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Jan./Feb.
2003

 

 

 

Samuel Gridley Howe and 'Schools for the Feebleminded'.

By David Pfeiffer

Samuel Gridley Howe is known today chiefly as the man responsible for educating the blind and deaf Laura Bridgman a century before Helen Keller. Last year Ragged Edge reviewer Anne Finger called him a "dashing war hero," chosen in 1831 to head the new Perkins School for the Blind. He broke new ground in an area in which no one had worked before.

But there was a lot more to him than that. He also played a major role in creating institutions for persons labeled "feebleminded."

The frightening specter of incarceration because of being labeled "feebleminded" continues today.


The 1850s movement that ended up as institutionalization was started originally for humanitarian reasons. During the eighteenth century the industrial revolution had begun to reshape society. Mill owners needed workers with a minimum level of education, but they did not want to pay for a system of private education. They were able to convince the state to create a system of public education. They argued that it would be good for the state to have well-educated citizens. The mill owners would also have better educated workers.

Pupils who did not do well in these schools were stigmatized with the label "feebleminded"; typically they were ridiculed. They lived in the most terrible conditions of poverty and disease.

Samuel Gridley Howe was one of the kindly citizens of the time who viewed these children as worthy of charity and compassion. The first efforts to help them occurred in Massachusetts, with Howe at the helm.

In 1846, Howe became the head of a legislative commission to study the situation of "idiots" in the state. The commission identified 755 idiots although, he said, many more might have been missed. About half of them, he felt, could be "helped": They could be taught how to do simple labor and to take care of themselves. But to get this education, they would need schools and teachers suited for them.

Public funds were appropriated; the Massachusetts School for Idiotic Children and Youth was established by Howe in 1849, located near what is now South Station in Boston. Over the next decade Howe and two associates went on to establish five more schools, one each in Connecticut, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

The schools were intended to resemble a family setting. The pupils were believed to be happier here than they had been in their previous condition. Their task at the schools was to learn basic knowledge in order to become "decent" and "industrious." What they learned would help them be able to earn a living doing farm and household chores when they returned to their original communities.

Howe was very successful. He received more public funds and established a larger school in what is now South Boston. He was, in fact, too successful: Once the "feebleminded" were removed from the streets and the community, they found they were not welcome to return at the end of their schooling. No one wanted to resume the care of them. They were better off at the schools, it was said.

Howe opposed permanent institutionalization. In his final report to the trustees of the Massachusetts School for Idiotic Children in 1874 when he retired, Howe warned of the permanent segregation of the "feebleminded," insisting that they should be integrated into society. "Even idiots have rights . . . !" he wrote.

His protest was to no avail. After he died there was no opposition to permanent institutionalization for some fifty years or more.

In 1887 the Massachusetts School for Idiotic Children moved to its present location in Waltham, Massachusetts, with Walter Fernald as its head. Fernald had been the first superintendent of what was then named the Massachusetts School for the Feebleminded. It was a segregated institution at its worst: "pupils" were forbidden by law to leave; runaways were apprehended by the police and returned to the school. It became the Walter E. Fernald State School in 1925.

A century after Howe died, and a half a century after receiving the name of the superintendent who organized the segregated society of the state school, the Fernald State School began to be emptied of its inmates. Today a few elderly persons who clearly do not wish to move into the community remain.

The frightening specter of incarceration because of being labeled "feebleminded" continues today. Most states have at least partially emptied their state institutions, but the community residences into which the inmates were moved are nothing more than state institutions writ small. People labeled "severely disabled" or "mentally ill" are also incarcerated -- in hospitals, nursing homes, and similar places. They are not considered able to make independent decisions. It is felt that they must be protected by segregation..


David Pfeiffer is Resident Scholar at the Center on Disability Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and editor of Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ).

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