He 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.