Page images
PDF
EPUB

in each case. To those familiar, from personal experience, with the mental and moral condition of an uneducated and neglected deaf mute, a very moderate degree of success seems almost miraculous ; while those who measure the acquisitions of much the greater number, in written language, the only point on which the world is capable of judging, by the standard of the well educated who hear, not unfrequently form the opinion that the characters of the deaf and dumb are stamped with a very marked degree of mental inferiority, and that, whatever pains may be taken to instruct them, they can never acquire any literary or scientific reputation, nor, as a body, reach the intellectual average of their more favored brethren.

It is, indeed, rather remarkable that the most striking examples which can be produced of the literary capabilities of the deaf and dumb are, for the most part, persons who learned to read before losing their hearing, and whose cases hardly differ from that of a person who should have been, from an early period of life, immured in a library, with but little more than the necessary intercourse with his fellow-men. Such is precisely the case with James Nack, the distinguished deaf and dumb author, and probably the most extraordinary instance which any country can produce of high literary attainments in a person deprived of hearing in childhood.' Cases like that of Nack, however, might occur as well before the possibility of instructing the deaf and dumb from birth was ever thought of, and, from some obscure hints in cotemporary writers, it appears probable they did,--though not perhaps to a degree equally remarkable.

It must be admitted that, while the advantages, both in a moral and intellectual point of view, conferred on so many deaf mutes by the institutions established for their instruction, are immense and incalculable, yet, in the greater number of cases, the degree of success in one point of high importance, instruction in the language of books and newspapers, has been but very moderate ; and that, comparatively speaking, but a very small number have attained the ability to derive from reading and writing, that degree of solace and enjoyment which they would afford to a well educated

person, accidentally bereft of hearing.

To ascribe the result to any original inferiority of intellect, would be both unjust and absurd. The privation of a sense,

however important, is still but the privation of one means of acquiring knowledge, and affects the faculties of the mind only so far as it restricts them in that exercise which is as necessary to the development of the mind as of the body. We have seen that if this privation takes place after the individual has learned to read, if he has free access to books, he is not apt to exhibit any want of intellectual activity. Neither is the child born deaf, therefore born with any mental inferiority, for if a child born with all its faculties should lose its hearing before the power of speech has been acquired to any extent, it will grow up in character and mental habits utterly undistinguishable from the deaf and dumb who are so by birth. The case just supposed, is so far from uncommon, that it is believed to have occurred with nearly or quite one half of the whole number of the deaf and dumb. The mental peculiarities of deaf mutes must, therefore, be ascribed solely to the peculiar circumstances in which they find themselves placed ; and they differ from other men, only as plants growo from the same seed, and in the same soil, differ, according to the openness or closeness of the situation, the greater or less favorableness of the aspect, and the supply of aliment and of moisture.

Though the deaf and dumb are dumb only because they are deaf, yet their misfortune does not consist in the mere privation of the sense of hearing; for the ideas acquired originally through this sense, namely, ideas of the variations of sound, constitute but a comparatively unimportant part of our stock of knowledge. If the established mode of communication among men were by means of a language of visible signs, whether natural or arbitrary, and if none but natural and imitative cries were used, the privation of hearing would be a matter of small moment, and, even if from birth, would involve no social or intellectual disadvantages. Though the case supposed is an imaginary one, yet the existence of a whole nation using such a language is by no means an impossible event. We have only to suppose that a colony should be planted, whether by accident or design, composed at first, exclusively of deaf mutes, and in a situation which would give them few opportunities for intercourse with the rest of the world. Of their posterity probably much the largest proportion would be able to hear, but would possess no spoken language; and if we suppose the language of gestures to be

brought to a high degree of improvement in such a community, as it probably would be, it may be doubtful whether a language of sounds would ever be originated among them, as its necessity would not be felt. But in such a community the condition of the blind would be far more deplorable, and their education far more impracticable than that of the deaf and dumb is among us. As the ear could not supply to them in the situation supposed, the place of the eye, their condition would be precisely that of the deaf, dumb and blind, those most affecting, but happily rare examples, that show us what a helpless thing the human soul, despite its boasted powers and its immortal destiny, becomes by cutting off the usual nerves of communication with the external world, and with kindred minds. In these considerations we may

find an additional motive for believing that speech is not a human invention as some have held, and that all that is has been planned by infinite wisdom, with a view to the greatest good of the greatest number.

