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Human Nature. Part I. (Lecture. May 1894.)


Fifty years ago the idiot was kept in seclusion. The unfortunate family did not so much as allow the nearest neighbor to come in contact with the patient. The idiot received less training than the domestic animals he happened to play with. The majority of students of human nature did not recognize in the idiot any manifestations of soul worthy of their consideration.

Dr. Edgar Seguin, of New York, ignoring the popular notion entertained in relation to the idiot, set about studying him as he would study any other living organism. In his remarkable book entitled "Idiocy" (now out of print) he describes his experiences and that of his co-workers in handling a variety of what to the ordinary physician and teacher would seem to be hopeless cases. Idiots who had lived to twelve years of age, helpless from birth, unable to stand, feed or dress themselves, were developed and trained under the guidance of these experts. Now the physician sat upon the floor, clasped the little Fellow's hands in his, relaxed and repeated the set until the heretofore useless appendages responded promptly to his grasp. In due time the little fellow could hold objects, pick up objects, handle objects as fortunate children handle them. The brain has been reached, touched, aroused.

In feeding him the physician placed the food nearer and nearer the anterior portion of the mouth. By and by, the little fellow could take care of food when given its usual place in the mouth.

The patient was placed upright against the wall and allowed to slip down upon the floor. After the operation had been repeated many times, the little fellow had the power of preference and tried to avoid coming to the floor. After a time he could stand alone. To make the story short, the physician succeeded in training him to stand and walk and run about, trained him to dress and feed himself, trained him to talk and recognize the world that delights the ordinary child. The idiot had been lifted out of darkness into light.

Today as the result of this remarkable work, hundreds of these unfortunates are comparatively happy, and well night self-supporting. All this can be attributed directly to a broader and deeper knowledge of human nature. In passing, we would ask the teacher to receive graciously the lesson of patience herein taught. Should she so receive it, she will never have occasion to speak of blockheads, sticks and so forth. If Dr. Seguin and his brother experts could achieve success in training the idiot, what ought to be expected at the hands of teachers who have boys and girls of ordinary intelligence to develop and train.


Fifty or sixty years ago, the New England visitor would have found in the asylums of Massachusetts small stone cells without and means of warmth or ventilation. In many of these cells are confined the insane. Here a man half clad, crouched in one corner literally freezing to death. His food was pushed under the iron door after the manner of feeding wild beasts. The frost that accumulated on the walls of his cell would be shoveled or raked out occasionally.

Was this kind of treatment due to the fact that the people were brutal, that the people of Massachusetts were inhuman? They entertained the prevailing notion that the insane man or woman was possessed with the devil, or of an evil spirit. Had this theory been true, the reader will agree that no harm could come from depriving the insane of warmth, and pure air. Why not freeze the devil to death?

It does not seem possible to us now that any intelligent man or woman could ever have entertained this view of human nature. Dorothea Dix and her co-workers pronouncing this view inhuman, set about to change it. Every person who is at all familiar with the story of the modern insane asylum, knows something about what has been achieved since this excellent woman began her work in 1841. Today in every state in the union can be found beautiful buildings, provided with all modern conveniences, such as work rooms, music, flowers, and so forth, for the comfort and cure of the insane. In few asylums are there to be found any mechanical means for restraint. The insane are a class of people who are seriously ill. A scientific knowledge of human nature enables the physician to cure a large number of cases supposed heretofore to be incurable.


Until Charles Darwin's time little had been written concerning human nature as expressed in the life of a young child. Parental government, together with school government was based on a crude knowledge of the child. As in the treatment of the insane, horrible mistakes have been made. Darwin recognized the importance of studying the activities of the infant. Since he wrote his work on "Expression in Man and Animals," hundreds of busy observers have offered to the world their contributions. Kindergarten literature abounds in valuable hints. Today the wise teacher and parent do not attempt to discipline the child for telling lies until the cause of the lie has been investigated. It takes but little study and observation to convince the intelligent parent that there are numerous causes for the ordinary lie. The lie may be due to fear, to the desire to secure some special enjoyment, to the wish for the praise of another, and so forth.

We have already given considerable evidence in relation to the idiot, the insane and the little child, in proof of our position that scientific knowledge of human nature is rapidly on the increase. The evidence would only be multiplied if we were to speak of the progress made in our treatment of women, or the North American Indian, of the Negro, of the criminal and so forth. We seem to be entering upon a new era in the study of human nature. This study promises to revolutionize educational methods, promises to affect materially every reform. It puts with man's reach the prospect of developing a higher type of man.


Most of my readers will say, by observation. It should be remembered, however, that observation in itself is insufficient. Nearly every superstition has for its foundation one observation, rarely more than one.

In not a few parts of the country hogs are killed in the new of the moon that the contents of the pork barrel may not shrink. Peas are not planted in the new of the moon, lest they blossom throughout the summer months. A potatoe is carried in the pocket to prevent rheumatism. A red flannel string is worn about the wrist to prevent the spread of salt-rheum from the hand to the arm. The magnetic ring is worn upon the finger to prevent or cure rheumatism. A charm is worn about the neck to regulate the action of the heart. Hundreds of similar illustrations might be given.

The unfortunate fact is that superstitions are not confined to the ignorant. On one occasion it is said that McCullough, the great actor, would not attend a reception because he was the thirteenth guest. One is inclined to believe that superstition has so strong a hold on a man that it may have been a portion of his birth-right.

Observation to be of any value must be many sided. Having made correct observations right judgments must be formed. Right judgments having been formed, correct generalizations must be made. Progress along this line requires extraordinary patience and perseverance. If the teachers will devote a little of their time to the careful observation and the history of the idiot, the insane, the young child, the progress of women, the Negro, the Indian, the criminal, and the physically afflicted, we shall soon find ourselves in possession of works on human nature which will contribute generally to the world's progress and happiness.

More than one reader will say, why does not the writer present the study of human nature from the standpoint of phrenology? His answer is, that having devoted many years to the study of phrenology he is convinced that it is valuable but not as yet scientific. No student of human nature can afford to ignore the writings of the best phrenologists. Notwishstanding this the student must hope to find most of his data for scientific knowledge of human nature lying in the line of human expression. Perhaps no one man has contributed more to the study of human nature than has Mantegazza, the author of "Phrenology and Expression." What we have to offer in the next article will be based on what has been written by Darwin, Mantegazza, and Moses True Brown.

Source: Newton, Roy, editor. Life and Works of Woodbridge N. Ferris. (Big Rapids, Michigan: n.p., 1960), 177-184.