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Education Of The Blind
by Samuel Gridley Howe
An article in The North American Review July 1833
Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876) was active in various reforms centering on disability. After fighting during the 1820s in the Greek war for independence from the Ottoman Empire, he organized, in 1832, the New England Asylum for the Blind, now the Perkins School for the Blind, and became the acknowledged expert on blind education in the United States. His efforts on behalf of Dorothea Dix and his chairmanship of the Massachusetts Board of Charities from 1865 to 1874 meant that he impacted the lives of people with cognitive and psychiatric disabilities as well as deaf people. He was married to the abolitionist, Julia Ward Howe. The following is his overview of blind education from the North American Review, an influential journal of ideas in antebellum America.
Essai sur l’Education des Aveugles: par M. HaÃ¼y, Paris. 1786.
Coup-d’Oeil D’un Aveugle sur les Sourds-Muets. Par ALEXANDRE RODENBACH, Membre du Musee des Aveugles de Paris et de plusieurs Societes savantes; Auteur de la Lettre sur les Aveugles faisant Suite de celle de Diderot, &c. &c. Bruxelles. 1829.
It has long been to us a matter of surprise that the blind have been so much neglected. Our age, compared with those that have passed away, is truly a humane one; never has more attention been paid to individual man than now; never has the imperative duty of society to provide for the wants of those whom nature or accident has thrown upon its charity, been more deeply felt, or more conscientiously discharged. Philanthropy has, in fact, been pushed almost to folly, and well meaning enthusiasts, in their eager zeal to find new objects, seem half disposed to create suffering for the sake of relieving it; or, at least, would relieve one class at the expense of another; like the good Las Casas, who, in his blind enthusiasm for the Aborigines of South America, tore thousands of Africans from their homes, and made them slaves, that his darling Indians might go free, and walk upright in lordly indolence. England and the United States are peculiarly characterized by associations for aiding the cause of humanity. Every infirmity, every misfortune, every vice even, has a phalanx of philanthropists to oppose its effects: every rank of society, every age, from the cradle to the grave, is provided with associated aiders and supporters. They begin before the birth of the object by the preparation of lying-in hospitals, and sometimes even rescue the victim from the grasp of death, as is seen in the admirable, and not unfrequently successful labors of the Humane Society.
That this spirit of humanity has not always been well directed; that extraordinary efforts and great expenses have been lavished upon one class of unfortunate persons, while others more deserving and afflicted have been left neglected, is apparent in the case of the blind, who have been almost entirely overlooked in the general and eager search after new objects of philanthropy. The very efforts which have been made to lighten the burden of their woes, have only added more weight to it; and those whom nature has bowed down under a load of affliction, have been farther crushed by a sense of humiliating dependence. The cry of the blind has not been merely for bread, it has not been for alms; these are not their only wants; but they claim our sympathies and our patient assistance, to enable them to exert their own faculties, to develope their own powers, and to do something to break the listless inactivity, which constitutes for them the taedium vitae. But instead of administering to their wants, instead of striking at the root of the evil, and preventing blindness from necessarily entailing misery on the sufferer, men have increased its ill effects by diminishing the incentives to action; and the hand of charity has wounded, while it soothed the sufferer. The post of the blind has always been by the highway, in the humble attitude of the beggar; their dwelling place has been the almshouse; where men try to hide and perpetuate much misery, which, by patient attention and resolute perseverance, they might entirely remove.
Discouraged by the apparent incapacity of the blind, men have only endeavored to administer to them physical comfort in the shape of food and clothing. Even the philanthropist has shrunk from the task of endeavoring to combat the ills which blindness entails upon the sufferer; and until within a few years no establishments existed in Europe, where the blind played any other part than that of listless drones and melancholy dependents. It is a little curious, that a Pagan nation should have set a good example to enlightened Christians in this respect. It is said that, in Japan, the blind were long ago made to fill a comparatively useful sphere. The Government keeps a large number of them in an establishment, and their business is to learn the history of the empire through all the remote ages, to arrange it systematically by chapter and verse in their memories, and to transmit it to the young blind, who are to hand it down to the next generation, and thus form a sort of perennial walking and talking library of useful historical knowledge. It would be singular and interesting to enter this library of living books, and consult these breathing archives: to go up to a man, instead of pulling down a folio; to hear him repeat his index, and then to turn over the tablets of his memory like the leaves of a volume, until he comes to the matter in question.
We shall touch but lightly in this article on the physical and moral effects of blindness upon its victim, but confine ourselves to a practically useful view of the subject. We shall discuss the question of the capacity of the blind for receiving such an intellectual and physical education, as will enable them to fill useful and ornamental places in society; we shall notice the system pursued in the different European Institutions, and point out the changes and improvements which, in our opinion, may be introduced in the treatment of the blind.
The effects of blindness upon the physical man, whatever they may be upon the intellectual, are decidedly pernicious; not directly and necessarily, but, nevertheless, almost inevitably. The mind is not called into action, the muscular power is not developed by exercise and labor, the sufferer dares not run about and play with his comrades; he cannot work in the open air, nor get the healthful movement which is necessary to bring the frame to the temper, that will enable it to wear well in after life; and it consequently soon wears out. Hence we see so many of the blind, who were comparatively intelligent and active in childhood, gradually drooping through youth into premature old age; becoming first inactive, then stupid, then idiotic, and finally going down to an early grave with the light of intellect completely extinguished, and enveloped in both physical and intellectual darkness. This is purely the effect of physical inaction; and this inaction always must have this effect; hence so few strong men are found among the blind, — hence so many weak and helpless ones.
The development of some of the particular powers seems also to be affected by blindness: this is particularly observable in regard to the sexual propensity, which, while it is particularly strong in the deaf, is weak in the blind; and for the very obvious reason that the imagination is fed in the one case by the sight, and in the other is not. The same principle which causes the physical inability of the blind, contributes mainly to the perfection of the senses which they possess, for these are called into strong and continual action. The touch, the hearing, and the smell of the blind, sometimes become so acute that they differ as widely from the same senses in the state in which we possess them, as does the scent of the spaniel from that of the greyhound.
It is a popular, but unphilosophical saying, that when ‘we are of one sense bereft, it but retires into the rest.’ The blind man does not hear any better, merely because he has not the sense of sight; but because his peculiar situation and wants oblige him to cultivate his ear; just as the sailor acquires a power of descrying vessels at a distance, which is unattainable by the eye of a landsman. Few men are aware of the nature and extent of their own powers; few are aware that they are endowed with senses capable of almost unlimited amelioration. When we reflect upon the astonishing change which culture and attention effect in the physical powers, we are inclined to believe stories like those of ‘him who of old could rend the oak.’ We once knew a man, who had served for thirty years as a sort of telescope and telegraph for the island of Hydra; he used every day to take his post with a glass upon the summit of the island, and look out for the approach of vessels; and although there were over three hundred sail belonging to the island, he would tell the name of each one, as she approached, with unerring certainty, while she was still at such a distance as to present to a common eye only a confused white blur upon the clear horizon. We hardly dare recount some of the feats of vision performed by this man, or give the number of miles at which he could distinguish ships, for it would seem incredible to those who are accustomed to see through our heavy atmosphere ‘as through a glass darkly;’ it convinced us however that the old Athenians might have been able, as is said of them, at twenty miles’ distance from their city, to discern the point of Minerva’s spear as it glittered from the Parthenon, the loftiest point of the lofty Acropolis.
The blind are obliged, both from inclination and necessity, to pay as much attention to the cultivation of their senses as our telescope of Hydra, and the result is still more astonishing. The hearing is the sense which seems to us the most changed in the blind, although we are aware that many people, and even many of the blind themselves, say it is the touch. May we not, however, call all the senses mere modifications of the sense of touch? What is touch? Lexicographers call it the sense of feeling; now this sense of feeling is inherent in a greater or less degree in every part of the surface of the body; in the lips it is very acute, in the ear it is still more so, and the undulations of the air, striking upon the apparatus of hearing, are felt, just as the pressure of a hard substance is by the rest of the body. Is not the power of vision, too, dependent on the touch? The rays of light strike upon the retina , and we feel color. The taste is decidedly a modification of touch, though we are not aware that it is capable of such change by use as the other senses. The power of distinguishing the physical qualities of bodies by the lips and tongue is very striking in the blind, and the notorious fact, that they can pass a thread through the eye of a fine cambric needle, is much less surprising than some others which we shall have occasion to adduce: but, as we said, we do not know that the other kind of touch, which we call taste, is sensibly improved. Perhaps, how ever, it arises from the fact of the generality of mankind tasting so much, and drawing so much pleasure from the use of the sense, that the blind cannot outdo them. This at least is certain, the blind are not often gastronomes.
