The Ineducable in the Light of Kant

“They consider me an idiot, but I’m intelligent all the same, and they don’t even suspect it…”
Dostoevsky, The Idiot

1 In 1962, American director Arthur Penn traced the true story of Helen Keller, a child suffering from blindness, mutism and deafness, and who, despite the love and compassion of her parents, is unable to attain any form of culture. She survives in a dark state of physical and psychic dependence, unable to access language and communicate, without learning or understanding anything about the world. While her family seems to be on the verge of giving up on educating her, a governess, Anne Sullivan, arrives. She succeeds in taming her, but at the expense of a violent struggle –a struggle first against the prejudice of her ineducability. This young woman, herself visually impaired, thus demonstrates that, despite appearances, this wild child has an intelligence that was just waiting to develop and express itself.

2 Her education thus began with the refusal of her ineducability. Does this term then designate a real limit to the education of Man or does it rather refer to a prejudice posed to conceal a form of educational failure?

3 Our research hypothesis is that at the foundation of this educational miracle, as of any victory over an apparent “ineducability”, are to be found some Kantian principles. These would not be prescriptions or socio-pedagogical solutions but the philosophical basis of a thought in favor of the educability of all human beings.

4 “Ineducable” is a substantive adjective referring to two distinct realities: children who are impossible to educate and those who prove to be very difficult to educate.

5 In one case, it is a question of no longer recognizing the humanity in the making of the child, who is then simply contained, or even in technical-economic terms “managed”. But to refuse the educability and thus the humanity of a human being would be, to use Claude Lévi-Strauss’s [1] famous phrase, to believe in barbarism – or here in the ineducability of some – and thus to be barbarian oneself.

6 In the other case (more likely as soon as one feels concerned about pedagogy), it is a question of understanding what can slow down education, and of accepting to follow a suitable but certainly slower educational path. The long development of the intelligence of a being in the making should be pursued at all costs. Indeed, according to Kant, reason is first and foremost the guarantor of freedom understood as autonomy, capacity to give oneself one’s own law (nomos in Greek), to set one’s own ends, to develop one’s dispositions to reach adulthood, to humanize oneself through language and culture. To deny an individual this capacity to be educated would thus be, in Rousseauist terms, “to renounce one’s right as Man”.

7 The history of so-called “ineducable” children or adolescents refers to very different realities: congenital idiot, incurable, case of juvenile deviance, maladjusted, disabled… These cases are often dealt with by the same authorities that seek either to repress, to treat, or to include. Education finds itself caught between two opposing imperatives: the desire to make individuals fit into the “mold” of institutions through normative discipline and a specific and creative attention allowing them to emancipate themselves from it.

8 Aware of this paradoxical requirement and concerned with a concrete education, Kantian pedagogy seems to provide some “safeguards” against the prejudice of ineducability.

The Fight Against Ineducability

The Incomplete Human

9 Education allows us to move from the state of being a child, from the Latin “infans”, “without speech”, to the state of being an adult endowed with a reason that expresses itself. This transition gradually happens throughout this intermediate phase which is adolescence, from the Latin adolescere, “to grow up”, and which thus allows to become “adult”, a term which comes itself from the Latin past participle adultus designating the one who has grown up. Adolescence is specifically a human period because only Man needs to be accompanied at great length between birth and autonomous life. “This first incompletion of the human being, which is called neoteny, makes the human baby very fragile, vulnerable and environment-dependent. Yet, […] one can imagine that this initial incompleteness is a source of diversity.” [2] Educating would thus consist in accompanying young people in their development, but until when? 18 years, French legal age of majority since 1974? 25 years, estimated age of brain maturity? Or 28, the age that puts an end to the right to a “youth card” discount on French trains in 2021? When can we be considered as adults? Biologically, this youth, which the educator takes care of, is marked by puberty, which according to its etymology (from the Latin pubes) would mainly refer to pubic hair. According to Kant, education can only be carried out until the age of sexuality which allows one to be a parent, at about sixteen years [3] (beyond that one would only bring an intellectual complement). Even if maturity cannot be reduced to physical characteristics, education, understood as the development of reason, cannot do without an awareness of bodily metamorphoses.

Kant, or Emancipation Through the Development of Reason

10 Kant begins his book Lectures on Pedagogy with this statement: “Man is the only creature that needs to be educated. By education, we mean care (sustenance, maintenance), discipline, instruction coupled with training” [4]. The problem of education is then to succeed in reconciling the necessary discipline exercised by constraint with the faculty to use one’s freedom. From the outset, education is presented as the rough task of helping to become a fulfilled, free and intelligent Man and at the same time a citizen integrated into society, without the educator having to choose between being a pedagogue or a republican… The family is responsible for this education, but also, de facto in France, the institutions because since 1933, the Ministry of Public Instruction (in charge of transmitting knowledge) has become the Ministry of National Education (concerning the general formation of Man).

