upon the condition of the brain and nervous system, to a greater extent, perhaps, than Dr. Seguin, and to rely upon medication to some extent though in his writings he professes to consider it a condition, and not a disease.
The success of the efforts of Seguin and Saegert was soon reported in other countries, and as early as 1846 excited the attention of philanthropists in England and the United States. Schools for the training of idiots were established, on a small scale at first, by some benevolent ladies, at Bath, Brighton, and Lancaster, England. In 1847, an effort was made to establish an institution in some degree commensurate with the wants of the unfortunate class for whom it was intended. In this movement, Dr. John Conolly, the father of the non-restraint system in the treatment of the insane, Rev. Dr. Andrew Reed, Rev. Edwin Sidney, and Sir S. M. Peto have distinguished themselves by their zeal and liberality. Extensive buildings were rented at Highgate, near London, and at Colchester, for the accommodation of idiotic pupils, while a strenuous and successful effort was made to obtain the necessary funds for the erection of an asylum of great size. The Royal Institution for Idiots, completed in 1856, has between four hundred and five hundred beds, and is already nearly or quite full. Essex Hall, at Colchester, has also been fitted up as a permanent establishment for their instruction, and furnishes accommodation for some two hundred more. Two small institutions, supported by private beneficence, have also been organized in Scotland.
The British institutions have admitted, to a very considerable extent, a class of pupils who are not properly idiots, but only persons of imbecile purpose, or simply awkward, and of partially developed intellects. Some of these, who have arrived even at the age of twenty-five or thirty years, have been greatly benefited, and, after two or three years’ instruction, have left the institution with as much intelligence, apparently, as most of those in the same walk of life. This result is, and should be, a matter of great gratification to the managers; but it is hardly just to regard success in such cases as cures of idiocy. The greater part of the admissions to the Royal Institution are from the pauper and poor laboring classes; and the simple substitution of wholesome and sufficient food for a meagre and innutritious diet is alone sufficient to effect a marked change in them. The greater part of the pupils in that institution are instructed in some of the simpler mechanic arts, and the Reports assure us that they have generally acquired them with facility.
There can be no question of the benevolence of attempting the restoration to society, and to active and useful life, of these awkward, undeveloped, and backward youth, — of educating their hitherto undeveloped faculties, of eradicating those habits which rendered them disagreeable, and often almost unendurable; but these youths are not idiots, and no such analogy exists between them and idiots as would enable us to infer with certainty the successful treatment of the latter from the comparatively rapid development of the former.
In our own country more satisfactory data exist for determining this point. The movement for the instruction of idiots commenced almost simultaneously in New York and Massachusetts. The first school for idiots in this country was commenced at Barre, Massachusetts, by Dr. H. B. Wilbur, in July, 1848; and the Massachusetts Experimental School, by Dr. S. G. Howe, in October of the same year. There are now in the United States six institutions for the instruction and training of this unfortunate class, namely the Massachusetts School, at South Boston, still under the general superintendence of Dr. Howe; a private institution for idiots, imbeciles, backward and eccentric children at Barre, under the care of Dr. George Brown, being the one originally founded by Dr. Wilbur the New York State Asylum for Idiots, at Syracuse, of which Dr. Wilbur is the superintendent; a private school for idiots and imbeciles at Haerlem, N. Y., under the care of Mr. J. B. Richards; the Pennsylvania Training School for Idiots, at Germantown, Penn., under the care of Dr. Parish; and an Experimental School, recently organized, at Columbus, Ohio, under an appropriation from the State legislature, presided over by Dr. Patterson. Of these, only the first three have had an experience sufficiently long to offer any reliable results from which the success of idiot instruction can be deduced.
The solution of the question, whether the idiot can be elevated to the standard of mediocrity, physically and intellectually, is not merely one of interest to the psychologist, who seeks to ascertain the metes and bounds of the mental capacity of the race; it is also of paramount importance to the political economist, who wishes to determine the productive force of the community, physical and intellectual; it is of practical interest to the statesman, who seeks to know how large a proportion of the population are necessarily dependent upon the state or individuals for their support; it is a matter of pecuniary importance to the tax-payer, who is naturally desirous of learning whether these drones in the hive, who not only perform no labor themselves but require others to attend them, and who often, also, from their imbecility, are made the tools and dupes of others in the commission of crime; cannot be transformed into producers instead of consumers, and become quiet and orderly citizens, instead of pests in the community.