Diderot, in his ingenious dissertation, remarks, that ‘of all the senses the sight is the most superficial; the ear the most dainty; (1) the smell the most voluptuous; the taste the most whimsical and inconstant; the touch the most profound and philosophic.’
(1) Diderot often used words for mere euphony, and sometimes for — he could not tell what; this was probably the case when he talked about an oreille orgueilleuse.
But we will leave metaphysical discussion, and consider the improvement of the senses, in the light in which it has the most direct bearing upon the situation and the education of the blind.
And first, of the hearing: people are not generally aware of the powers of the ear, and instances which we may quote of it in the blind may at first appear incredible; we have known blind men, for instance, who could not only ascertain the shape and dimensions of an apartment by the sound of their voice, but who could, on entering one with which they were familiar, tell by striking their cane on the floor, and listening to the echo, whether any of the large articles of furniture had been removed from it, or shifted from their usual places. What seeing person would think it possible with his eyes bandaged, to tell which was the tallest, and which was the shortest of a number of speakers, merely by the direction in which the sound came from their mouths to his ear? Yet many blind persons can not only do this, but can ascertain very nearly the ages of the persons. We have made this experiment in more than fifty instances with the blind, and in the great majority of cases they came as near the mark as we did, aided by the eyes. There is no doubt that the voice is changed with every changing year; we seize only upon the extremes of the chain; we can tell the shrill scream of the child, from the rough firm voice of manhood, and the trembling tones of old age; but besides these, — besides the difference in the volume and pitch which exists between the voices of different persons, there is another produced by the course of years; and time stamps his impress upon the voice, as surely as upon the face. The blind man tests these by his practised ear, and not only can ascertain with tolerable correctness the age of the speaker, but pronounce upon his height, the dimensions of his chest, and so forth.
Nor is this the most extraordinary part of the discriminating power of some blind men, who seize upon the slight variations of the intonation of the voice, as we do upon the. changes of the countenance, and judge by them of what is passing in the mind of the speaker. We all of us wear at times a mask upon the countenance, and draw the curtain of hypocrisy over this window of the soul, to conceal what is going on within; but we seldom think of the voice; and it is upon this that the blind man seizes, as upon a thread, to direct him to the seat of the passions. Hence it is, that some of them can ascertain on so short an acquaintance the disposition and character of persons: they are not imposed on by the splendor of dress, they are not prejudiced by an ungainly air, they are not won by a smile, nor are they dazzled by the blaze of beauty or led captive, as many are wont to be, by the fascination of a lovely eye. The voice is to them the criterion of beauty, and when its melodious tones come forcibly stamped with sincerity from the soul, their imaginations at once give to the speaker a graceful form, and a beautiful face. It is recorded of the father of Fletcher the novelist, that he was long continued in the post of Judge in the Police Court of London, after he became blind; and that he knew the voices of more than three thousand of the light-fingered gentry, and could recognise them at once when brought in.
The ear of some animals is surprisingly acute, and there is no doubt that it is improved by blindness; we know of a horse who, after becoming blind, evidently had his hearing very much sharpened, for when feeding in the pasture with others, far from the road, he would hear the sound of hoofs, and raise his head and whinny out his salute, long before his companions betrayed any consciousness of the approach of the passing stranger.
So with the blind man, when he is walking along the street he can tell whether it is wide or narrow, whether the houses are high or low, whether an opening which he may be passing is a court closed up at the end, or whether it has an outlet to another street; and he can tell by the sound of his footsteps in what lane, or court, or square he is. He goes along boldly, seeming to see with his ears, and to have landmarks in the air.
The accuracy of the ear gives to blind persons a very great advantage in music; they depend entirely upon it; and hence they harmonize so well together, and keep such perfect accord in time, that Paganini, after listening to some pieces performed by pupils of the Institution for the Blind in Paris, declared that he never before had an adequate notion of what harmony was.
The touch is capable of being equally perfected, and many remarkable instances are given of this. Saunderson, the blind Professor of Mathematics in the University of Cambridge, in England, became such a connoisseur of ancient coins, that he could detect the modern counterfeits, even when good eyes were puzzled about them. There lived a few years ago a blind man in Austria, who executed very good busts by feeling the faces of persons, and imitating them; and there is now a bust of the late Emperor, executed by this blind man, and preserved in the Museum in Vienna, which is considered a very good likeness. Persons who have witnessed exhibitions at the Institutions for the blind, have been surprised at the ease and fluency with which they can read books printed in raised letters, by passing the fingers rapidly over them: this, however, is by no means so extraordinary as many other instances which are notorious, though not well understood. A blind man, for instance, when walking in a perfect calm, can ascertain the proximity of objects by the feeling of the atmosphere upon his face; it would seem at first that the echo given back, were it only from his breathing, might be sensible to his ear; but we have ascertained by experiment, that a blind man with his ears stopped, could tell when any large object was close to his face, even when it was approached so slowly as not to cause any sensible current of air.
It is a common supposition that the blind can distinguish colors, but after much research we are convinced that this is impossible; all the blind, whom we have consulted on the subject, have replied that they had no such power, and they did not believe that any blind person ever had it. Indeed what tangible quality can there be in a substance so ethereal, that it passes unobstructed through dense glass? There was an instance of a girl in England, who was generally believed to have this power; and the trials and tests which she successfully underwent somewhat puzzled us, until an explanation of the difficulty offered itself in the chemical properties of the different colored rays of light. She could ascertain the colors of different pieces of cloth by applying them to her lips in succession; and she must have learned that some colors radiate heat more rapidly than others, so that she could tell white from black by the different degree of warmth which it imparted to her lips. This is perhaps one of the most extraordinary instances of nicety of touch which can be quoted. The same girl used to astonish incredulous visiters -sic- by reading the large letters of the maker’s name, written in their hats, while they held them behind her back.
We shall not dwell upon the changes which take place in the sense of smell, great as they are, particularly in those unfortunate beings who are both deaf and blind; nor upon those of the taste, for neither of these senses are much depended upon by the blind in the acquisition of knowledge.
We have been thus particular in showing the superiority of the senses of touch and of hearing in the blind, because it is this superiority which compensates them in some measure for the want of sight, and puts them more nearly upon a par with seeing persons, in the attainment of knowledge: a subject which we shall now consider. And first, we shall endeavor to establish the position, that there is hardly a subject in the whole range of science, which may not be mastered without the aid of the sight; this fact, if it be not deducible from a consideration of the nature of the senses, may be established by numerous instances in history of blind men having raised themselves to eminence in various professions. How little do men in general learn by the sight, that they could not learn without it! How vast and varied is the knowledge of some men, who seldom go beyond the bounds of the city in which they were born, and whose knowledge is obtained from books! But cannot the same knowledge be obtained by hearing hooks read by another? Nay! does not the mind grasp it more firmly, and hold it more tenaciously? The very facility with which we can glance over a page, and the ease with which we can refer to it, causes us to be negligent and inattentive; the eye often travels listlessly over sentences, while the mind is travelling elsewhere; and sometimes, even when performing two simultaneous operations of reading and repeating aloud, we may be thinking of something else. But the blind man has the greatest inducement to attention; he knows that he cannot refer to the passages he hears, and he therefore arranges and stores them away in his mind with the greatest order, and can refer to them with ease.
The knowledge which we obtain from books, however, will not be long beyond the reach of the blind man, since ingenuity is fast bringing to perfection a system of printing for his use; but even if it were so, there is a still more vast and valuable mine of knowledge which is to he explored by conversation and intercourse with the world; and to this the blind man has free access: there are a great many shrewd and intelligent men in the world who are as blind to books, as he is, and who can hardly sign their names.
How did Malte Brun acquire his knowledge of the geography of the countries about which he wrote so fully and so well, — was it by visiting them? No! it was by a process of study which he might have followed as thoroughly, though not quite so easily, had be been deprived of sight. How do we learn the geography, the history, the language, the manners and customs of different countries which we never saw, — is it not by means which are perfectly within the reach of a blind man, provided the necessary pains are taken with him? In mathematics, do we not close our eyes, the more completely to shut out external impressions, and the more intensely to bend our faculties to the contemplation of the question? And in every mathematical calculation whatever, has not the blind man an immense advantage over us, provided he be furnished with the means of putting down his results in a manner to be read by himself? Now we shall see that such means are provided for him, and that he can go through arithmetical and algebraical calculations with greater ease than seeing persons. All kinds of problems may also be solved by the blind, since tangible diagrams can be prepared for them.
The languages, the classics, the long range of history, the wide field of letters, are all open to the blind man: we see no obstacle at all in the way of his becoming an able counsellor at law, or occupying the pulpit with ability and advantage. As for music, and her sister poetry, it would be an idle waste of words to try to prove that the blind can become their successful votaries, — for there stand a long array of sightless bards, headed by the ‘blind old man of Scio’s rocky isle,’ whose verse has charmed every age, and been repeated in every tongue. In music, the names of Stanley, Gautier and Chauvain are already conspicuous.