11 From then on, adolescents experience crises, tensions between a desire to emancipate themselves from their environment and the desire to assimilate its norms. The disciplinary constraint necessary for learning must not, for Kant, be imposed only from the outside. The freedom gained is meant to be autonomy. Education would less correspond to the effect of a repression imposed by the family or society than to an interior regulation resulting from the subject himself. Now the subject is constituted by consciousness and this manifests itself first of all in the power to say “I” [5], through language.

Two Different Cases of Access to Language: Helen Keller and Victor de l’Aveyron

12 Case studies of wild children shed light on what might resist education. The philosopher Jean-Claude Pariente contrasts the failure of Victor de l’Aveyron with Helen Keller’s success in the late acquisition of speech. Victor, found alive in the state of an animal and taken in by Jean Itard who tried to teach him to speak, ended up associating the word “milk” with the thing itself. But this association is insufficient to constitute a language because the word only expresses a moment of joy after the acquisition of the food, always linked to the “imminence of the thing” [6]. The word does not function as a sign allowing communication with others. If, as Hegel says in his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, “we think in names”, the resistance to language acquisition reflects the impossibility to elaborate a thought. In contrast, the case of Helen Keller testifies to a possibility, even late, of access to language, to the communication of a thought and thus to culture. Indeed, after having presented all the signs of ineducability, after multiple attempts, Helen’s intelligence discovers the true symbolic value of words when she finally understands that the blows struck in a certain way in her hand by her governess represent water regardless of context and need. From that moment on, she never ceased wanting to gain access to knowledge, and later becoming herself teacher and writer. This tenacious will to learn more and more, after those years of intellectual fog, seems to embody the bravery of a being who would have embraced the motto of the Enlightenment determined by Kant as “Sapere aude”, “dare to think for yourself” [7]. If in these two cases “some perceptive aptitudes” were acquired according to Pariente, Victor nevertheless lacked, in order to have a true linguistic exchange, a “fine-tuning of relations with others” through the renewed experience of communication and interaction with others (for example, knowing when to speak). Today, child psychiatry detects new symptoms of this ineducability, because of the abandonment of children in front of screens.

The “Scientific” Attempt to Distinguish the Educable from the Ineducable by Binet and Simon

13 For Kant, as for Anne Sullivan, the problem is to find a way to constrain the will without destroying it. For the former, it is a matter of accounting for it philosophically. For the latter, it is necessary to find immediate practical solutions. Indeed, one can train [8] a man, that is to say make him a “mechanically educated” being, as one can do for an animal, but he will not be in this sense “really enlightened” – he will not have learned to think. But precisely some children or adolescents seem to resist: do they not have the right dispositions? Alfred Binet and Théodore Simon wanted to answer this question scientifically by developing intelligence tests in 1905 that would allow to distinguish between the educable and the ineducable. It is a question of establishing the mental age, the age that the child should be in relation to the problems that the whole of an age group of more than 75% is capable of solving. The intelligence quotient or IQ thus makes it possible to determine the performance of an individual. The concept of norm, which comes from the Latin norma, “the rule, the square [équerre]”, finds its full meaning here because it would allow to draw a segregating line between normal and abnormal. Binet speaks of “measurement” for convenience, but it is actually more a question of “ranking” [9] and of establishing degrees of retardation on a scale between normal and those who fall under “idiocy, imbecility, and debility”. De facto, even if Binet’s objective was to “perfect” the imbeciles, [10] these distinctions have been retained as a way of hierarchizing human beings, encouraging the stigmatization of the ineducable. Based on statistical averages, these tests are given an objective value in order to identify what in human behavior would escape its very humanity. By relying on such tests to identify the ineducable, we would be in the confusion denounced by Canguilhem [11] between the normal (a regularly observed fact) and the normative (a societal ideal). However, the measure of a so-called “normal” behavior in relation to a pathological behavior can change depending on the context. For Canguilhem, health refers to the ability to invent new norms, a luxury that allows one to get up when one falls ill. It refers more to a quality than to a quantitative measure established according to a statistical standard. “A normality that is content to maintain itself, hostile to variation and incapable of adapting to new situations does not correspond to health but to illness” [12]. Wanting to define ineducable people by the exact calculation of their intelligence which would be pathologically deficient, would be to freeze them in a certain state of their development considered in a reductive way by the established average of another group and thus to condemn them.

14 Thus, the denominations and treatments of the “ineducable” seem to depend more on social norms that are likely to change, than on a positive science. What might be the reality of the ineducable, and what does their history reveal about the pedagogical conceptions of the society in which they find themselves?

