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Feral Children: How They Throw New Light on Learning Disabilities

In the late eighteenth century a child of eleven or twelve was captured, who some years before had been seen completely naked in the Caune Woods in France, seeking acorns and roots to eat. The boy was given the name Victor and is often referred to as the Wild Boy of Aveyron.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Upon hearing of the capture, a minister of state with scientific interests, believing that this event would throw some light on the science of the mind, ordered that the child be brought to Paris. In Paris the boy became a nine days’ wonder. People of all classes thronged to see him, especially since it was an opportunity to see the romantic theories of the famous Jean-Jacques Rousseau in practice. Rousseau, a passionate critic of society of his time, saw the possibility of reforming society through the education of children. In his Émile he posits a natural development of the child, which must be protected from the influences of society so that the child can grow up as Nature intended him to be. In essence, Rousseau believed that there is a natural development on which we can rely and which will inevitably take place, provided we can keep in check the “unnatural” influences of society. So, with Victor, the people of Paris had the opportunity to see a child who had grown up according to Rousseau’s ideals….

What they expected to see was Rousseau’s “child of the Garden of Eden, a generous, open-hearted sort as yet untainted by the fruit of knowledge.” What they actually saw, however, was a degraded human being, human only in shape; a dirty, scarred, inarticulate creature who trotted and grunted like the beasts of the fields, ate with apparent pleasure the most filthy refuse, was apparently incapable of attention of even elementary perceptions such as heat or cold and spent his time apathetically rocking himself backwards and forwards like the animals at the zoo. A “man-animal,” whose only concern was to eat, sleep, and escape the unwelcome attentions of sightseers.

Expert opinion was as usual somewhat derisive of popular attitude and expectations. The great French educator and psychologist, Philippe Pinel, examined the boy, declaring that his wildness was a fake and that he was an incurable idiot. He failed to explain how a mentally defective person could have been able to fend for himself in the wilds for any length of time.

Victor was assigned to Dr. Itard, who describes the behavior of the boy and his own efforts to teach him to do the things ordinary human beings do, including speaking and reading. Victor’s tutor tells us that his senses were extraordinarily apathetic. His nostrils were filled with snuff without making him sneeze. He picked up potatoes from boiling water. A pistol fired near him provoked hardly any response, though the sounds of cracking a walnut caused him to turn around.

Itard make considerable strides with Victor, but the boy never became anything near approaching a normal adult and never properly learned to speak. Itard had some initial success teaching Victor a number of simple words but his articulation always remained poor — Victor would call out “Ili!” for Julie, the name of the housekeeper’s daughter to whom he had become attached. Itard tried every way he could think of to teach Victor language, even to the point of abandoning his attempts to get Victor to speak and trying to teach him to read and write instead. Using large metal cut-out letters, Itard would spell out words like “bring book” and then demonstrate the action to Victor so that he would understand. Yet after learning his first few dozen words, Victor seemed to have struck some invisible wall as far as language was concerned.

At least Itard managed to bring about a marked change in Victor’s outward demeanor. Victor’s indifference towards his surroundings and other people gradually turned to interest and affection. He appeared to show simple human emotions such as gratitude and remorse. He was trained out of his unsuitable personal habits, learning to sleep in a bed, wear clothes, eat at a table and accept baths. His toilet habits and lack of modesty still could embarrass Itard in public, but generally Victor was brought under control.

Amala and Kamala

Another story of feral children, and probably the best known, is that of two girls, Amala and Kamala, who were raised by a she-wolf. In 1920, as the story goes, Rev. J. A. L. Singh saw a mother wolf and cubs, two of whom had long, matted hair and looked human. After considerable preparations and difficulties, the two human creatures were captured. They turned out to be two girls whose ages were assessed by Singh at about eight years and one and a half years.

The creatures were taken to an orphanage in Mindapore, India, where the Reverend and his wife were stationed. Singh described them as “wolfish” in appearance and behavior. They walked on all fours and had calluses on their knees and palms from doing so. They were fond of raw meat and stole it when the occasion offered. They licked all liquids with their tongues and ate their food in a crouched position. Their tongues permanently hung out of their thick, red lips, and they panted just like wolves. They never slept after midnight and prowled and howled at night. They could move very fast, just like squirrels, and it was difficult to overtake them. They shunned human society altogether. If approached, they made faces and sometimes bared their teeth. With regard to the development of their senses, it was noted that their hearing was very acute and that they could smell meat at a great distance. Furthermore, while they could not see well during the day, they could orient themselves very well at night. In September 1921 both girls became ill, and Amala, the younger, died.