But, after all, the best argument in favor of the capacity of the blind for receiving a high degree of education is to be found in the number of those who have raised themselves to eminence. Ancient history abounds with them; the names of Didymus of Alexandria, Eusebius and Aufidius are well known; and Diodotus, the master of Cicero, who lost his sight, still pursued his studies with great success; his illustrious disciple says of him, ‘Is vero, quod credibile vix esset, cum in philosophia multo magis assidue, quam antea versaretur, et cum fidibus Pythagoraeorum more uteretur, cumque ei libri noctes et dies legerentur, quibus in studiis oculis non egebat, turn, quod sine oculis fieri vix videtur, geometriae munus tuebatur verbis praecipiens discentibus, unde, quo, quamque linearn scriberent.’ Achmed Ben Soliman, one of the most beautiful Arabian writers and poets, was blind from his infancy.
But we need not go back to distant ages to find examples of men who have raised themselves to eminence, in spite of the obstacles which nature has placed in their way. Saunderson, who flourished in the last century, and filled so ably the professorship of mathematics at the University of Cambridge in England, had lost his sight in infancy, as is known to every one. He published a volume called the Elements of Algebra, an extraordinary work, filled with singular demonstrations which a seeing person would not perhaps have hit upon. But the most wonderful of Saunderson’s performances were his dissertations upon optics, light and colors, with which he used to delight and astonish his audience.
The Rev. Dr. Blacklock, too, gave extraordinary proofs of the power and correctness of the imagination, for though he never saw the light, he has left us some most beautiful delineations of nature, in the volumes of poems which he published: as in his Wish,
On rising ground the prospect to command,
Untinged with smoke, where vernal breezes blow,
In rural neatness let my cottage stand;
Here wave a wood, and there a river flow.
Oft from the neighboring hills and pastures near
Let sheep with tender bleat salute my ear, &c.
And again, —
Let long lived pansies here their scents bestow,
The violet languish and the roses glow;
In yellow glory let the crocus shine,
Narcissus here his love-sick head recline;
Here hyacinths in purple sweetness rise,
And tulips, tinged with beauty’s fairest dyes.
Contemporary with Blacklock was Dr. Henry Moyes, the eloquent professor of philosophical chemistry in Manchester.
‘Though he lost his sight in early infancy, he made rapid progress in different sciences; he acquired not only the fundamental principles of physics, music, and languages, but he plunged deeply into the most abstract sciences, and displayed a minute knowledge of geometry, of optics, of algebra, of astronomy, of chemistry, and in a word of most of the branches of the Newtonian philosophy. Every time he entered into society, he first passed some minutes in silence: the sound enabled him to judge of the dimensions of the apartment, and the different voices of the number of persons present. His calculations in this respect were very exact, and his memory was so faithful that he was seldom mistaken. I have known him recognise a person the instant he heard him speak, although more than two years had elapsed since they had met. He could ascertain with precision the stature of persons by the direction of their voices; and he made tolerable hits at their character and disposition by the tone of their conversation. (2)
(2) Memoir on Blindness, by Mr. Bew, of the Philosophical Society of Manchester.
The instances which we have quoted are but a small portion of those which may he adduced in favor of the facility of giving to the blind an education. These were men who were endowed with genius; but great as were their powers, their minds would have been left in darkness as total as their bodies, had they not been fortunate enough to possess friends of a philosophic turn of mind, whose affections prompted them to great efforts to overcome the obstacle of blindness. The zeal of the subjects more than requited them.
We will now adduce one example of astonishing powers of another kind, in a blind man, who was entirely neglected in his youth: it is that of John Metcalf, about whom ample evidence and information may be obtained from the transactions of the Philosophical Society of Manchester, and from the Memoir of Mr. Bew. Metcalf was a native of Derbyshire, in England, and he early became so well acquainted with the roads, that he took up the trade of a teamster, driving his cart from one place to another. During very dark nights, he used to act as guide to those who had eyes, but could not see: in this, however, he was not entirely singular, for there is a well known instance of a blind guide in Switzerland. But Metcalf gradually rose in the world, and having acquired a most exact knowledge of the situation, size and shape of every hill, rock, and tree about the Peak, he undertook to correct the direction of the routes; and having, by the help of a compass, laid out several plans, which were adopted, — he took up the business of a surveyor.
Mr. Bew says, ‘he is now occupied in projecting and laying out roads in mountainous and almost inaccessible districts. I have often met him with a long pole in his hand, crossing roads, clambering precipices, descending into valleys, and feeling out their different dimensions, their forms and situations, so as to be able to make out his designs most correctly. He makes his plans, and estimates by a peculiar process which he cannot communicate; nevertheless, his talent is so decided, that he constantly finds occupation. Most of the routes on the Peaks of Derbyshire have been changed in consequence of his suggestions, principally those in the neighborhood of Buxton. At this moment he is employed in planning and putting in operation a new road between Winslow and Congleton, so as to open a communication with the great London road, which will obviate the necessity of crossing the mountain. (3)
(3) We have not been able to procure an English copy of Mr. Bew’s Memoir, — and are obliged to re-translate it from a French copy.
It will require that a person shall have reflected much upon the nature of the senses, and known some instances of the astonishing increase of their powers in the case of the blind, to give full credit to the statements about Metcalf; but for our part we have no hesitation in believing them, for we have had personal knowledge of some of the blind, whose powers were almost equally great. We have known young men who rode fearlessly on the high roads on horseback; who could wind their way with speed and certainty through the streets and alleys of large cities; and who could mingle in society, — and waltz with ease and grace. There is in our own neighborhood a young man who accomplishes, every year, long journeys on foot and alone; going from Massachusetts to Maine. There are in the Institution for the Blind in our city, several persons who go freely about alone; and one, who though but six months resident here, will go readily to any street or house to which he has once been led; and can even find a house which he never entered, provided he is told on which side of the street it is, and how many doors from the corner. His manner of finding his way is singular, and affords a striking proof of the delicacy of his senses; for he does not go groping along with a cane, and feeling of the houses and corners; but marches with head erect, avoiding persons whom he hears approaching. When he comes to an opening, he measures its sound with his ear to ascertain if it be the one down which he is to go, and if not, turns short on his heel, and marches until he comes to another opening. When he has arrived at the street in which is the house where he wishes to go, he either counts the doors from the corner, or goes on until he judges that he is near it, and then, finding some object which he knows, for a landmark, he makes up to the door and rings.
Now we say, it is strange, that, notwithstanding the obvious facilities which are given to the blind for the attainment of knowledge, in the superior acuteness of their remaining senses, so little has been done for them; and that, from examples such as we have quoted, a favorable inference was not sooner drawn in regard to the whole class. But such men as Saunderson, and Moyes, and Metcalf, were regarded as prodigies and people paid them the passing tribute of admiration, without reflecting that they were members of a large class who were left in utter ignorance and neglect.
The benevolent and enthusiastic HaÃ¼y, who has generally been considered the inventor of the apparatus for educating the blind, established the first school for them in his own house at Paris, about forty-five years ago. He does not, however, appear to have done so much in the way of inventing apparatus as has been generally supposed, for, according to the report of the commissioners of the French Academy, his system resembles that of the blind man of Priseaux; his method of teaching geography is about the same as that of Mr. Weinemburg; and Mr. Hamoroux had formerly invented tangible musical characters.’ The Abbe HaÃ¼y, however, merits the endearing title which has been given him of ‘the father of the blind;’ a reward richer than a crown, — a title more truly glorious than that of conqueror. He invented a method of printing for the blind, by pressing the type strongly on sized paper, so as to produce a bold relief in the shape of the letter upon the reverse of the page, which relief the blind feel with the ends of their fingers. He produced a great sensation in the French capital by exhibitions of his pupils; all classes of society became interested; and it was for some time an absolute rage; each one strove to outdo the other, — donations poured in, and upon the strength of this passing enthusiasm, an institution was got up and filled with young blind persons. But in a short time the enthusiasm of the public subsided, (as it ever will,) the institution could not be continued on the scale upon which it was commenced, the pupils were in want of even decent clothing, and the establishment was at its last gasp, — when the Constituent Assembly of the Revolution took it up. It has since been supported at the expense of the Government.
The good Abbe HaÃ¼y however knew how to keep up public enthusiasm, by applying the torch in another place, when the combustible matter was exhausted in the first, and he had the satisfaction of being summoned by the Autocrat of Russia to found an institution for the education of the blind in St. Petersburgh: thither he repaired with one of his accomplished pupils; and having raised there a second monument to his own glory, and that of humanity, and a third in Berlin, he returned to Paris, and was gathered to his fathers. The generous impulse which he had given was communicated to other countries, and Institutions for the education of the blind were got up in Amsterdam, Vienna, Dresden, London, Liverpool, Edinburgh, and even in Madrid. Some of these schools were founded in a moment of passing enthusiasm, but like seed thrown upon the rock, they found no genial earth and have sadly dwindled; those at Amsterdam, St. Petersburgh and Madrid are in this situation; and even the others, though planted in a propitious soil, and watered by copious showers of patronage, have not attained that lofty and luxuriant growth, which their nature seemed to promise them.