We shall presently recur again to the idea of a deaf-mute community, which we have introduced in this place to enable the reader to conceive more clearly why the privation of hearing is, under ordinary circumstances, a doom so terribly severe to a social intelligence. The ability to hear words is of no value where there are no words to hear, and he who should be cast alone on a desert island, or placed in such a community as we have just supposed, would, in consequence of that ability, have no advantage whatever over a deaf mute. But the real misfortune of the latter, and it is indeed one of a magnitude not readily conceivable, consists in his being cut off from the ordinary social and intellectual intercourse of his fellow men. He thus finds himself, in every moral and intellectual point of view, thrown back into that state of nature from which society has been gradually emerging during thousands of years. That traditional knowledge, the fruit of the experience and meditations of successive generations, which accumulates in the memory of a child who hears without a sensible effort on his part, by merely listening to remarks made sometimes to him, far oftener accidentally in his hearing, is to the deaf child, except when placed in a community of deaf mutes, a treasure inaccessible—a book sealed.

Ít would be aside from our present purpose to give a dissertation on the characters of the uneducated deaf and dumb.

Let it suffice to say, that they are such as might be expected from minds constituted like our own, but not like our own cultivated and improved. That is to say, that they display the traits of untaught childhood, or of tribes little advanced in knowledge,-not as many, by a strange propensity to degrade their own species, would have us believe, of apes or monkies. Such an opinion is not surprising in the vulgar, who are accustomed io think the power of speech the only difference between man and the ape ; but we cannot restrain our surprise and indignation, when we find it gravely asserted and maintained by men in other respects sensible and intelligent, -even by not a few who have aspired to the first rank in philosophy. Strange to say, some eminent teachers of the deaf and dumb, who ought, of all men, to have known better, either judging from particular instances of early neglect and seclusion, or influenced by a desire to magnify their own success, have lent the sanction of their names to opinions degrading their uninstructed fellow-man to the level of the brutes that perish. It is certain that the deaf mute receives a mind and a heart by nature, in which the seeds of warm affections, and even of bright talents, are as frequently implanted as in the minds and hearts of speaking children, and need only as diligent cultivation to quicken them into as vigorous growth. Education has, in many instances, wonderfully improved his mental faculties, because those faculties were formed capable of improvement. The teacher can no more create a mind, where a mind is wanting, than the workman can manufacture a watch without the steel, the brass, and the silver. *

But it may be asked, if there is no original inferiority, why have not the deaf and dumb, instructed for years with unwearied pains, by men of liberal education and of eminent ability, been raised, as a body, to the intellectual rank of their well educated fellow-men? To which we reply that very many, perhaps the greater number so educated, notwithstanding the scantiness of the period usually allowed for a task so arduous, have attained this rank, --so far as a knowledge of facts and principles, phenomena and causes is concerned ;

* Tales of the Deaf and Dumb, with Miscellaneous Poems, by John R. Burnet. Newark, 1835.

but, from their generally imperfect knowledge of written language, the world cannot judge of the extent of their acquirements.

Instruction in written language is, in fact, the only real difficulty in their education. For all other purposes it might be sufficient, if those deaf mutes, whom the accident of birth scatters abroad at a distance from each other, seldom admitting of the mutual improvement of the dialect of gestures devised by each solitary mute for himself, should be collected in communities, or rather drawn together in particular towns and villages, in which there should be a sufficient proportion of deaf mutes to make their language generally intelligible for the purposes of business, of social intercourse, and it might easily be, even of public deliberative assemblies. In such a community the language of gestures might, in the space of a few generations, attain to a degree of perfection much greater than it has attained, even in the oldest existing institution, whose pupils seldom remain long enough to improve, to any considerable extent, the language they find in use, and moreover have their attention, during their limited term of study, occupied with a very different language,-a language, whose importance as a means of communication with the world in which they are to live, is too great lo permit its being neglected for the improvement of one of which the use will have to be, in most cases, discontinued when they leave the schools. Yet, notwithstanding these disadvantages, the sign dialects of our schools are abundantly sufficient, not only for social intercourse, but for public instruction whether in history, science, morals, or religion.

In such a community the deaf mute, in every sense of the word a stranger in the world beside, would feel himself at home. He might not only rival his fellows in mechanical skill and physical endurance, but the wide arena of the mind would be open to him. He might not only 'excel as a painter, or a sculptor but even as an orator, for the language of pantomime in the hands of a master, is the most eloquent of all languages. Thus he could acquire all that power over the minds of his fellow-men, which eloquence never fails to give. Minds would be trained, and their faculties sharpened by free competition and collision with equal minds. Each individual would bring his own experience, the fruits of his own meditations, to swell the common mass of still accumulating in

« PreviousContinue »