By means of intimate and devoted contact with Kamala, by softening her skin with oil and massaging her, by feeding and caressing her, Mrs. Singh was able to win her confidence and to create the conditions in which Kamala would be willing to learn from her.

After five years at the orphanage, Kamala demonstrated some intellectual functions. She knew some of the names of the babies housed there; she understood the concept of color; she accepted food only from her plate and knew her glass from among the others. As far as language development is concerned, a visitor, Bishop H. Pakenham-Walsh, provides an outsider’s description of this aspect of her progress: “When I saw Kamala she could speak, quite clearly and distinctly, about thirty words; when told to say what a certain object was, she would name it, but she never used her words in a spontaneous way…. I saw her again two years later…and she had learned a good many more words.”

She needed considerable training to stand erect, and could only do so for the first time twenty months after having been found. By January 1926 she had learned to walk erect, and for the remaining two years of her life, though her movements remained somewhat wolf-like, she showed quite clearly that her previous way of walking had been due merely to the absence of ordinary human training.

By now Kamala’s (and the Singhs’) fame had spread. An invitation arrived from the Psychological Society of New York in 1928 offering to take Kamala to the United States where she could be presented to the public, but the invitation could not be considered, as Kamala grew weak. Her health grew less secure throughout the year, and somewhat unexpectedly, she died on the fourteenth morning of November 1929.

Other stories of children raised by animals include a boy who was found in Mozambique, an African state, in 1968. When found, a female baboon tried to protect him. It was believed that he had been living among the baboons for eighteen years. He had even learned to swing from tree to tree. There is also the story of a boy who lived in Syria, who ate grass and could leap like an antelope, as well as of a girl, who lived in the forests in Indonesia for six years after she had fallen into the river. She walked like an ape and her teeth were as sharp as a razor.

Children raised or kept in extreme isolation

Besides children being raised in the “natural state” provided by the wild, there are also many cases of children who were raised or kept in extreme isolation. A popular story is that of Kaspar Hauser, told in Wolf-children and Feral Man by Singh and Zingg.

Kaspar Hauser

Kaspar was first discovered on 26 May 1828, standing unsteadily in a square in Nuremberg, dressed in clumsy clothing. In his hand he held letters directed to the Captain of the 4th Esgataron of the Shwolishay regiment, which inter alia instructed the captain that “…if he isn’t good for anything [the captain] must either kill him or hang him in the chimney.”

The boy was about sixteen years of age, appeared unable to communicate, his eyes were red and unused to sunlight, he did not know how to use his fingers, and the soles of his feet, blistered from walking, were as smooth as the hands of a baby. He walked by placing both the ball and heel of the foot down at the same time. Like a child newly emerged from the womb, this adolescent boy seemed a complete stranger to almost everything in the world.

At first regarded as a vagabond and halfwit, he was taken to a prison cell where he was kept while the authorities tried to figure out what to make of him. He could utter only a few phrases, clearly meaningless to him, such as, “I want to be a rider like my father,” and “Don’t know,” which he used to express everything from thirst to anxiety. When handed paper and pen, he wrote “Kaspar Hauser“. He was unable to eat anything but bread and water, and reacted violently to most sensory impressions. The very smell of meat or alcohol would put him into terrible convulsions. When presented coffee, he would sweat and vomit. At night, he lay on his straw bed; during the day, he sat on the floor with his feet before him. When a mirror was shown to him, he looked behind him, as if to find the person seen in the mirror.

Hauser’s keeper, Herr Hiltel, took Kaspar in his home, where Hiltel’s son, Julius, was permitted to play with Kaspar. It was also Julius, writes Hiltel, who taught Kaspar to speak. Kaspar was also of interest to the mayor, Bürgermeister Binder, who most days had Kaspar brought to his house for conversation, and to a certain Professor Daumer, a teacher, who was to devote his time to the education of the boy.

The visits with the mayor led to the development of a more or less coherent study of Kaspar’s whereabouts since birth. During their conversations, Herr Binder, who believed that he had communicated well enough with Kaspar, made the attempt to reconstruct Kaspar’s former life. Some people doubted Herr Binder’s recollection. They did not think Kaspar’s speech at that time was enough advanced for him to provide a coherent story. Nevertheless, what Kaspar said, according to Herr Binder, was that he had lived upon bread and water in a small, dark cell. He had known only one person, alluded to by him as “the man,” who periodically drugged him to clean him, change his clothes, cut his fingernails and hair and once hit him for being noisy. He was kept alive in this near vegetative state until his keeper appeared toward the end of his confinement, taught him to write Kaspar Hauser (he did not know the meaning), walk, and to speak a few rudimentary sentences. Equipped with only these and a rough collection of clothes, Kaspar had been led to Nuremberg market and abandoned there.

