“There is nothing new under the sun,” states Ecclesiastes 1:9. This is certainly true of the nature-nurture debate, the modern name for the ageless argument about the importance of learning in the development of the child.
While one side argues that the development of the child is mainly a process of maturation, with learning playing no more than a supportive role, the other side maintains that learning determines the entire course of a child’s future.
The wise king Solomon certainly supported the nurture assumption when he stated in Proverbs 22:6, “Train the child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” The famous French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, posited a natural development of the child. In fact, he wanted the child to be protected from the influences of society so that he can grow up as Nature intended him to be.
A thorough study of feral children, and children who were raised or kept in extreme isolation, makes it difficult not to support the nurture assumption.
Feral children and what we learn from them
Probably the best-known story of feral children is that of the two girls, Amala and Kamala, who were raised by a she-wolf. In 1920 the reverend J. A. L. Singh saw a mother wolf and cubs, two of which had long, matted hair and looked human. After considerable preparation 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, respectively.
The creatures were taken to an orphanage in Midnapore, 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 presented itself. 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. Their hearing was very acute, and they could smell meat at a great distance. Furthermore, while they could not see well during the day, they could orientate themselves very well at night. In September 1921, both girls became ill, and Amala, the younger, died.
There are many other stories of feral children in the literature, amongst others 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 a river. She walked like an ape, and her teeth were as sharp as a razor.
These stories do far more than just confirm the important role of education. They actually show that a human being not only can but must be educated to become a human being. 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. A cat that is raised among dogs will still behave like a cat. It won’t try to bite the postman. There are only a few exceptions, such as the lion cub, that would be unable to hunt the wildebeest when raised in isolation.
Man, however, enters this world very poorly equipped. The knowledge a child needs to become fully human is not dormant. Everything the child eventually knows or can do must be 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. Everything else, however, must be learned.
A child must learn to walk erect, to talk, to eat with a knife and fork, to catch a ball, to ride a bicycle, to swim, et cetera. The mastery of these skills does not fall from the sky. A child must also learn to sustain his attention, to listen when spoken to, to follow through on instructions, to control his behavior and to sit still and remain in his seat when the situation so requires. These abilities, which play a determining role in school success, also do not happen automatically. The same applies to qualities such as friendliness, thankfulness, honesty, truthfulness, unselfishness, and respect for authority. All these skills and qualities — and many more — must be learned for the child to eventually lead a happy and successful adult life.
Parents are the most important educators
The road to adulthood can be compared to a traveler who wants to travel from one place to another but does not know the way. He, therefore, needs directions. If he receives the wrong directions, he will never reach his destination. A child who enters this world is in the same situation. He also has a destination — he must become a grown-up man or a grown-up woman — but he has no idea how to get there. Consequently, he needs to be directed by grown-up persons, who have already traveled along this route, and who therefore can lead him to adulthood.
The problem is that many people have come to identify the term “education” and “learning” only with schools and schooling. The school has grown from the modest institution it was in the nineteenth century to one that is blamed for all the ills of society and is seen as potentially capable of curing them. The school’s functions and influence have been extended — some would say over-extended — and therefore the school is exceedingly vulnerable to criticism. It is, however, important to note that the whole of education does not take place in the school. The school is especially responsible for the formal aspects of education, namely subject instruction, in order to provide society with an able workforce. The parents, on the other hand, are the primary educators of their child. And, as the primary educators of their child, they have the greatest responsibility to direct their child to adulthood.
Being a parent is a tremendous privilege. But it is also a tremendous responsibility. Therefore parents must make sure that they are properly equipped for the task at hand because, as the late violin teacher Shinichi Suzuki so rightly stated, “The destiny of children lies in the hands of their parents.”