A Short Recent History of the Ineducable Revealing Social Norms

15 The historian Françoise Tétard wonders: “How is ‘ineducable’ characterized? Is there a single definition throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Much more than a case-by-case description, it is first and foremost an opinion regarding the behavior of the group that is given, finally taking little into account the actions of the minor before their placement in civil life, but relying above all on their attitude during the various measures of which they were the object” [13]. How then are those who resist education identified and treated?

The “Delinquents”, the “Unamendable” or the “Perverts” in the Reformatory

16 In May 1947, an event made the headlines: the revolt of the ineducable. Young detainees, who had been “provisionally” incarcerated for six years in the Rennes prison and then in the Fresnes [14] prison, organized an extremely violent mutiny. These young girls from “correctional” houses were considered by the Ministry of Justice as very difficult, dangerous, perverse and therefore to be isolated out of fear of contamination. Originally, [15] out of the 82 incarcerated girls, there were only three convicts (two criminals and one maquis informer), the others being placed for vagrancy (orphans were common after the war), sex work, theft or incidents of probation… These “unamendable” teenagers, “minors who could not be integrated into an ordinary ‘reeducation’ system” that we were trying to neutralize, included delinquents but also young girls who were simply very poor and whose suffering can be read in the correspondence maintained with their educators. [16] Their revolt highlighted the failure of an exclusively repressive care.

17 A violent child, refusing to follow the rules, fell into what was called “juvenile deviance”. In his book De l’enfant coupable à l’enfant inadapté, the sociologist Jean-Marie Renouard shows that these delinquents were in the care of the prison administration. And it is only with the progressive influence of “post-philanthropic” movements, that the same type of behavior will no longer make the child a “culprit” but a “victim”, like the poor “kid”, embodied on screen by Paulette Goddard in Modern Times, who risks prison for a piece of stolen bread.

18 The term “maladjusted” then came into use, and justice and psychiatry joined forces to promote the socio-professional integration of this very disparate group of cases. But from guilt to maladjustment, we went from children who were outlaws to children who needed help to integrate socially. For Renouard, “the boundaries of the field are widened to cover, with the ‘maladjusted’ child, all forms of deviance” [17]. And on the same page, he quotes R. Lafon’s definition from 1949: “Maladjusted childhood goes from the abandoned child or the orphan to the criminal, including the deficient, the difficult, the abnormal, the child in moral danger, the predelinquent; it is a frontier zone between the normal and the pathological, without a precise frontier, however”. The ineducable were no longer to be dealt with only by the judicial system but by psychiatry.

From the “Incurable” or the “Degenerate” in the Asylum to the “Mentally ill” in Psychiatric Hospitals

19 For a long time psychiatry did not deal with children because madness was considered as a perversion of “Man’s moral sense” according to the neuropsychiatrist and psychoanalyst Romain Liberman. [18] A child could not be alienated, only possibly a fool. Psychiatry considered them to be a “normal being or a congenital idiot” [19], but without mental disorders. This lack of interest on the part of medicine, which did not reserve a particular place of care for them, was itself coupled with a refusal on the part of the National Education system to “take care of these children who lacked intelligence” [20].

20 Associations of parents and relatives began to create welcome centers for these excluded children. In 1958, the psychiatrist Serge Lebovici created a pilot experiment in a day hospital to receive them. In 1960, a circular provided a free child neuropsychiatry service. Gradually, psychiatric structures dedicated to children were set up and recognized, such as the foundation created in Gentilly by Hippolyte Vallée, an educator who had followed the pedagogical experiments of Édouard Séguin on “idiots” in 1842. [21] Mentalities gradually evolved from marginal experiments to new psychiatric orientations such as those of Roger Misès, until official recognition was obtained through two circulars (in 1972 and 1974), which formed the basis for the sectorization of child and adolescent psychiatry. This new child psychiatry then embodied the refusal of ineducability and the faith in the perfectibility of each individual.

The “Disabled” in Inclusive Schools

21 Gradually, the very broad term “maladjusted” was replaced by “disabled”. The expression “disabled child” [“enfance handicapée”] appeared for the first time in 1965 in the journal Esprit to designate, according to Bernard Durant, children “whose physical or mental infirmity does not currently require radical therapy, but those who will need special assistance throughout their lives” [22]. From a guilty child, one goes on to a victim child and then to a child without responsibility. The term “maladjustment” [inadaptation] is taken up again in the Bloch-Lainé report in 1975 (at the basis of an ethical definition of disability) but Durand criticizes it for juggling in a confused manner with the terms “maladjusted”, “invalid”, “infirm” and “disabled”.

22 Through the notion of “mental disability”, child psychiatry has taken up cases of the “mentally ill” as well as “delinquents” or children “maladjusted” to the school system.

