In 1797 a child, estimated to be 9 or 10 years old, was seen living in the wild in the region of Aveyron. He evaded capture until 1800. All attempts to discover who he was or where he came from were fruitless. He was taken to Paris to be examined.
The leading minds were excited by such a find, expecting that this wild child would corroborate the ideas of Rousseau. Having had no adult influence or teaching, he should have been the perfect example of the innate goodness of uncorrupted humanity.
They were disappointed. The child made no sound, was not able to distinguish or understand sounds or voices, seemed to have no appreciation for the aroma of cooked foods, was not accustomed to clothes or beds and was disoriented in the presence of people. They finally concluded that he had been abandoned because he was so stupid.
Doctor Jean Itard obtained custody of the child the following year. He believed the child’s behaviour reflected a lack of human contact and teaching. In other words, he was stupid because he had been abandoned. Doctor Itard named the boy Victor and spent the next five years working to rehabilitate him.
Victor’s hearing was good, but he never was able to speak, When found he had many scars on his body, including a 4 centimetre gash across his throat. It is probable his vocal cords had been damaged when that wound was made. Victor’s progress under Dr. Itard was slow but steady and he learned to conduct himself in a socially acceptable way. He was cared for in a home in Paris until his death in 1828.
Francois-Xavier Bellamy uses the story of Victor of Aveyron to argue that it is teaching that makes us fully human. We need contact and interaction with other people to develop the skills that enable us to cope with life. A child left to himself degenerates into something hardly recognizable as human, as in the extreme case of Victor of Aveyron when he was found.
Taking this further, the teaching of language, grammar and vocabulary is essential for us to be able to describe how we feel, what we think about ourselves and the world around us. We cannot understand such things until we have the ability to put them into words.
Being taught the value system that his built our society, and the history of our society, enables us to understand why things are the way they are. It opens the door for us to become participants in our world, not just bewildered and frustrated observers.
M. Bellamy’s book is a passionate plea for us to abandon the failed theories of René Descartes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and resume the transmission to the youth of today of all that is of value from our heritage.