The statistics of idiocy are necessarily imperfect. No United States census or State enumeration is at all reliable: the idea of what constitutes idiocy is so very vague, that one census-taker would report none, in a district where another might find twenty. It is very seldom the case that the friends or relatives of an idiot will admit that he is more than a little eccentric; many of the worst cases in the institutions for idiots were brought there by friends who protested that they were not idiots, but only a little singular in their habits.
In Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Ohio, efforts have been made, by correspondence with physicians and town officers, to obtain data from which an approximate estimate might be attained. These efforts, though not so satisfactory as could be desired, are yet sufficient to authorize the conclusion that there are in those three States (and probably the same figures would hold good for the rest of the Union) about one fifth of one per cent. of the population who are idiots of low grade, and about the same number who are of weak and imbecile intellect. This would give us in the United States about fifty-two thousand idiots, and as many more imbeciles. At the lowest estimate, the cost of supporting this vast army of the unfortunate, beyond the trifling sum which a few of them may be able to earn, is more than ten millions of dollars per annum. Nor is this all, or even the worst feature of their case. The greater part of them are without sense of shame, without any notions of chastity or decency, and so weak in moral sense as to be the ready tools and dupes of artful villains, and often themselves exhibit a perverseness and malignity of character which render them dangerous members of society. Their influence for evil, direct and indirect, no man can estimate. The chaplains and other officers of our State prisons and penitentiaries will testify that a large proportion of the inmates of those establishments, though not idiots, are weak-minded and imbecile; and it is by no means a rare circumstance to find persons, who should properly be under treatment as idiots, suffering the doom of the felon.
Under these circumstances, the question, What can be done with this unfortunate and helpless class? becomes one of great importance.
A careful examination of the institutions for their training in this country and Europe, and an extended inquiry into their present condition when not under instruction, have enabled us to arrive at the following conclusions.
There is very little hope of any considerable permanent improvement of the idiot, if not placed under training before his sixteenth year. His habits may, indeed, be somewhat amended, and the mind temporarily roused; but this improvement will seldom continue after he is removed from the institution.
The existence of severe epilepsy, or other profound disease, is a serious bar to success.
Of those not affected by epilepsy, who are brought under instruction in childhood, from one third to one fourth may be so far improved as to become capable of performing the ordinary duties of life with tolerable fidelity and ability. They may acquire sufficient knowledge to be able to read, to write, to understand the elementary facts of geography, history, and arithmetic; they may be capable of writing a passable letter; they may acquire a sufficient knowledge of farming, or of the mechanic arts, to be able to work well and faithfully under appropriate supervision; they may attain a sufficient knowledge of the government and laws under which they live, to be qualified to exercise the electoral franchise quite as well as many of those who do exercise it; they may make such advances in morals, as to act with justice and honor toward their fellow-men, and exhibit the influence of Christianity in changing their degraded and wayward natures to purity, chastity, and holiness.
A larger class, probably one half of the whole, can be so much benefited, as to become cleanly in their habits, quiet in their deportment, capable, perhaps, of reading and writing, but not of original composition, able to perform, with suitable supervision, many kinds of work which require little close thought, and, under the care of friends, of becoming happy and useful. This class, if neglected after leaving the school, will be likely to relapse into some of their early habits, but if properly cared for, may continue to improve.
A small number, and as frequently, perhaps, as otherwise, those apparently the most promising at entering, will make little or no progress. It cannot be predicted beforehand that such will be the result of any case, for the most hopeless at entering have often made decided advancement; but the fact remains, that no methods of instruction yet adopted will invariably develope the slumbering intellect, or strengthen and correct the enfeebled or depraved will.
The institutions for the training of idiots should he greatly multiplied, and should have a department for awkward, eccentric, and backward children. The methods adopted would be of great benefit to these, and would often call into activity intellects which might be useful in their proper spheres.
We regard this great movement for the improvement of a class hitherto considered so hopeless, as one of the most honorable and benevolent enterprises of our time. It is yet in its infancy; but we hope to see, ere many years have passed, in every State of our Union, asylums reared, where these waifs of humanity shall be gathered, and such training given them as may develope in the highest degree possible the hitherto rudimentary faculties of their minds, and render them capable of performing, in some humble measure, their part in the drama of life.
Source: Linus P. Brockett, “The Atlantic Monthly,” (February 1858) (vol.1, no.4: pp.410-419), http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/lib/catcard.html?id=1385 (January 29, 2014)