We propose to examine the system of education followed in these different seminaries; and if our remarks shall appear to be in a tone of severe criticism, let it be understood that, in making them, we have in view the good of those institutions which are rising in our own country; that we wish them to avoid the dangerous error of copying every thing from the European schools; that we wish them to consider the latter as beacons to warn, rather than lights to guide; and finally, that while we find much fault with the details of the foreign system, we pay our sincere tribute of admiration to the humane spirit and generous philanthropy of those, who are interested in these Institutions.
L’Institution des Jeunes Aveugles (formerly styled Les Aveugles Travailleurs,) is sometimes confounded with the Hospital of the Quinze Vingt: but this is a very different establishment, and one of the proudest monuments of humanity of which France can boast; it was founded by St. Louis on his return from the East, for such of his soldiers as had lost their sight; as its name imports, it receives and supports fifteen score or three hundred adult blind persons: but no attempt is made to educate them or administer other solace than that of food, raiment, and a comfortable home.
The Institution for the young blind, however, is intended solely for their education, and none but children between ten and fourteen years of age are admitted: there are one hundred of these interesting beings in the establishment, and a more delightful spectacle cannot be imagined than a view of its interior. You see not there the listless, helpless blind man dozing away his days in a chimney nook, or groping his uncertain way about the house; but you hear the hum of busy voices, — you see the workshops filled with active boys, learning their trades from others as blind as themselves, — you see the school-rooms crowded with eager listeners taught by blind teachers. When they take their books, you see the awakened intellect gleam from their smiling faces, and as they pass their fingers rapidly over the leaves, their varying countenances bespeak the varying emotions which the words of the author awaken: — when the hell rings they start away to the play ground, — run along the alleys at full speed, — chase, overtake, and tumble each other about, — and shout, and laugh, and caper round with all the careless, heartfelt glee of boyhood. But a richer treat, and better sport awaits them, — the bell again strikes, — and away they all hurry to the hall of music; each one brings his instrument, and takes his place; — they are all there, — the soft flute, and the shrill fife, — the hautboy and horn, — the cymbal and drum, — with clarinet, viol, and violin; — and now they roll forth their volume of sweet sounds, and the singers, treble, bass, and tenor, striking in with exact harmony, swell it into one loud hymn of gratitude and joy, which are displayed in the rapturous thrill of their voices, and painted in the glowing enthusiam -sic- of their animated countenances.
Such is the scene which presents itself to the delighted visitant of the Parisian Institution for the young blind; and he comes away with a feeling of unqualified admiration for that spirit of humanity which, guided by science, is there accomplishing so much in defiance of the apparently insurmountable obstacles of nature. But he who goes again, and again, and examines not only the foliage and the flower, but waits for the season of the fruit, finds his admiration dwindling into doubt; and feels at last the painful conviction, that all this display is of comparatively little good, and that not one half the benefit that might be derived from such splendid means ever accrues to the unfortunate inmates. He asks the question, How many of those who leave the institution at the expiration of their time are enabled to gain their own livelihood, — and is startled at the answer of not one in twenty. What then? Must they relapse into their original inanition? Must they take their places by the highway, and beg at the corner of the streets, with the pangs of dependence sharpened to torture by increased sensibility? Alas! it is almost as bad as this with many. And how is it proposed to remedy this evil; how do they hope to prevent the glimmering which the blind here catch of happiness from being followed by a futurity doubly dark and wretched? Why, instead of looking for the cause of the evil, instead of suspecting the system, and correcting that, they propose to establish a place for the permanent reception and support of those who come out from the institution, and who cannot provide for themselves. This is very like educating men for the almshouse.
We were painfully affected by this conclusion, which seemed like the destruction of one of the fairest fabrics that ever blessed the dream of the philanthropist; and were led to examine again and again the system in detail, until we discovered, or thought we discovered, most apparent causes for the meagre harvest of good, which is reaped from such a promising soil. We looked in vain for the improvements which ought to have been made in the apparatus of HaÃ¼y, during the thirty years which had elapsed since his death; — we looked in vain, for none existed. A narrow and illiberal jealousy; an attempt at secrecy and reserve met our endeavors to examine the nature of this apparatus: and when we inquired whether some obvious and simple changes might not be made for the better, we were repelled by the sapient and reproving answer, that surely if any improvements could have been made, such great and good men as the Abbe HaÃ¼y, and his successors, would not have overlooked them.
But before exposing the faults of the system of education pursued at the Institution for the Blind at Paris, we ought, perhaps, to explain it as it now exists. Pupils are admitted from the age of ten to fourteen, and are expected to remain there eight years. During this time they receive a very good intellectual education; they have much attention given to the cultivation of their musical powers; and are taught also many kinds of handicraft work. Their library consists of about forty different works, which have been printed in raised characters, and are legible with the fingers; among them are Latin, English, and Italian grammars; Extracts from Latin, English, and Italian authors. They have maps constructed by a very expensive and clumsy process; they paste the map of any country upon stiff pasteboard, then, having bent a wire into all the curves of the coast, and laid it along the courses of the rivers, and in the line of the boundaries, they sew it down to the pasteboard, and taking a second map of the same dimensions, paste it immediately over the first, and pressing it down all around the wire, leave its windings to be felt. Here it is obvious to any one, that common ingenuity could devise material improvement. Some have in fact been devised and put in operation at the Institution in our city, where the maps, made at one tenth of the expense of the Parisian ones, present the most obvious and important advantages over them. (4)
(4) The improvement consists in having a metal plate engraved with all the lines, elevations, boundary marks, positions of towns, &c.; from this plate impressions are struck in pasteboard, which produce a perfect embossed map.
They have also in Paris music printed in the same way as the books, that is, by stamping the notes through the paper and producing their shape in relief on the opposite side. It is not found very advantageous, however, to print music in this way, for the memory of the blind is so tenacious that they can learn very long pieces.
Mathematical diagrams are made in the same way as the maps, but in defiance as it were of common sense, they retain the old ones of HaÃ¼y, which are very large and clumsy; — so large, that the hands of the pupils must be moved about in all directions to feel the whole outline of the forty-seventh proposition of Euclid, — whereas the smaller the diagram is made, the more easily is it felt and studied, and the less does it cost. The blind are indebted, we think, to the Rev. Mr. Taylor, of York, in England, for a plan of embossing mathematical diagrams: (5) but even his are larger than they need to be, and many of the problems would be more rapidly learned by the blind student, were the diagrams so small that he could feel the outlines of them with his fingers, without moving his hands.
(5) The Diagrams of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, arranged according to Simpson’s Edition, in an embossed or tangible form, for the use of blind persons who wish to enter upon the study of that noble science. By the Rev. W. Taylor, Vicar of Bishop Barton. York, 1828.
The children are taught arithmetic, not merely orally, but the use of the slate is supplied to them by a very clumsy contrivance similar to that of Saunderson: a board is filled with numerous square holes arranged symmetrically; and into these holes types are made to fit, on the ends of which are the shapes of the figures of the units, — as one, two, three, &c. so that when the learner wishes to put down 25, he searches among the types for the one which has the figure 2 upon the end; this he places upright in the square hole so that the figure is above the surface of the board, and then he searches for the figure 5, which he places in the hole to the right of it, and then, feeling of both, he reads 25. And thus any number or any combination of numbers may be put down, and any arithmetical process may be performed. This method, however, has been much simplified by a contrivance of one of the pupils in the Edinburgh school, where they use but two types instead of ten. There the types, instead of having the form of the figures at the end, have a point on one corner; and if the type is placed in the square hole, in such a way that this point is felt on the left hand corner of the upper line, it signifies one, — if the type is turned, and the point is on the right land corner of the upper line, it signifies three, if on either of the other two corners, it signifies the other two odd numbers: thus we have four figures with one type. Now there is on the other end of this type a point in the middle of one of its edges, instead of being on the corner, and this, turned to one or the other of the four sides, signifies one or the other of the four even numbers — two, four, six, eight; thus we have four odd and four even numbers with one type turned to different sides of the square hole. Then there is a second type which has a point in the centre of one end, to signify, five, and which is smooth on the other end to signify zero. Now suppose one wishes to express 5073; he searches for the type with a point in its centre, and puts it into the square hole, so that the point is felt above the surface of the board; he then finds another type of the same kind, and putting it into the hole, the other end first, he has the smooth end of the type above the surface, which is zero, he then has down, 50; now he takes one of the other kind of type, and feeling for the point at the corner he places it in the hole, so that the point is felt in the right hand corner of the lower side, or the side towards him, to the right of the zero, it then reads 507; then taking another of the same kind of type, he puts the other end down and leaves above the surface the point in the middle of the upper side, in the situation in which it signifies 3.
