The remarkable story of the re-education of the ‘savage’ of Aveyron, and the pedagogic methods devised by his teacher, Dr Itard, still influence many of the techniques used in the training of backward children today, more than a century and a half later. The situation is paradoxical in several respects; first and foremost because, although it is possible to discover in Itard’s two papers on the subject footnote1 what can be learned from the failure of the experiment, that is, what Itard should have learned from it—what could have been Itard’s re-education by his savage—it is not this that has been retained by later researchers. Rather they have kept certain aspects of his methods, themselves posed in an arbitrary way and derived a priori from philosophic concepts current at the time, principally those of Condillac. Relying on these concepts from the start, Itard is seen drafting his re-education plan in advance like a schoolmaster working out his time-table, laid out in five numbered sections and deduced (as he wrote in so many words) from the ‘doctrine’ to which he subscribed.

Another point which we may well find astonishing is the way in which re-education procedures devised by Itard have, over the years, infiltrated education proper, particularly that of very young children, doubtless as a result of an oversimplified theory of intellectual development. This theory can be found elsewhere in the more recent concept of ‘intelligence quotient’. It tempts one to assume that the methods thought useful for a backward child should be equally so for a younger normal child with higher IQ but the same mental age. Naturally this equation has never been stated explicitly, people have steered well clear of such a gross confusion. But once an idea has been accepted (in this case the unclear notion of development) it takes on a life of its own and, in certain cases at least, footnote2 acquires prominence through a sort of osmosis.

Besides these particular issues, which are of interest only to specialists, Itard intriguingly but unintentionally suggests to us other, more general questions on the very nature of the education of children, or rather on what used to be called their schooling. It is quite clear that what children have to learn (for a start, their native language, the structure of the family and many other essentials, some of them so surprising that they embarrassed even Freud and caused him to hypothesize a sort of collective memory), does not and cannot reach them exclusively through institutional education, what Itard aptly enough calls ‘the ordinary system of social education’. In the attempt to re-educate his savage he discovered the system’s inadequacy; basically, however, he was determined to perfect and complete it in order to evolve not only a more efficient pedagogy, but what might be called a total pedagogy, able to supply that ‘most feeble and least intelligent of animals’, natural man, with the ‘as yet not calculated’ (as he puts it) sum total of culture. It is hardly worth noting that such utopianism could only lead to failure, for when all is said and done the failure was perhaps inevitable. Today we are in no danger of falling into this kind of theoretical error, but it cannot be said that we have done much to clarify the problem.

What is our model for the schooling of children? Should we listen to the ethnologists, who show us how society mystifies its children and confronts them with apparently arbitrary conditions and requirements before admitting them to full membership; or should we follow other researchers (Erikson for example), who observe primitive societies, and see children as natural absolutes who must adapt themselves to the relativism of society under the threat of neurosis? The two viewpoints cannot be combined. One of them, if pursued far enough, would explain the rôle played by children in a synchrony, and might even help us to understand Itard’s satisfaction at being entrusted with the savage, the effort he devotes to him, his pedantry. The other, diachronic, approach would show us how we pass from childhood to what is called the adult state, and how the savage failed to achieve this. footnote3

It goes without saying that the questions which occur to us when we read Itard today are not the ones that he asked himself. Inclined to an empiricist posture, by virtue of his medical training and philosophical convictions, he hoped to derive results under two headings from his experiment. As the savage represented the ‘natural state’ he would have to be taught, not everything, but precisely those things not supplied by nature. Thus the old daydream of Psametticos footnote4 , to know the true nature of man, would be realized: deduct what Itard had to teach the savage from a fully socialized man, and the result would be human nature. Secondly, the experiment was to prove the correctness of certain hypotheses (essentially Condillac’s). A third result, the evolution of new pedagogic methods, was totally unlooked-for at the beginning: methods simply had to be tailored to the experiment. These methods can be seen to be influenced by the hypotheses being verified, but the relationship is hardly mentioned and it is exceptional for Itard to make a critical reassessment of his methods even after a setback.