STARTING TOK: “Ready… Fire, Aim!”
Students often bring up the subject of feral children spontaneously after the "What do little kids know?" unit.
Some students will have seen Truffault’s 1970 movie L'enfant sauvage which portrays accurately the discovery and education of Victor the "Wild Child of Aveyron" in the late 18th century. The opening sequence of the movie is certainly worth a look and will stimulate discussion.
I find the feral child phenomenon worth addressing, but refrain from designing a whole unit of inquiry around the topic. The subject can generate more heat than light. When examined critically the few isolated cases on record provide a measure of voyeuristic fascination, but ultimately cannot resolve scientifically language acquisition controversies. Many cases have been shown to be highly exaggerated, mythic or outright bogus.
VICTOR AND GENIE: CAUTIONARY TALES
The wild child of Aveyron had a large, jagged scar on his neck. He was also deaf. It is likely that his throat had been cut and he had been left for dead in the forest around the age of four. As a baby he would not have survived. Is it possible to tease out whether:
1. Victor was abandoned by his family precisely because he was born mentally retarded?
2. Victor never acquired language, and could only be educated minimally, precisely because he had been deprived of basic human nurture during his formative years.
French physician and educator of the deaf, Itard abandoned Victor as soon soon puberty set in. It was Itard’s stoic housekeeper who looked after the boy until he died.
A parallel set of questions can be asked with regard to “Genie,” the pseudonym of teenage girl who was discovered by social workers in Los Angeles in 1970. (Eerily, the this was same year the Truffault movie was released.) Genie had been reared in isolation, tied to a “potty chair” without stimulus for 13 years. Her abusive, elderly father escaped the justice system by shooting himself.
Genie was abandoned by researchers and string of foster home parents after her case failed to yield pivotal results or make any reputations in the field of linguistics. She now lives in obscurity in a sheltered institution and is very withdrawn.
Students can be asked to imagine isolation experiments on human babies that could shed light on the nature/nurture debate and language acquisition. What practical difficulties arise? What ethical objections come to mind?
Experiments on non-consenting victims, including young children, were performed in concentration camps by Nazi doctors. Mengele's scientifically worthless and disgusting twin studies are the most notorious example.
I prefer to explore Ethics as an Area of Knowledge in depth in the second year of the course in Grade 12. Nevertheless, ethical considerations arise constantly throughout the TOK program and should be addressed naturally as they emerge. Encountering Nazi atrocities early in the course has the advantage of rapidly undermining the default cultural relativism that many teenagers bring to TOK.
At the end of this harrowing unit of inquiry, try challenging students with the following question
1. What is cultural relativism?
2. What can learning about the horrors of the Holocaust tell us about cultural relativism?
The following quote from mathematician and philosopher, Reuben Hersh captures the spirit of a generative classroom. It is an effective posture to adopt when teaching TOK, especially at certain moments of impasse in whole class activities and discussions. Start as you mean to go on. Try your own version of it here with the second, much more open of these two question?