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Education in Nineteenth-Century France: Biographical Sketches of Bébian,
Sicard, Massieu, and Clerc|
Eight-year-old Berthier arrived at the Paris Deaf Institute in 1811 as a nonhearing, nonspeaking student. The school had been directed since the Revolution by the hearing and speaking Abbé Sicard, who had succeeded the Abbé de l’Epée as France’s most prominent deaf educator. The staff during Berthier’s formative years included two nonhearing and nonspeaking teaching assistants—Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc—as well as Sicard’s hearing and speaking godson and namesake, Roch-Ambroise-Auguste Bébian. Sicard, Massieu, Clerc, and Bébian thus became the principal figures in Berthier’s early life; together they would influence his decision to join the faculty at the Paris Institute and to enter the political arena both as spokesman for the French deaf community and as an uncompromising advocate for deaf language and culture. It was in relation to that mission that each of the four found his way into the biographies Berthier would write over the years; their lives intertwined with his own amidst the trials and triumphs of an institution that faced constant challenges during a time of both turmoil and promise.
An important aspect of Berthier’s mission comprised setting down for posterity a historical account of the development of deaf education in France from the pre-Revolutionary years onward. In this way he could serve as griot, so to speak, at once guardian of the sacred flame and shaper of the legacy of the community to which he was irrevocably committed. In 1836 he produced a twenty-eight-page volume (in octavo) titled Histoire et statistique de l’éducation des sourds-muets (History and Statistics of Deaf Education). Though brief, the fact that it was published by the Historical Institute of France means that his cause had garnered the approval and support of officialdom, a necessity in a country that was already highly centralized and a status he constantly courted. He was in fact already a well-known figure. All Paris marveled at the “silent banquets” he organized beginning in November 1834 as an annual tribute to the Abbé de l’Epée. Dignitaries and politicians often attended, the press covered the event, and members of the deaf community competed for invitations.
Berthier’s shift from historical account to biography as his preferred approach took advantage of a changing intellectual landscape. The discipline of history was undergoing a process of hybridization that enhanced its popularity. Voltaire had set the tone in the eighteenth century with works such as Le siècle de Louis XIV; the nineteenth century brought with it a new breed of historian. Jules Michelet (Jeanne d’Arc) and Augustin Thierry (Histoire des temps mérovingiens [History of Merovingian Times]) established parameters that would accommodate aesthetic as well as personal, patriotic, and philosophical agendas. Metaphor and dialogue, both drawing on Romantic proclivities and the vogue created by Walter Scott, became mainstays alongside historical figures, place names, and dates. Avid readers welcomed Alfred de Vigny’s penchant for adding fiction to fact within the framework of the historical novel set in France; Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris offered mystery along with the literary license. These new trends accorded Berthier the freedom to personalize in his writing the unique history he could not convey orally and the freedom to yield center stage to his mentors or forebears at the Paris Institute without sacrificing his role as student and witness, without muting his voice as narrator, and above all, without compromising his determination to bring before the public the ideological principles he believed vital to the welfare of deaf people.