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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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Bébian and Clerc, on the other hand, served as true mentors. Bébian’s enterprising philosophy and linguistic acumen dazzled the boy; Clerc’s intelligence and composure served as a model. To a large extent it was the possibility of putting all that in perspective that moved Berthier to undertake the project in the end. After all, Sicard had played an important role in promoting deaf education and welfare. He had caught the public eye, he had successfully courted government, and he had hired both Bébian and Clerc. Moreover, Berthier had already extolled Bébian in his 1839 biography. The Sicard biography offered him the prospect of taking up the gauntlet once again and of contrasting the approach advocated by Bébian and Clerc with that of Sicard and Massieu. But Berthier was no longer a young man; his involvement in other affairs consumed much of his time and energy. It took two decades for the work to find its way into print. The timing of the 1873 publication may well have been influenced by international events. Serafino Balestra had opened his school for the deaf in Como in 1852. By 1869 the “Parola Viva” movement had led to a decree curtailing the use of signs for instruction in Italy in favor of lipreading and articulated speech. By 1872 the recognized official goal of Italian deaf education was to teach studentsto speak. Oralism was gaining ground almost everywhere—on the European Continent, across the Channel, and in the United States. For Berthier, time was of the essence. In 1873 he turned seventy.

The Texts

Auguste Bébian (1789–1839)

The biography of Bébian was published in 1839, many years after Bébian had left the Paris Institute. Berthier relates that Bébian had been forced out around 1820 by an administration bent on finding a reason to expel him. Whereas Bébian’s intelligence and his intentions could not be questioned, the biographer assures his readers, he was seen as an iconoclast at best and as a cantankerous, overly zealous, troublemaker at worst. According to Berthier, the incident leading to his expulsion involved a lapse of judgment during the visit of the Duchesse de Berry. Bébian, in his capacity as censeur, or assistant director in charge of student affairs, had complained in her presence of the lamentable state of the children’s clothing, causing the school to lose face and at the same time sealing his fate. Berthier is silent on Sicard’s role in the dismissal of his godson. If events transpired as Berthier reports, they might be attributed in part to the director’s declining health (he would die in 1822) and the increasing influence of the governing board; for the biographer, however, Bébian’s departure would do nothing to enhance Sicard’s image: he had been dismissed on his godfather’s watch. For his part, Bébian did not abandon his cause; through his many publications and political contacts he continued to exert pressure on the administration to change its approach to deaf education.

Berthier’s account of Bébian’s years at the Paris Institute emerged, then, after a hiatus of two decades. Their personal relationship at the school dated from1811 and had continued some nine years. Bébian was twenty-two at the outset; at the end Berthier had not yet turned eighteen. The imprinting of Bertier’s mentor is clear: admiration turned to emulation as the exuberant pupil evolved from protégé to colleague and comrade in arms. Only a quarter of the biography is devoted to those early years; the remainder chronicles subsequent endeavors and, importantly, surveys the pedagogical and ideological principles Bébian elaborated in his writings. Yet those initial pages are vital to understanding the state of deaf education at the time and the directions it would take as the years passed. The goals and teaching strategies at the school were formed by well-intentioned hearing individuals whose limited experience prevented them from appreciating the full potential of the students and their need for a dynamic means of communication that would facilitate intellectual development and ultimately allow them to participate fully in society alongside their hearing counterparts.

Laurent Clerc was four years older than Bébian and had come to the school a full decade before his younger cohort. He had thus witnessed firsthand the political and material difficulties Sicard had to overcome in shepherding the institute into the nineteenth century. It is understandable that he, as a nonhearing, nonspeaking student become teacher, should view the director in a different light. As sympathetic as he was to Bébian’s goals and perspective, his respect for the methodical signs and the legacy of the Abbé de l’Epée prevented him from joining his hearing colleague, lest he be considered an ingrate. “But Clerc feared being accused of heresy,” Berthier writes, “should he defy the school’s teachings, however innocently. . . . Bébian soon realized he would have to go it alone.” Of course in 1817, when Berthier was only thirteen or fourteen, Clerc left for Connecticut, where he would put into practice with a clear conscience the very principles Bébian had espoused. Berthier certainly held Clerc in high esteem; his dismay at his departure is expressed in moving terms. But it was Bébian’s principles and his audacity that had won him over. Both are described poignantly in the biography.

As biography, the Bébian text reflects its fledgling status. As stylistically compelling as several sections are, chronology often suffers (as in the later l’Epée biography); certain nonlinear developments that might otherwise have been used to good purpose serve only to detract from both the narrative and the underlying thesis; and repetitions sometimes try the reader’s patience. Yet, in addition to drawing on his personal experience, Berthier had the wisdom to extract from Bébian’s writings and various other documents incidents and anecdotes that place the reader in direct contact with his


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