Now it is evidently a very great advantage to be able to work with only two kinds of type, instead of selecting from ten; but the Parisians never dream of adopting the Scotsman’s improvement; and perhaps the Scotsman will be as slow in adopting an improvement of his method by an American, but which is as evident as his improvement of the Frenchman’s. It will be perceived that in running the fingers over the surface of a number of types, it may be difficult to ascertain whether the point is upon the corner, or in the middle of one edge of the type; and a mistake in this respect will ruin the whole process. In the Institution in this city, this is obviated by having an entirely different mark on the end of the type; instead of distinguishing the sign 3 from the sign 4 by its being on the corner instead of the middle of one side of the type it is marked by two points on the surface of the type; and the figure for 5, instead of being marked by a type which differs only from the rest by having its point in the centre, instead of on the corner, is marked by a sharp line drawn diagonally across it, so that the types differ from each other not only by their position, but by such a marked difference in the feeling of them, that they cannot he confounded. The arithmetical board itself has been improved by being made much more compact, by the holes being brought much nearer together, and the bulk and weight of the whole apparatus considerably diminished.
Printing for the use of the blind is carried on in the establishment at Paris, and the composition, the press work, the stitching and the binding are all performed by the pupils, with very little assistance from les clairvoyans. In setting up and distributing the types, they are very expert, and though in the first, they require to have a seeing person to read to them, (unless they reprint from a page in relief,) yet in the latter they work perfectly well without any assistance.
The books printed by the blind have attracted much attention, and excited much observation; but to us it is really astonishing, that so little should have been done towards improving them; indeed we cannot perceive, that they are in any respect superior to those issued from the press in the very infancy of the art. It is a beautiful and most valuable invention, which enables the blind ‘to look Along the pages of a book;’ but our admiration is qualified by regret, when we think of how much improvement they are susceptible, — to what a comparative degree of perfection they might be brought, and reflect that nothing has been done towards it. The books now used are exceedingly bulky and expensive, — and the New Testament would be extended to at least ten volumes of folio size, if printed entire for the blind. The French seem to have been arrested in the progress of improvement, by a blind adherence to the false maxim established by the Abbe HaÃ¼y, that in all things, ‘il faut autant que possible rapprocher les aveugles aux clairvoyans;’ hence, say they, we must make their books resemble those of seeing persons, and print them with the same shaped letter. Now this is a foolish adherence to the letter of the rule, without regard to its spirit, even were the spirit of it correct, which is not the case. It is not possible, as it respects their books, de rapprocher les aveugles aux clairvoyans: because a blind man never can read the books of seeing persons, and seeing persons never will read those of the blind, be they printed ever so like his own: it is therefore ridiculous to adhere to our clumsy and ill shaped letters in printing for the blind. They are quite aware of this in Scotland, and Mr. GaIl of Edinburgh, with a praiseworthy zeal, and at great expense, has made many experiments, and succeeded completely in avoiding the error of the French, by running into one on the opposite extreme. He has succeeded in bringing the lines much nearer together, and saves something in space on each page; but he founds his principal claim for improvement, upon the change in the shape of the letters, which he makes entirely angular; and distinguishes one from the other by the different positions of the angles, — for instance, a triangle with the acute point turned to the left, shall signify one letter, and the same shaped triangle, with the point turned to the right, shall signify another letter. Now in this way Mr. Gall overlooks what we maintain to be an indisputable maxim in printing for the blind, — viz. make the letters to differ as much as possible from each other in shape, and do not let the difference be in position merely; and for this obvious reason, that if an acute-angled triangle shall signify a when its angle is turned to the left, and signify b when it is turned to the right, — then you require two mental processes to be carried on in the mind of the blind man before he can tell a from b; first, he has to feel the shape of the letter, — he finds it is an acute angled triangle, — and having ascertained this, he must feel whether the acute angle is turned to the right or to the left, before lie knows whether it is a, or b. Now it is true that the operation is carried on in an inconceivably small space of time, but nevertheless it is a space of time, and if it be multiplied by the number of letters on a page, it amounts to something; the principal objection, however, is the double mental operation which is required. Mr. Gall asserts that he has tried the experiment upon blind children, and found that they could learn his system of letters much quicker than the common shaped ones; this may be, and still his system may be a very imperfect one; but we do not place much confidence in such experiments, unless they be tried upon great numbers, and with most marked results. We have also tried the two systems, and the children who learned only one each, seemed to learn them with equal rapidity, while those who learned both, declared that they learned them with equal ease. Let us grant, however, for the sake of argument, that Mr. Gall’s angular characters may be more easily learned; this by no means proves that they should be adopted. It by no means lessens the regret which every enlightened friend of the blind feels, that so much expense has been incurred, and so much pains taken to introduce a system of printing, so manifestly imperfect, since this is an objection to changing it; and we think the persons connected with the Edinburgh Institution were right in withholding from Mr. Gall their countenance and support to his plan of printing the New Testament for the blind, in a character which supplied none of the desiderata.
Another system of letters has been devised by Mr. Hay, a blind man, teacher of languages in Edinburgh; but there exist as powerful objections to it as to that of Mr. Gall, viz. the size and similarity of the characters; his may be called the right lined system, while Gall’s is the angular one.
But the clumsiest and most uncouth system which ever was devised, is that practised in the Glasgow Asylum; where they have letters made by different kinds of knots tied on a string, which of course must be wound up in a ball, so that the pupil must unroll the whole ball, before he comes to the part he wants. A chapter of the Testament makes a ball as large as an eighteen pound shot; and the whole Bible would require a store room as large as a church.
The art of printing for the blind is a most important and interesting subject; and there is nothing on which the man of science and ingenuity can turn his thoughts with more hope of accomplishing a desirable end, and bestowing an immense benefit on an unfortunate class of persons. The principal objection to the books now in use is their bulk and consequent expense, and the grand desideratum is to condense them; now this can only be done by throwing away our common letter entirely, and adopting a system of stenography. In this system three principles must be kept in view; first, to make the letters differ from each other as much as possible in shape; secondly, to adapt those figures or shapes which most resemble each other, to letters which do not often come together in writing, as p, q; thirdly, to express the letters which occur most often, as a, e, i, by those signs which occupy the least space, as a point.
We look confidently for the time when books may be printed for the blind in the stenographic system, which shall be nearly, if not quite as commodious and portable as those designed for our use; and we would earnestly invite the attention of those who are so nobly and so eagerly engaged in putting the Scriptures within the reach of the benighted heathen, to the claims of hundreds and thousands in our own land, who are denied the privilege of reading the Word of God, and whose situation is much more forlorn than theirs. It may be said, that the blind can have the Scriptures read to them, and therefore that they have not so much need of having them printed for their own use; but such an excuse comes with an ill grace from those who object to the Catholic religion, for the reason that it does not put the Scriptures within the reach of every one, and who believe that the welfare of an immortal soul may depend upon the construction of a few sentences. But besides the importance of allowing every one to read and judge for himself, let it be considered what a treasure a copy of the Bible in raised letters would be to a blind man how, deprived as he is of other books, he would pore over it, and study its every line and every precept; how it would be the companion of every solitary moment; how its divine and consoling doctrines would cheer and illuminate the dark night of his existence; and how he would bless and pray for those, who had kindled this beacon to throw a light across his dreary path. The lowest estimate must give more than five thousand blind persons to these United States, and surely it is as much an object and a duty to print the Scriptures for these unfortunate beings, to whom any book would be a treasure, as to print them for the heathen. As yet, only St. John’s Gospel has been printed for the blind; although many attempts have been made in France and England to get the means for printing the whole New Testament; let it be then for America to effect this; let her bestow this inestimable blessing upon the blind, and their prayers will be her rich reward.
But there is another powerful motive for printing the Scriptures in tangible characters, and that is, that there are many people, who, from age or some affection of the sight, are unable to use their eyes; to such persons, a copy of the Scriptures, which they might read with their fingers, would be an invaluable blessing, especially as they may learn to read it in a week.
