Educating Idiots

The Relationship Between Theory Formation and Disciplinary Organization in the Creation of French Psychology

Sofie Lachapelle

This project concerned the development of psychology in France and the ways in which theories, social organization, and physical structures came together to produce a new scientific discipline during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The focus of the project was on the history of idiocy. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, alienists identified idiocy as a disease distinct from madness. A reflection on the nature of idiocy, on its causes, and on its possible treatments took place in French asylums throughout the century. Central to it was the question of education: Was it possible to improve idiots on both an intellectual and a moral basis, and, if so, how?

By the mid-nineteenth century, educational methods were being developed at Bicêtre and La Salpêtrière alongside the schools for idiots that had been created there a few years earlier. With time, schools and educational methods were modified and improved in order to obtain the best results in the children. By the end of the nineteenth century, the potential for the improvement of idiots through education was no longer in dispute among French alienists.

In 1909, the French state passed a law for the creation of special classes for children with learning disabilities in the school system. Combined with Alfred Binet and Théodore Simon’s elaboration of a metric scale of intelligence (between 1905 and 1907), the increased attendance in schools brought about a quantified understanding of intelligence. With this, idiocy lost its status as a mental disease to be incorporated into a scale of intellectual abilities. From patients of the alienists, young idiots became students and the experimental subjects of the psychologists and the pedagogues.

This project had two related parts. The first part dealt with the period between 1800 and 1909, from the time idiocy entered medical consciousness to the time children left the asylums. It retraced nineteenth-century developments on idiocy—both theoretical and structural—in French asylums. It was partly through their own innovations that alienists ended up losing their hegemony over idiocy to the psychologists and the pedagogues. The second part explored the treatment of mental disability and theories on intelligence in early twentieth-century France focusing on the rupture that occurred during this period. This rupture was threefold: it was epistemological (with a new understanding of idiocy and intelligence), spatial (from the asylums to the school system), and organizational (from the alienists to the psychologists and the pedagogues).