Although asylums for adults with psychiatric conditions have a long history, the question of how to serve children who were not allowed to attend school because they were considered feeble-minded arose only in the mid-1800s. The answer was to create institutions where the service could be provided. These early institutions were established as training schools, offering individualized instruction in academics like reading and math and, by the 1880s, vocational instruction. They later also functioned as sites where eugenic segregation and eugenic sterilizations took place.
History of Training Schools
In the United States, small, residential, often privately owned schools for children described as feeble-minded began in the 1850s. Initially, these schools focused on providing specialized education as children who were feeble-minded were not allowed in public schools until the early 1900s. These schools focused on training the body, mind, and spirit of the students. Following the American Civil War, these schools expanded from New England across the Midwest and on the West Coast. These new schools were most often publicly financed state schools and were often associated with state schools for the blind and deaf. These new state schools for the feeble-minded began small with twenty to thirty students, but soon grew to several hundred and to a thousand residents with waiting lists of several hundred children. The emphasis of the schools was to provide training, both academic and vocational, with the anticipation that the students would be able to make it in society as functional adults when they left the schools. In fact, most of these schools contained the word, “Training,” in their official name. As the schools became larger, they began to be referred to as “Institutions for the Feeble-Minded.” While the training aspect of the schools/institutions remained an important function of the institution, these institutions also served other functions. One of the functions was to provide long-term care for people who were described as feeble-minded who had no friends or family to provide care and supervision. Another important function was to serve as the site of eugenic segregation and sterilizations.
In Canada, the Asylum for Idiots and Feeble-minded in Orillia, Ontario, was established in 1876, primarily as a custodial facility. Unlike American institutions, it initially did not have an educational component. The original purpose of the institution was to provide training and then return the children to the community. The Provincial Training School in Red Deer, Alberta, was opened in 1923. For the first years of operation, it was considered a progressive institution, providing both educational and vocational training.
Institutions as Training Schools
The educational and vocational programming in the American institutions was based on the writings and leadership of Edouard Seguin (1812-1880), who believed using physical exercise was a way to awaken the brain for learning. Seguin stressed using activities that the child enjoyed as a gateway to increased learning (Wikipedia, 2015). His techniques were not only used in American institutions for the feeble-minded; Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was one of the best-known educators to follow his methods (Wikipedia, 2015). She originally put Seguin’s ideas into practice with her work with children with cognitive impairments before expanding to work with normal children.
An example of the school day at the Illinois Institution for the Education of Feeble-Minded Children in 1882 demonstrates how Seguin methods were incorporated into the training of mind, body, and soul. From 9 to 9:30, the children attend chapel where they spend time on devotional exercises and singing. From 9:30 to 11, the various classrooms take turns going to the gymnasium where they learn calisthenics, keeping time to music while using dumbbells and wands, and other exercises. An hour a day is spent teaching vocal music to those interested. For those interested in sewing or woodworking, two hours a day are devoted to teaching these skills. There is also an art and drawing class. These classes draw various students throughout the day.(Wilbur, 1883).
Vocational Training and Education
The Kentucky Institution for Feeble-minded Children was one of the first institutions to begin offering a vocational component to the standard educational work done by the students because, by state law, children needed to be returned to the community after ten years. It was deemed important that, if at all possible, the now young adults should leave with a marketable skill. Boys were taught farming, shoe making, printing, and broom making. Girls were taught cooking, housekeeping, laundry skills, and sewing. These skills had value outside of the institution; they also had value within the institution itself. Other institutions quickly followed suit in adding vocational classes (Stewart, 1883).
With the push for increased eugenic segregation and a change in state laws to allow long-term commitment, activities suitable for adults needed to be a part of the institution’s programming. Adequate funding of the institutions was always an area of concern, especially for public institutions that relied on state funding. With monetary support from the state varying depending on economic cycles of depression and rebound, having residents performing necessary tasks cut down on expenses, since paid staff did not need to be hired, thus cutting costs. These tasks were divided along strict gender lines. Boys and men do farming, which not only taught a set of skills, it provided the institution with food, saving the cost of purchasing it, and, in some cases, when there were excess farm goods, they could be traded or sold which had a positive effect on the institution’s bottom line. Girls were responsible for sewing clothing, the laundry, and other domestic activities, which taught work skills and also reduced costs.