Two months after being discovered Kaspar went to live with Daumer, where he was provided round-the-clock education. He flowered under Daumer’s gentle and compassionate tutelage and learned to read, write and even play chess.

The end of the story is not happy, though. Kaspar died on 17 December 1833, three days after a second attempt had been made on his life. Numerous conflicting explanations have been offered for Kaspar’s murder. The most prevalent theory is that Kaspar Hauser was originally locked away because he stood in the way of possible succession to the state of Baden. When the result was obtained, Kaspar was released, so goes the story, with the letters he carried with him being written to mask the true reason. Fear that he would eventually expose his perpetrators, however, required his permanent removal.

Another, more recent story of a child raised in isolation is that of Isabelle, who was born in 1932. She was an illegitimate child and was kept in seclusion for this reason. Her mother had developed normally up to the age of two years and then, as a result of an accident, had become deaf-mute and had not been educated. From the day Isabelle was born until she was a little over six years of age, mother and child spent their time together in a dark room with the blinds drawn, separated from the rest of the family. The parents of the mother did not permit her to leave the house alone. She eventually escaped, however, carrying her child with her, and in this way Isabelle’s case was brought to the notice of the authorities.

As a result of lack of sunlight, fresh air, and proper nutrition, Isabelle had developed a rachitic condition that made locomotion virtually impossible. This condition yielded to proper treatment, including surgery, and Isabelle learned to walk and move normally.

When her intelligence was first tested at the age of six and a half, her mental age appeared to be about nineteen months. In place of normal speech, she made a croaking sound.

By means of intensive training and a stimulating environment, Isabelle improved so much that she was considered a child of normal intelligence by the age of eight. Her language development had been rapid: by that time she already had a vocabulary of 1,500 to 2,000 words, she enjoyed and could recite nursery rhymes, she could tell a story and make one up. She could now create and share with others a world of imagination and was not confined in her use of language to the immediate and the concrete.

Consider also the case of Genie, found in California in 1970. Genie was thirteen when she came to the attention of authorities. From the age of twenty months she had been kept in a small room in her parents’ house. She had never been out of the room; she was kept naked and restrained to a kind of potty-chair by a harness her father had designed. She could move only her hands and feet. The psychotic father, who apparently hated children, forbade her almost blind mother to speak to the child. (He had put another child, born earlier, in the garage to avoid hearing her cry, and she died there of pneumonia at two months of age.) Genie was fed only milk and baby food during her thirteen years.

When the girl was found, she weighed only 59 pounds. She could not straighten her arms or legs. She did not know how to chew. She could not control her bladder or bowels. She could not recognize words or speak at all. According to the mother’s report — the father killed himself soon after Genie was discovered — Genie appeared to have been a normal baby.

Over the next six years, Genie had plenty of interactions with the world, as well as training and testing by psychologists. She gained some language comprehension and learned to speak at about the level of a 2- or 3-year-old: “want milk,” “two hand.” She learned to use tools, to draw, and to connect cause-and-effect in some situations. And she could get from one place to another — to the candy counter in the supermarket, for example — proving that she could construct mental maps of space. Her IQ score on nonverbal tests was a low-normal 74 in 1977. But her language did not develop further, and, in fact, she made types of language errors that even normal 2-year-olds never make. In keeping with the biologistic ideas of our times, the cause of Genie’s language delay was sought in her brain only. Nobody ever thought to question whether the methods that were used to teach her had perhaps been inadequate.

A species-specific characteristic of homo sapiens

If one reads these stories, one simply has to agree with John McCrone who stated that we are born into this world with minds as naked as our bodies and we have to rely on society to clothe us. Ashley Montagu implied the same when he said that being human is not a status with which, but to which, one is born. While every creature that is classified physically as man is thereby called Homo sapiens, no such creature is really human until he or she exhibits the behavior characteristics of a human being. Montagu, however, adds that one cannot deny the status of being human to a newborn baby because it cannot talk, cannot walk erect or reveal any of the other behavior characteristics of human beings. The way in which he reconciles this apparent contradiction with his previous statement is by pointing to the promisethe child shows of being able to develop the behavior characteristics of human beings. The wonderful thing about a baby is its promise, not its performance — a promise that can only come true with the required help and assistance. The development of Homo sapiens, however great the promise might be, into a human being with behavior characteristics of human beings, requires more than just being kept alive physically. A child only becomes a human being thanks to education.

The essence of Montagu’s message is that being human must be learned. Viewed differently, it can be stated that there is nothing that any human being knows, or can do, that he has not learned. This of course excludes natural body functions, such as breathing, as well as the reflexes, for example the involuntary closing of the eye when an object approaches it. This is a characteristic, which very clearly distinguishes man from the animals.