But we have wandered insensibly from our subject, which was a consideration of the causes which operate to prevent the French Institution from accomplishing the object proposed in educating the blind. In enumerating all of them, we might dwell upon the faults in the detail of their apparatus; but these are of minor consequence, — there must be more important causes; and one of these is the uniformity of the system, which is applied to all, without taking into consideration the disposition, talents, or the station in life of the pupil. Among an hundred who are admitted, there may be some who might make excellent mathematicians, but can never excel as weavers; there may be others who can become fine composers of music, but who never will make good baskets; on the other hand, we may see some who would become very expert at different mechanical arts and handicraft works, but who never could learn, and teach the languages. Little regard, however, is paid to this, and as little to the pecuniary circumstances, and station in life of the friends of the pupil. If a boy is taken from the highway, where he had been a beggar; and if at the end of eight years he is sent out of the Institution with a tolerable knowledge of music, mathematics, and general science, and a superficial acquaintance with four or five different kinds of handicraft work, but without a decided dexterity and excellence in any one; if, we say, such a youth be without friends, then his situation is more desolate and miserable than when he was in a state of ignorance and indifference. He has drunk at The fountain of knowledge long enough to create a painful thirst for its waters, which cannot be gratified; he has lived in ease only long enough to make penury doubly dreary; and his mind has been so elevated, as to make a feeling of dependence the source of wretchedness. If, however, he had spent the most of his time in musical, or mathematical or classic studies, he might have attained such an excellence as to have taught them successfully; or if the tenor of his mind had been unequal to this, he might, by devoting himself wholly to some one handicraft work, have become so expert at it as to compete successfully with his seeing rivals. But neither in the Parisian, nor in any other European Institution that we are acquainted with, is this principle properly regarded. At Paris, they class the pupils without any regard to it; all are obliged to study a certain number of hours a day, to work a certain number, and to give the rest of their time to music; and if they have no ear at all for it, they must study it without an ear.
Then, their time is frittered away by an extremely minute subdivision; they give half an hour to one study, — and then they are called away by the bell to another class room, whence, after losing fifteen minutes in arranging themselves, and fixing their minds upon the subject, they are summoned in less than an hour to a third, and to a fourth.
Another great fault is, that they all devote five hours a day to handicraft work; now, this is a great deal too much for a blind man, whose object is intellectual education, and it is far too little for one who means to live by the labor of his hands. But what is worse than this, they are obliged to try to learn so many different kinds of work, that they succeed in none; they devote a few months, or a year, to making whips, another similar term to weaving, a third to net-making, and a fourth to braiding; so that in learning how to braid, a boy forgets how to weave. Now if men, with all their senses, must give their undivided attention for seven years in order to learn any art or trade, how much more necessary is it for a blind man so to do? We would apply the same remarks to most of the European Institutions, with the exception of that of Vienna, which has not fallen under our notice. But we have yet a word for the Parisian School; and we feel constrained by a sense of duty to say it, with the hope, that considering the absolute dearth of any publications about the education of the blind, this paper may fall under the observation of those who are interested in the welfare of the Institution in Paris. There pervades that establishment a spirit of illiberality, of mysticism, amounting almost to charlatanism, that ill accords with the well known liberality of most French Institutions. There is a ridiculous attempt at mystery, — an effort at show and parade, which injures the establishment in the minds of men of sense. Instead of throwing wide open the door of knowledge, and inviting the scrutiny and the suggestions of every friend of humanity, the process of education is not explained, and the method of constructing some of the apparatus is absolutely kept a secret! We say this from personal knowledge. The same spirit leads to ungenerous treatment of those pupils who leave the Institution, who cannot procure the books which are for sale there without paying an enormous advance on the cost, — while those who remain, be their age or character what they may, are not allowed to go into the city to give lessons in music, the languages, or in any thing else. We have known some of them to study the English language secretly in their leisure hours, because those having the direction of the establishment had in their wisdom discovered, that it was an improper study for the blind!
With regard to the rest of the European institutions, we shall not enter into a minute examination of the system followed in them; a few general remarks and criticisms will apply to all those on the continent. Before making them, we would again pay our most sincere tribute of admiration to the benevolent individuals engaged in these establishments. Their zeal and labors have been productive of immense benefit to the blind. But they have had much to contend with; they have been laboring in a new and unbroken pathway to usefulness; and it is in the hope of profiting even by their errors, that we point them out. What they have done well and successfully, will serve us as models and guides; in what they have erred or failed, they will serve us as warning beacons.
Those Institutions, endowed and supported by the governments, in general aim too much at show and parade; their object seems to be to teach the pupils to perform such feats at the exhibition as will redound to the credit and glory of the government, rather than to their own good: there is an attempt to make them obtain a smattering of many things, rather than a thorough and useful knowledge of a few. The Institutions at St. Petersburgh and Amsterdam have dwindled into mere Asylums, and that at Madrid, if we mistake not, into nothing at all.
Those establishments, which are supported principally by the zeal and humanity of individuals, thrive much better. The one at Berlin is under the direction of Professor Zeun, — a liberal and enlightened man, who is however cramped in his operations by the prejudices of others: he believes, for instance, that the blind, when educated, make the best teachers of the blind; but he is not allowed to employ them as he would. The Institutions in England are not under the direction of scientific men, nor is their object a scientific or intellectual education of the blind: the one in London is merely for indigent blind, and they are taught only handicraft work, and a little music; no books are used in the establishment, and no intellectual education is given. The one in Edinburgh is less objectionable in this respect, but the Liverpool and Glasgow Institutions are conducted on the same principle. It is alleged that the pupils, being all indigent, must depend solely upon the labor of their hands for a livelihood; but we maintain that this is a false view of the subject, and we shall endeavor to show that, on this principle (which has been followed hitherto in all the Institutions,) fewer blind persons will be made competent to their own support, than might be by following an opposite one. The great obstacle to the successful competition of the blind with the seeing man, for a livelihood, is the want of sight. What is the occupation then in which sight is least wanted? Is it handicraft work? Decidedly not. Can a blind man ever work so fast or so well at any trade as a seeing man, caeteris paribus? By no manner of means; but he may become, to say the least, as good a musician, as profound a mathematician, as thorough a linguist; and he may teach these branches of knowledge as well. If then the pupil has a decided talent for music, for mathematics, for languages, let him apply himself with all his might, and during the whole season of his youth, to these studies; let him be assured that he will be more likely to attain excellence, and gain a livelihood by them, than by making carpets or rugs, — though he make them ever so well.
Manual labor should be considered as the dernier resort, the forlorn hope of the blind, and such only should be put to it, as cannot expect to attain excellence in the occupations we have already mentioned; when, however, it is resorted to, let it be with constant attention, and let not this attention be distracted by a variety of callings. There are some kinds of work in which a blind man can nearly compete with a seeing one, as in weaving; but unfortunately for him, he has not man alone as a competitor, for machinery here defies competition. There is, however, the coarse rug-weaving, and the making of mattrasses, both of which are carried on successfully in the Asylum for the Indigent Blind in Edinburgh. The mattrasses, mats, and baskets, which are manufactured in the establishment, have quite as good an appearance as any made in the city; and, enjoying a well merited reputation of being stronger and more durable, they command a higher price in the market.
The Institution in Edinburgh is decidedly of a higher order than any other in England; and it is one of its merits, that the fabrication of the articles we have just mentioned chiefly occupies the attention of the inmates. In London they attempt to teach the pupils to make shoes; and they do make them strong and well; but it is an occupation by which very few blind persons can earn even half the wages of a common journeyman; and as common journeymen in England can hardly get wages enough to keep soul and body together, it is easy to conceive that their situation must be very uncomfortable.
One word more, and we have done with the European Institutions. The blind are there treated too much as mere objects of pity; they are not taught to rely with confidence upon their own resources, to believe themselves possessed of the means of filling useful and active spheres in society.
It will be perceived, from what we have said, that the European Institutions fall far short of what should be the aim of the philanthropist in educating the blind, viz, to enable them to pass their lives pleasantly and usefully in some constant occupation, which shall ensure to them a competent livelihood. But far be it from us to despair of this great result; there are innumerable difficulties in the commencement of every establishment, which perseverance and well directed experiments may remove; the subject is new even in Europe, and most of the Institutions are but in their infancy.
In this country, however, not only will our Institutions reap the full advantage of all the experiments in Europe, but they will have much less to contend with. In Europe, the gains of the laboring man are so small, that he would starve if they were diminished one third; but here, thank God! the sweat of the poor man’s brow does not all go to increase the wealth of him who is already rich; and if a blind man were to gain a trifle less than his neighbor, he might still procure not only the necessaries, but the comforts of life.
In Europe, too, strange as it may seem in this age, the blind man has to struggle against stubborn and cruel prejudices; people are so accustomed to consider the blind as ignorant and degraded dependents, that if two organists, equally well qualified, should apply for a place in a church, — and one of them be blind, he would probably lose it. Here, it is to be hoped the misfortune of the claimant would be the strongest argument in his favor.
Of the works whose titles we have placed at the head of this article, the first is well known; and the second is remarkable as being the production of a blind man, the author of Lettres sur les Aveugles faisant suite a celle de Diderot. Alexander Rodenbach, member of the Belgian Chamber of Deputies, and one of the most active and conspicuous patriots of the last revolution, lost his sight in infancy, and was one of the pupils of the Abbe HaÃ¼y, who engrafted upon his bold and original mind an excellent education: he has a ready wit, and a happy delivery, and he forms one of the principal supports of the democratic party in the Chamber, which he often makes to ring with his original and eloquent speeches.