Long Term Residency
Up until at least 1916, parents had a lot of decision-making power over whether or not their child remained at the institution long term. Several institutions had programs set up that would guarantee life-long care for a set fee, which some parents took advantage of. Some parents removed their child when they reached the normal age for leaving school. Some took their child home to help out at home. Superintendents, while not always enthusiastically supporting this, believed that at least when returning to family, the child/adult would be supervised. While keeping residents in an institution long-term had eugenic overtones, there were also concerns about the effects of releasing people back into a community with no services and no family for supervision. There were lengthy discussions among superintendents whether it was in the best interest of the person to be maintained at the institution or released back to where they had been prior to entering the institution. For example, the law in Minnesota dictated that children admitted to the institution for the feeble-minded had to be inmates of the Minnesota Asylum for the Insane first (Knight, 1880). The question was, whether, if a person had no family, should that person, who had received training at the institution for the feeble-minded, be sent back to the insane asylum or be retained at the institution.
Developments after the Rise of Eugenics
As early as 1877, even before the word ‘eugenics’ was coined by Francis Galton, there was recognition by the superintendents and staff of the institutions of a tension between Christian charity to help the unfortunate and helping to increase the survival of the unfit, of whom the feeble-minded were a prime example (Brown, 1877). The early superintendents often fell on the side of Christian charity as the science of heredity suggested that inheritance was based on acquired characteristics and by improving the parents through education and training, you could improve the characteristics of the children. This changed dramatically with the rediscovery of Mendel’s work on inheritance in 1900. His work with peas seemed to show that heredity was fixed; you could not improve the characteristics of children by improving the parents. This had a huge effect on the functions of the institutions. Superintendents, most of whom were physicians, became much more focused on the eugenics.
While institutions for the feeble-minded maintained a training function, the years between 1916 and 1920 saw additional changes in the eugenic focus of these institutions in the United States. Several things contributed to this shift. First, scientifically, it became recognized that feeble-mindedness was a recessive trait, which meant that it would be virtually impossible to eliminate through segregation. Second, in 1916, the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-minded published the results of a survey that indicated that although superintendents were publicly advocating eugenic segregation, in reality, the actual population of the institution reflected only two percent of the feeble-minded population for whom eugenic segregation was considered important (Kuhlmann, 1916). Finally, the IQ testing done during World War I indicated a large number of Americans were feeble-minded; too many for states to cover the cost of segregation in an institution. The policy focus continued to advocate eugenic segregation, but the sterilization aspect became more prominent. While sterilization laws were passed and signed into law in the United States, beginning in 1907 in Indiana, they were not widely implemented until the Buck v Bell decision in 1927. The decision impacted aspects of the vocational program as it was believed that feeble-minded people who had been sterilized could more easily be returned to the community as the prospect of having children had been eliminated. Men were “paroled” as farm workers, shoemakers, and printers’ assistants. Some even entered the military during both World War I and II. Women were “paroled” to work as domestic help, seamstresses, and cooks. Many others remained in the institution, providing the necessary labor to make it run efficiently.
Institutions for the feeble-minded were primary sites for eugenic segregation and eugenic sterilizations. They were also training schools, providing both academic and vocational education at a time when community services were limited or non-existent for people considered feeble-minded. As the laws changed, allowing lifetime commitment to the institutions, the vocational training became, in essence, the labor needed to run the institution efficiently.
Brown, C. W. (1877). Prevention of mental disease. Proceedings of the Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feeble-minded Persons, 25. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.
Goodheart, L. B. (2004). Rethinking mental retardation: Education and Eugenics in Connecticut, 1818-1917. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 59(1), 90-111.
Knight, G. H. (1880). Status of the work before the people and legislatures. Proceeding of the Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Persons, (pp. 163). Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.
Kuhlmann, F. (1916). Part played by the state institutions in the care of the feeble-minded. Journal of Psycho-Asthenics, 21(1, 2), 3-24. Faribault: Minnesota School for the Feeble-minded.
Stewart, J. Q. A. (1883). The industrial department of the Kentucky institution for the education and training of feeble-minded children 1882. Proceedings of the Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feeble-minded Persons (pp. 236). Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.
Wikipedia. (2015). Édouard Séguin. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89douard_S%C3%A9guin
Wikipedia. (2015). Maria Montessori. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Montessori
Wilbur, C. T. (1883). Class work of a school year at the Illinois asylum for feeble-minded children 1882. Proceedings of the Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feeble-minded Persons (pp. 240). Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.
Winzer, M. A. (1993). The history of special education: From isolation to integration. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.