A bear does not have to learn to be a bear, he simply is one. A duck needs no lessons in duckmanship. And an ant leads a perfectly satisfactory life without any instruction from other ants. Even when isolated from birth, animals usually retain clearly recognizable instincts. Jan Strydom tells the story of their dog, which had been taken from its mother at only two weeks. They had to bottle-feed it the first few weeks. They lived in a completely enclosed yard, and it was nearly a year old before it ever saw another dog, when they took it with on a picnic. In spite of its isolation from other dogs, and its constant human companionship, this dog did not eat with knife and fork, did not walk upright, and did not speak. It behaved just like any other dog, lifting its leg at every telephone pole and tree, and doing its very best to sink its teeth into the postman’s leg. There are only a few exceptions, such as the lion cub, which would not be able to hunt the wildebeest when raised in isolation, and the nightingale that would not be able to sing. A human being, raised in isolation, however, as we have seen in the stories of Victor, Amala and Kamala, Kaspar, Isabelle and Genie, will not be able to exhibit any of the behavior characteristics of a human being.

This species-specific characteristic, that there is nothing that any human being knows, or can do, that he has not learned, has so far been ignored in the human sciences, for the simple reason that the human sciences have modeled themselves on the findings of psychology.

Psychology has, for the past more than a century, thought that its salvation was to be found in the physical sciences, specifically in biology. Consequently, psychology has been shaped in accordance with the physical sciences, often employing concepts borrowed from biology and using them sometimes as analogies or metaphors and sometimes as statements implying a fundamental identity between the functions of psychological processes from amoeba to mollusc to man.

When Edward Lee Thorndike was appointed to the chair of educational psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York, around 1900, his first innovation was to study the learning processes of animals — mainly cats in puzzle boxes — in order to throw light on the learning processes of children and of human beings in general. Rats, as is well known, had to run through mazes in order to satisfy the curiosity of psychologists as to how learning occurs, and projections to human learning have been made on that basis. Köhler, for some strange reason referred to as a child psychologist, studied the intelligence of chimpanzees, and for many years after that time (1917) Köhler’s experiments were included in many discussions on learning and problem-solving processes in children. Harlow carried out work with monkeys on mother-child relationships, social development, conditions in which curiosity manifests itself, “learning to learn,” and the acquisition of “concepts.” All this was intended to throw light on human behavior. A considerable amount of work by a number of investigators has also been devoted to the study of the effects of sensory deprivation in young animals in order to better understand the effects of deprivation on cognitive development in children.

More recent experiments include a thirty-year study of “the vocal learning” of birds, which researchers had hoped would offer insight into the learning and/or speech process of infants, children and adults. A five-year study of budgerigars was conducted because researchers believed that “budgerigars may provide a unique system for examining how acoustic and visual information is coordinated in vocal learning.” In a five-year project that started in 1994, researchers studied “crickets and flies because these insects can serve as model systems for understanding sensory processing and communication in higher animals”.” One could go on for a long time listing examples of the pervasive influence of the study of animal behavior on child psychology and educational psychology ” and naturally also on the field of learning disabilities.

When we compare man and animal from a biological perspective only, there are no fundamental differences. Man does not possess a single organ, no bone, no muscle, which is not also to be found in the vertebrate animals. The only difference, seemingly, is the size of the brain. But because there are similarities, it does not imply that there are not also dissimilarities. Every morning millions of people throughout the world get up, dress themselves, eat breakfast and then go to work or to school. In the afternoons they all come back home, do homework, eat their supper, sit in front of the television, or go to visit friends, or read a book. Has any person ever seen any animal doing any of these? As Schmidt said, if the child psychologist and the educational psychologist turn to the study of animal behavior and development, they will not only have to look for identities and continuities but also to contrast, and they will have to pay attention not only to differences in complexity but also to differences in kind.

A century ago, Edmund Husserl argued that the human sciences were in a crisis. In 1981 Sarason complained that the social sciences were in disarray, while Schrag repeated exactly the same warning as Husserl, and gave exactly the same reason for the crisis: “The human sciences are suffering from a loss of center, from an occlusion of that point of origin at which man first asks the question about himself.” We must heed the wise counsel of Alexander Pope that the “proper study of mankind is man.”

It is impossible to understand the plight of the supposedly learning-disabled child unless one recognizes that he is a human being. A human being knows nothing, or cannot do anything, that he has not learned. If one accepts this as fundamental to humans, it opens up new avenues of interpreting the problem of the child with a learning disability. It implies that there is not necessarily anything wrong with a person who cannot do something. He may simply not have learned it yet — and any person can learn almost anything, provided that he is taught according to viable learning principles.

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