The title of his book is a singular one, A glance by a blind man at the condition of the Deaf and Dumb; and we might make many amusing extracts from it, were space allowed us. The most interesting chapter is that on the comparative situation of the blind and the dumb. Is it a greater misfortune to be blind or to be deaf? It is as remarkable as fortunate, that each class decides this question in its own favor; but it appears to us evident, that abundant reasons might be given why blindness is the less evil, were this not rendered unnecessary by the well known fact, that the blind are generally much more happy and contented with their lot than the deaf. We would recommend this book to those engaged in the education of the deaf and dumb; they will find in it some proofs of the imperfection of the system in common use, — some allusions to the quackery that has been imposed upon the world, and from which the Abbe de l’Epee was not entirely free. We fully agree with Mr. Rodenbach on the importance of teaching the deaf to articulate sounds, and we are sorry that this plan has been abandoned in the Hartford school, — which (otherwise) is one of the best in the world. We have known deaf persons in Germany, who could express their thoughts by articulate sounds, so as very easily to be comprehended by any one; and when we reflect that the world will not learn their system of signs, and that they are often placed in situations where they cannot write, it becomes to them a matter of moment to make themselves understood by speech.
While on the subject of the deaf, we may observe that, strong as are their claims upon humanity, those of the blind are still stronger; for the blind are much more dependent; a deaf boy can learn any kind of handicraft work or trade, while a blind one can learn nothing, without a system of education entirely adapted to his situation.
The efforts of human ingenuity to overcome the obstacles which accident has placed in its way, are no where more visible, than in the successful attempts of the blind and deaf to converse together. As the blind cannot perceive the signs of the deaf nor they hear the words of the blind, each must seek a new language, and they communicate their ideas by tracing the forms of letters on the palms of each others’ hands. When more familiar, the deaf may be seen teaching the blind the language of signs by holding up their hands, and placing their fingers in the position for the signs; and when the blind have learned the signs, they read those which the deaf make, by feeling their hands and fingers, and ascertaining the position in which they are placed.
In writing this article, we have been insensibly led from one subject to another, so as to have lost sight of the arrangement we had marked out, and have already occupied so much space, that but little remains for a consideration of the moral effects of blindness upon the sufferer. The blind have been considered in all ages as of necessity cut off from participation in the business and pleasures of life; they have been made the parias of society, — and although the hand of charity has ever been open to their cry, — yet men have shrunk from an attentive examination of their situation. They have often been accused of a disposition to atheism, — but we think without sufficient reason: surely the increased sense of dependence must be conducive to a feeling of reverential awe for a Power, about whom the imagination is ever busy. That many eminent blind men have been atheists, is certain; but it is certain too, that their skepticism arose in a great measure from the improper light in which they have been regarded. The dying Saunderson said to his clergyman, ‘you talk to me of the wonders of creation, but how often have I heard you express your wonder at my performing things which are to me perfectly simple; how then do I know that your wonder is more reasonable in the one case, than in the other?’
With regard to what are called feelings of modesty, — the blind possess them in a very high degree, the speculations of Diderot and others to the contrary notwithstanding; they are from their situation led to be particularly scrupulous in their regard to les convenances of society. They are exceedingly orderly, as well in the arrangement of their ideas as of their property; hence, perhaps, their horror of theft, and their respect for the property of others.
The method of classification which they adopt, enables them to bring the memory to a very high degree of perfection; hence the astonishing instances which we have of blind men retaining several thousand words, without meaning, and without connexion. It is related of Dr. Moyes, that he would recognise by their voice, persons with whom he had had but a slight acquaintance, and whom he had not met for more than a year.
The want of sight makes the blind insensible to the infinite variety of beauteous aspects which nature puts on, when she comes forth blushing with the hues of morn, or arrays herself in the silver mantle of moonlight, or decks herself out in the gorgeous robes of sunset. If, then, all the grandeur and glory of nature are lost upon them, how much more insensible must they be to the ridiculous display of human pomp and pride; and how much ought this circumstance to influence our treatment of them! The necessity of this may be understood from the anecdote related by Diderot of the young blind man who was brought to trial for having thrown a stone, which struck another person in the head, and for various misdemeanors. ‘He appeared before the judge as before his equal; nor could any threats intimidate him. “What can you do to me,” cried he to M. Herault? — ” I will cast you into a dungeon,” answered the magistrate. – “What then?” returned the blind man, — “I have been living in one all my life time.” What an answer! What a text for a man who loves to moralize! We take our leave of the world as of an enchanting spectacle; the blind man goes out of it as from a dungeon; if we have more to enjoy in living than he has, at least he has less to regret in dying.’
But Diderot here (as is very common with him) displays more ingenuity than observation: the blind do not die with less regret than we do; the love of life is not lessened by the want of one sense, any more than it is in the case of the poor by the want of wealth; many blind men possess high moral courage; some display a degree of independence of character, which at times degenerates into obstinacy, and excessive egotism; but they are seldom possessed of much physical courage.
Nor is the world to them a less enchanting scene than it is to us, — provided they have occupation. Blindness is not the sole, nor the principal cause of the unhappiness of the blind; and, were they nor continually reminded of their inferiority by our officious and unnecessary expressions of sympathy and compassion, they would not feel it. They cannot conceive how the sense of sight can be the source of any positive pleasure to us, otherwise than as it enables us to ascertain the physical qualities of objects at a greater distance than they can by the feeling. Hence they look upon the want of it as a loss of advantage, and not of enjoyment. There is a great deal of philosophy and of good sense in the answer of a blind man to the question, Whether the possession of sight would not increase his happiness? ‘I cannot conceive that it would,’ said he, ‘in a very material degree. I suppose your eyes serve with you the same purpose that my hands and cane do with me; that is, to ascertain the shape and other physical qualities of bodies. The only advantage you have, is the ability to do this at a greater distance than I can; now if I were to choose, it would be rather to have my arms so constituted that I could reach any object which you can see, than to possess what you call vision.’ Hence it is that we seldom find those who are born blind repining after sight; but we do see them sitting bowed down under a sense of humiliating dependence; with their faculties undeveloped by action, and their minds gradually degenerating into imbecility, from the monotonous torpor of their existence.
With regard to the number of the blind, we have no means of knowing it very accurately in this country, for no correct census has been taken; but from researches made by the Trustees of the New England Institution for the Education of the Blind, it is quite evident that the returns made by the general estimates are far too low. The only document we have met with is one lately published in Philadelphia, apparently taken from the general census, in which the number of the blind in every State is given, and which makes the sum total a little over five thousand.
(Note: Table Omitted)
This table bears inaccuracy on the very face of it, — for example, Massachusetts is said to have 223 blind persons only, — whereas the imperfect statement, made several years ago by order of the House of Representatives, gave 245 blind, although only one hundred and forty towns, out of more than three hundred, made any return. It was ascertained that no returns were made from some towns where blind persons were known to exist; and Mr. Loud, chairman of the Committee of the House, estimated the total number of blind in the State at 500; an estimate, which subsequent inquiries show to be rather high, but much nearer the truth than the one given in the above table.
According to this table, the proportion of the blind to the whole population in different parts of the Union, varies from 1 in 1413 to 1 in 6329; New Jersey having the greatest, and Michigan the smallest number. There is a striking difference between the numbers of the white and colored blind: the largest proportion of white being in New Jersey viz. 1 in 1464; and the smallest in Michigan, viz. 1 in 6269: while the highest proportion of the blind among the blacks is in Rhode Island, — being 1 to 447; and the lowest 1 in 3950, being in Tennessee.
In the whole population of the United States, there is a considerable excess in the proportion of the blind among the blacks over that among the whites; it being among the blacks 1 to 1584; among the whites 1 to 2650; the proportion of blind persons, blacks and whites, in all the Union being, according to this table, as 1 to 2363.
In Tennessee, however, we find more blind in a given number of whites than in the same number of blacks: the former being 1 in 3044, — the latter 1 in 3950. In South Carolina, the proportion is about the same among blacks and whites.
How are these differences to be accounted for? Without examining in detail the theory which the compiler of the table has raised upon these calculations, — the whole fabric may be brought to the ground by knocking away the foundations, and showing that the table is manifestly incorrect, which we believe has been done in the text.
That the proportion of blind among the blacks should be greater than among the whites, is perfectly natural and in accordance with the general principle which we have laid down, that the poor are more exposed to the causes of blindness than the rich; the blacks being generally poor.
