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  • The Necessity of Methodical Signs Considered:Further Experiments
  • John R. Burnet

THERE is, perhaps, no topic pertaining to the instruction of the deaf and dumb, on which there is a wider diversity of opinion, than on the use of methodical signs. Mr. Jacobs thinks them indispensable; others admit them to be somewhat useful; others again reject them as useless or worse.

To cite authorities: the successors in the Institution at Paris, of De l'Epee and Sicard, with whom this system of signs originated, have formally discarded and denounced them. In this country, where their use was once universal, or nearly so, they have been disused wholly in some schools, partially in others, and in some cases, after being denounced, again taken into partial favor. Mr. Stone thinks that they "should be dispensed with, or but sparingly used in a system of deaf-mute instruction;"* and Mr. Rae pronounces Sicard's system of methodical signs, "a complete piece of charlatanry from beginning to end."Judging, however, from the proceedings of the second and third conventions, the prevailing opinion among the more experienced American teachers is, that these signs are useful, at least to some extent, and in the earlier lessons.

But when Mr. Jacobs goes to the extent of denying that deaf mutes can attach their ideas to words not representing sensible objects, except by the intermediation of signs; then, so far as I have observed, he stands, at this stage of the world's progress, nearly or quite alone, and I think I can show, is palpably contradicted by facts.

This doctrine that ideas can not be directly attached to written words, is indeed an old one. Heinicke maintained it. But he held, as well, that ideas beyond the visible, material world could not be directly attached to gestures, methodical or other, and probably both branches of his opinion had the same foundation: that is, observing that men, in general, attached all ideas of a certain elevation and complexity to articulate words and to them only, he concluded that spoken words had a peculiar prerogative to serve as the direct objects and instruments of thought; a principle which, carried out to its legitimate conclusions, would deny the possibility of instructing the deaf and dumb at all, since there is no means known, of making them acquainted with spoken words; the most which even the teacher of articulation can make sensible to them, being the motions and contacts of the organs of speech.

De l'Epee maintained, against Heinicke, that the forms of written words, which the latter had likened to confused heaps of flies or spiders' legs, could be distinctly contemplated in the mind with the eyes shut. Hence it followed that deaf mutes could remember and repeat words, without knowing anything whatever of articulation. I am not sure whether De l'Epee did or [End Page 59] did not hold that ideas could be directly attached to written words. It is my impression that he considered this possible, but difficult, and it is certain that he proposed his system of methodic signs as "an intermediary between the thought and the written word." Mr. Jacobs therefore, will find himself supported by the authority of this father of the art of deaf-mute instruction.

This idea, however, that methodical signs, or any signs whatever, were necessary to stand between written words and ideas, has long since been exploded in France. Degerando, in 1827, "after proposing to consider the question whether the interposition of methodic signs between the ideas of the mind and the words of our languages is necessary to give to a deaf mute the intelligence of our languages?" remarks, "One might be astonished that we here propose this question, were it not a fact that some few of the partisans of methodic signs had announced their interposition as a condition rigorously indispensable."

Surely if methodical signs are as necessary as Mr. Jacobs, after those elder partisans of them, maintains, some of the ablest and most successful teachers of the deaf and dumb, both in France and America, to say nothing of other countries, could not have dispensed with them altogether.

I will not follow Degerando in his long...


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