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American Annals of the Deaf

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Forging Deaf Education in Nineteenth-Century France: Biographical Sketches of Bébian, Sicard, Massieu, and Clerc

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Two works he produced in 1839 and 1840 pointed to the future, both of them outgrowths of his increasing activism and his efforts to define and promote deaf identity. The first, a biography of Auguste Bébian, grew out of the controversy in deaf education that pitted advocates of signing against promoters of oralism. Th e Abbé de l’Epée himself had faced the challenge of Jean Rodrigue Pereire a half century earlier, and the controversy had polarized the Paris Institute for many years. With the appointment of Désiré Ordinaire as director in 1831, oralism found new impetus. Over the next several years the administration and staff debated back and forth, while the students were caught in the middle, powerless to defend the “natural language” they deemed their own. With Ordinaire’s departure and the death in 1838 of the school’s pro-oralist physician, Dr. Itard, Berthier sought to redirect instruction at the school and to shape public opinion through his writings. The timing of the Bébian biography stemmed also from the recent death of the former instructor. Bébian died in February of 1839, having returned to his native Guadeloupe after he was unable to secure a teaching position in continental France. The work reads both as a tribute to the mentor and friend who believed that deaf people could overcome all obstacles and as a manifest in support of Bébian’s concept of “mimicry” (“la mimique”)—that is to say, the dynamic gestural medium that would form the foundations for both LSF (Langue des Signes Française) and ASL (American Sign Language).

The second work involved a bit of opportunism. On March 26, 1840, the president of the Society of Moral Sciences of the Seine et Oise region announced the winner of its essay contest, a traditional and highly respected competition dating back to the seventeenth-century Académie Française. Interestingly enough, the contest’s tripartite topics consisted of (1) the status of deaf people prior to the appearance of the Abbé de l’Epée, (2) a tribute to the Abbé de l’Epée’s achievements, and (3) how deaf people had fared since that time. In other words, one might say, it called for exactly what Berthier was already doing: using biography as a platform from which to further the cause he held so dear. What Berthier’s role in the selection of the tailor-made topic might have been (not to speak of his relationship with the “anonymous sponsor”) is open to speculation. But it is little wonder that his submission won the gold medal and that he walked away with the honorarium. His credentials at the time speak for themselves: president of the newly formed Société Centrale des Sourds-Muets, dean of the Royal Deaf Institute of Paris, member of the Historical Institute of France, and so on. In his remarks the president enumerated Berthier’s prizewinning attributes and expressed the esteem in which he was held:

The manner in which you addressed the diverse points of view of the proposed question, the highly regarded philosophical considerations that accompany them, the interest generated throughout the document, the accuracy and simplicity of the biographical details, everything, in a word, contributed to the awarding of the prize. But what adds to your considerable talent is the extreme modesty with which you accomplished your task. . . . I am especially pleased to award you the prize that you so richly deserve because you are living proof of the virtues of the Abbé de l’Epée’s method; you are one of its ablest proponents. It is thus that we can grant this tribute to you alongside your tribute to our virtuous compatriot.

In his introduction, Berthier laid out the principles he vowed to follow in composing his essay. They are those he would endeavor to follow in the biographies to come:

A lover of the truth above all else, a scrupulous observer of the facts that I have witnessed during my long career, I shall tell all that I have seen, all that I have read, but I shall tell only what I have seen and only what I have read; and whatever respect I may have for a noted educator, I shall not fear to point out the errors into which he may have fallen.

Lest the reader think that Berthier’s submission may have received undue consideration and may not have been worthy of the award, it is important to emphasize the quality of the resulting essay. His stated goal was to combat the “ignorance” and “prejudice” that had been so detrimental to deaf people over the centuries, beginning with the ancients, the point of departure of his study. At double the length of the Bébian biography (90 pages in octavo, as opposed to 46), The Deaf before and after Abbé de l’Epée relies on serious historical research as well as personal observation. It details both the veneration (by the Egyptians and the Persians) and the mistreatment, of deaf people through the ages, up to and including nineteenth-century Europe where, by law, deaf people could not dispose of property through will and testament in a country as progressive as England.

Berthier points to Christianity as the “saving force,” meaning Christian charity as practiced by the Abbé de l’Epée, the Abbé Sicard, and the many priests before and after them who had devoted their lives to deaf people. And yet good intentions do not always hold sway; if Berthier is guarded toward the image he presents of the Abbé de l’Epée, he does not hesitate to criticize the Abbé Sicard’s early perception of deaf people as being somehow less than human, deprived as they were of the very faculty that France revered as the key to intellectual and national superiority, l’art de bien parler,


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