The Wild Boy of Aveyron

wild-boyHe was spotted wandering the French countryside in 1798. He looked to be about 12 years old, his body was covered in scars, and he couldn’t speak although he could climb and run and forage for food. He was, by all appearances, a feral child. No one ever learned how the boy who became known as Victor ended up alone in the forest. Some suspected that his family abandoned him, the cut on his throat potential evidence that someone tried to slit his throat and leave him for dead. Had his parents determined that he was ineducable and a burden they couldn’t bear? Or was his lack of language and social skills merely the result of having grown up isolated from human society?

In this 1976 book, professor of psychology Harlan Lane tells the story of Victor of Aveyron and the attempts of physician Jean Itard to educate him and draw him into society. Itard’s efforts involved training Victor’s senses and, basically, teaching him how to learn. Victor had to learn to discern different sounds so that he’d have a better chance of understanding language and learning to speak himself. Even such simple acts as that of imitation had to be taught. Much of what Itard learned when teaching Victor shows just how complicated learning can be. For instance, such a simple concept as a word standing not just for one example of an object—like a key—but for all examples of that object seems intuitive and obvious, but Victor didn’t grasp that right away. What’s more, Itard didn’t realize that Victor didn’t grasp it until he made a slight change in his usual exercise of having Victor retrieve items he requested in writing. It’s really a wonder that any of us learn anything.

Lane’s writing is accessible for general readers, although it does tend toward dryness. Victor’s story in and of itself is interesting enough to make up for that, but I did find myself skimming some of the particularly lengthy quotes that didn’t add much to the narrative. I generally like it when writers quote from primary sources, but in this case more commentary and less direct quoting, or shorter quotes, would have improved the book.

Although the book is titled The Wild Boy of Aveyron, it’s as much, if not more, about Itard and his long-term influence on education. The last few chapters leave Victor out of the story almost entirely, as Lane describes developments in the teaching of people who are deaf or those with mental retardation, as well as the work of Maria Montessori. This material is interesting—the controversies about sign language particularly so—but the level of detail was more than I wanted in a book that was supposedly about the life and education of Victor. However, I do appreciate Lane’s efforts to put Itard’s work into a larger context.

This wasn’t a perfect book, but it had enough of interest in it to make it worth my time.

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22 Responses to The Wild Boy of Aveyron

  1. There are a couple of movies I think you might be interested in, if you can unearth them. Both are from around in the ’60’s or ’70’s, I believe. One is a (possibly French with subtitles) movie called “The Wild Child,” and the other is a (possibly German with subtitles) movie called “Kaspar Hauser: or Every Man for Himself and God against All.” I’m not sure I have that subtitle right and that I haven’t gotten it confused with another movie, but anyway, “Kaspar Hauser” is the main title. It was absolutely fascinating.

  2. Amélie says:

    I’ve seen the film Truffaut shot about this (“L’enfant sauvage”) & was properly intrigued, so I think I’ll pick this up. Thank you!

    • I had just typed my comment about the two movies and then up popped Amelie’s comment while I was still typing. I’m thinking that maybe the Truffaut movie was the French one I was thinking of.

      • Amélie says:

        It probably is! Released around 1970, I think? & shot in black & white.

      • Teresa says:

        Netflix has the Truffaut listed under both titles–“The Wild Child” and “L’enfant sauvage”–so I’m sure it’s the same film. After reading about Victor, I’m definitely interested in the film.

  3. vanbraman says:

    I will definitely have to read this book. I am interested in his educational theory.

  4. Deb says:

    I work in a classroom with severely autistic students and some of Victor’s traits make me think he might have had autism. Working with non-verbal students who have great difficulty understanding abstract or symbolic language reminds me everyday what an amazing facility it is to be able to use words to communicate–and how devastating it is when that faculty is impaired in some way.

    • Teresa says:

      I can’t remember whether Lane mentioned autism as a possibility, but I did read somewhere (possibly Wikipedia) that some people do think Victor was on the autism spectrum.

      • vanbraman says:

        Lane does mention Autism, but quickly rules it out. However, he was working with the narrow definition that autism had in the ’70s. I believe that Victor was somewhere on the Autistic spectrum.

  5. I have seen both those films (the Truffaut and the German one) and they are both excellent. The Aveyron boy’s story is fascinating – I’d be interested to read this book. Thanks.

  6. boardinginmyforties says:

    What a fascinating story. I’ll have to look for this one at my library.

  7. Jenny says:

    I keep meaning to read up on this phenomenon of feral children and what has happened with them, but so far I haven’t done it. I know there is a book about feral children generally, about which I think I’ve heard good things. Aha! Michael Newton’s Savage Boys and Wild Girls. I need to get on that.

  8. Pingback: The Wild Boy of Aveyron | Braman's Wanderings

  9. Pingback: The Wild Boy of Aveyron | Anne (Thiele) Rasenberger

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