In a statement of the number of blind in the different cities, which follows, the author of this table gives the number of blind in Boston as nearly three times greater than it really is. It is important to ascertain the proportion between the blind who are of an age to receive an education, and those whom age renders unfit for it; we believe it to be much less than is generally supposed: the number of children born absolutely blind is very small; but many become so in a few weeks or months; fewer between infancy and youth, but still more rarely is the sight lost in youth or during manhood. Old age indeed dims the vision, but it is seldom thus entirely lost.
It is impossible, however, to form any estimate of the proportional number of the blind in sections of the country so small, as those in regard to which the writer of this paper attempts to do it; nor do we agree with him in the causes which he assigns for the apparent variations. The fact is, that we cannot make any accurate calculation of the number of the blind which will be found even in a population of one million; for it varies from temporary causes, and in different generations; but we may calculate with some degree of certainty, how many blind persons will be found in a population of ten millions, the latitude and the climate being given.
How little dependence can be placed upon the calculations made in the paper to which we have referred, and in which the proportion in every county in Pennsylvania is attempted to be laid down, may be inferred from the fact that, in this city, there is but one blind person of the proper age for receiving an education; while, in the neighbouring town of Andover, with less than one twentieth of the population, there are five; in Cambridge four, and in some small towns on Cape Cod three. In the next generation, however, the prevalence of ophthalmia may give to Boston twenty or thirty: but though the laws of nature in this respect seem thus variable, they are in reality wonderfully uniform, and in every age the proportion of the blind to the whole population is about the same. Blindness appears to be more prevalent in the country than in cities, probably from the fact that people there can seldom procure medical assistance so seasonable or so efficient as to be of much use in the ophthalmia of infants. The poor are certainly more subject to it than the wealthy, partly from more exposure and partly perhaps from the hereditary nature of blindness. It is well known that blindness is very often hereditary, and we have instances in our neighborhood, of five children being born blind from the same mother; now where such a scourge enters a family, it may readily be conceived how soon it will be reduced to poverty.
We have said that the general law of nature, by which a certain proportion of the human race are born with but four senses in perfection, is unfailing in its operation; and in the want of any accurate statistics, we may correct our own by those of other countries similarly situated. As a general rule, blindness is more prevalent within the torrid zone, less in the temperate, and less still in the frigid: in dry and sandy soils it is more prevalent than in moist ones. Egypt is the country of the blind par excellence; different writers have estimated the proportion of the blind there very differently; some say, that one man in every hundred is totally or partially blind; others one in three hundred. The latter calculation is probably the nearest to the truth; but from our observation of the number of men with but one eye, or with distorted eyes in the Egyptian army, we are inclined to think that the number of the blind in Egypt must be fearfully great. The cause is probably the fine sandy dust with which the air is continually filled in Egypt; and which exists to such a degree, that the first cotton machinery sent out from England for the Pacha Mehemet Ali, was rendered useless by it in a very short time. This difficulty is the greatest which his engineers have had to overcome.
In several countries of Europe, the census gives accurately the number of the blind. In the centre of Europe, it is about one to eight hundred; in Austria, one to eight hundred forty-five; in Switzerland, one to seven hundred forty-seven. Further north the proportion is less: in Denmark, it is one to a thousand; in Prussia, one to nine hundred; in France, one to a thousand and fifty; in England a very little less. Now there seems no sufficient reason why this country should be exempt from the laws which operate upon others under the same latitude, and with the same climate; and since we have shown how incorrect, and obviously low is the calculation by the census, which makes the number five thousand, it may safely be calculated that there are more than seven thousand blind persons in these United States. This may seem incredible, and so did the number of the deaf when it was first told; but the blind, from their very misfortune, are hidden from the world; they sit sad and secluded by the firesides of their relatives; the dawn of day does not call them into the haunts of men, and they vegetate through life and sink into the grave, unknown even to their neighbors.
But to be entirely within bounds, let us put the number even lower than the absolute return by the census makes it, and call it five thousand; here are five thousand of our fellow-beings, with the same faculties, feelings, and wants, the same pride, the same ambition as ourselves, who are thrown entirely upon our charity arid humanity; who are utterly unable of themselves to provide for the wants of the body, or the mind, and who appeal to that sacred and fundamental law of society, by which we are bound to provide for the wants of those, whom nature or accident has made dependent upon us. And how, we ask, has that appeal been answered? Have we not heard unheeded the cry of the blind for assistance, and for light? Have we not stopped our ears to their cry, and thrust them into the almshouse, instead of taking them into the bosom of society? Have we not shunned an examination of their situation and wants, and hurried by them, after bowing them still lower by the weight of alms? With the sun of science high in the ascendant, and the broad blaze of education pouring upon every class of men, have any of its rays been directed upon those who are sitting in physical and intellectual darkness, — who of all others have the strongest claim for assistance, and who, without instruction, are worse than idiots, because more miserable? We regret to say that till within a very short time, we have done nothing at all; with a population ten times greater than that of some of the European States, which have Institutions for the blind, there has not been a single school in the United States, where a blind youth could go to receive proper instruction~ But public attention has lately been aroused to the importance of the subject; one Institution has been put into efficient operation in Boston, a second has been organized, and is about commencing its operations in New York; and a third is in a state of forwardness in Philadelphia. We shall conclude this article with a brief notice of the present state of the first of these institutions, which is called the New-England Institution for the Education of the Blind.
The first idea of this Institution was conceived by Dr. J. D. Fisher, in 1829, Several meetings of philanthropic individuals were held, and an act of incorporation was obtained the same year. The result of the investigations made at that time showed that there were more than 400 blind persons in the State of Massachusetts alone; and about 1500 in New England. But notwithstanding the publication of the melancholy truth, that so many of our fellow-citizens were left in degradation and ignorance, while the means existed of elevating their moral nature and enlightening their intellect, no effectual steps were taken towards establishing a school for them until 1831. It was no want of zeal or industry on the part of the gentlemen concerned that occasioned this delay, but the want of funds. The State now granted the unexpended balance of the fund for the deaf and dumb, amounting to fifteen hundred dollars, and about two thousand dollars were raised by subscription. Resolved to make an effectual effort, the trustees engaged Dr. S. G. Howe to organize the institution, and put it into operation. A few days after his appointment, that gentleman sailed for Europe, visited all the Institutions for the blind there, engaged an intelligent blind teacher from the School at Paris, and another from that at Edinburgh, and returned in August, 1831. Although the funds of the Institution were almost exhausted, it was resolved not to make any public appeal until some of the blind could be qualified to plead their own cause: six children were accordingly selected, and the school was commenced privately in September, 1832. In January, 1833, the Treasury was empty, and the Institution in debt. An exhibition of the pupils was then given before the General Court, which afforded such complete and striking proof of the capacity of the blind for receiving an intellectual education, that the Legislature, as it were by acclamation, voted that $6000 per annum should be appropriated to the Institution, for the support of twenty poor blind persons belonging to the State.
The next public appeal was made in Salem, where several exhibitions of the pupils were held; from which, and from the Fair which followed, the Institution realized nearly $4500. Similar exhibitions were given in Boston, the result of which was most beneficial to the Institution, and creditable to the inhabitants. About the first of May, the Hon. Thomas H. Perkins offered his splendid mansion in Pearl street; with all the land and buildings, valued at $30,000, as a permanent residence for the Blind; and enhanced the value of his offer by adding to it the condition, that $50,000 should be raised as a fund for the Institution, before the first of June, The ladies then united, and held a Fair on the first of May, which was, perhaps, the most brilliant and effectual one ever known.. The proceeds, which, clear of all expenses, exceeded $11,400, go to make up the Perkins fund. While this article is passing through the press, (May 20,) we are informed, that the necessary amount is already collected within two or three thousand dollars, and that no doubt remains, that the sum will be completed within the limited time. Thus this interesting Institution, which, on the first of January last was wholly destitute of funds, will possess on the first of June a large and splendid building, worth $30,000, with a fund of $50,000 in the Treasury.
The Institution may he said to merit this public favor; the progress of the pupils has been such as to astonish even those who have visited the European Schools for the Blind. The apparatus is not only as perfect as any one there; but several important improvements have already been effected by native ingenuity in the methods of teaching the blind. The pupils learn to read by raised letters; they are also taught writing, arithmetic, geography, and all the branches commonly taught in other schools. Music occupies much of their attention; and in a workshop attached to the house, they weave, and make baskets. The number of pupils is at present nearly twenty; and they are as happy and intelligent children as can be found; they spend twelve hours a day at their studies or work. It is intended to teach them all the higher branches of education, and the languages. The Musical Department is under the superintendence of Mr. Lowell Mason; Mr. Trencheri, a blind man, teaches the intellectual branches; Mr. Pringle, who is also blind, instructs in the mechanic arts; the whole being under the direction of Dr. Howe.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Howe, S.G. (1833, July). Education of the Blind. The North American Review. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=10614.
Source: Disability History Museum. http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/lib/detail.html?id=1350&page=all