23 According to Liberman, chronic mental illness has gradually evolved into “mental disability whose effects are quantifiable, measurable in terms of cost and compensable in monetary value or social integration” [23]. It is no longer managed by the Ministry of Health but by the Ministry of Social Affairs. Institutionalized and sectorized disability is recognized by the Maisons Départementales de Personnes Handicapées (MDPH) and supported by the Centres Médico-Psycho-Pédagogiques (CMPP). The treatment of disability consists less in curing than in providing support over time, by helping, according to Céline Clément, [24] to compensate for deficits or incapacities in order to promote autonomy and social integration.

24 The different ways of dealing with the ineducable embody different conceptions of care. From delinquents to be corrected, to the mentally ill to be hospitalized, then to the disabled to be educated, care first means normalization and securement of society, then therapeutic help, and finally becomes a benevolent accompaniment in the sense given by Francine Saillant “of concern, of worry, and of relationship to a fragile other” [25]. The success of an “inclusive school” depends on the personalized follow-up of these different “cases”, under penalty of transforming psychological care into a simple management of risks relating to behavioral excesses in relation to a social norm. Therefore, in order to avoid returning to an initial conception of care as institutionalization in which the school would be a simple machine to educate (without adapting its own norms to the marginalized), it would be appropriate to redefine the driving principles of an education which does not renounce educability.

25 Despite the diversity of behavior of what might be called the “uneducated” over recent history, can we not pursue the same educational ideal based on common principles?

Some Kantian safeguards against the prejudice of ineducability

26 To refuse the ineducability of a child would be to recognize in them their disposition to discipline themselves, to civilize and to cultivate themselves thanks to the development of their ever-present reason, in order to become, in Kantian terms, a moral being capable of setting their own ends.

Refusing to be trained

27 In his Lectures on Pedagogy, Kant indicates that in order to solve the most difficult problem of education, namely to reconcile submission to a legitimate constraint and the fact of knowing how to use one’s freedom, it is necessary to be able to impose a discipline which makes the resistance of society to individual desires felt, so that the child learns how difficult it is to subsist by oneself, to be independent. But this submission to external constraint must be internalized or it will risk becoming a pure “mechanism”. In this sense, education differs from training [dressage], which Kant analyzes as being reserved for animals, even though “the word comes from the English to dress” [26]. Education does not only consist in modifying an external appearance in order to conform to a visible standard, like Helen finally succeeding in sitting properly at the table. Indeed, this first necessary step does not go beyond the simple removal of her animality. In order to gain one’s humanity, one must learn to think, to exercise one’s “reason”, a faculty superior to “memory” [27], thus going beyond a simple mechanical integration of already constructed thoughts.

Refusing laziness

28 To do this, Kant advocates the virtues of work. While Helen’s caring parents are content with her early progress, her governess calls for more effort to make her a truly civilized being. “It is of the utmost importance that children learn to work” [28], without which all activity amounts to pure slavery. Alexis Philonenko, in his introduction to Réflexions sur l’éducation (another translation of Propos de pédagogie [Lectures on Pedagogy]) entitled Kant et le problème de l’éducation, shows that this concept of “work” makes it possible to solve the problem of a synthesis between submission and freedom. Boredom has no place where education helps to find meaning in life. Philonenko insists on the joy that education through work produces, joy for the student but also for the maieutic educator, joy that consists in becoming capable of building oneself. By inventing the conditions of his own existence (an invention that is specific and relative to the origin of his “ineducability”), Man distinguishes himself from animals. He creates his humanity not only as an individual but also as a historical being.

Refusing a Separation Between the Individual and the Citizen

29 According to Kant, the dignity of Man is linked to respect for the person (for others and for oneself) as an end in itself. Yet, what characterizes human dignity, even that of a child, is one’s reason. Educability would therefore be the recognition of this reason, and wanting to base education on sensitivity risks aborting the educational objective, pity risking the stifling of intelligence. Kant criticizes parents for being satisfied with a simple adaptation to the present world [29] for their children, adjusting the means to their immediate environment, without setting new ends for themselves, without being aware of their destination as citizens for the general progress of humanity. In this respect, inclusive school should allow the “ineducable” to be confronted with others, provided that their status as disabled does not make them fall into a stigmatization and that the systems of compensation do not content themselves with softening the external constraint instead of internalizing it. An institution that is only concerned with the means of obtaining behaviors whose manifestation is in line with the social constraint (such as being able to simply sit still), risks no longer caring about the origin of this attitude, in other words of knowing whether it is really a matter of the child’s will and reason. The risk would be to instrumentalize any technique to “calm” these ineducable children. Forgetting the ends, the human and moral destiny would lead to a purely technocratic management of these beings, who would then certainly be integrated but not included.

Refusing a “Scientific” Education Provided by a “Perfect” Educator

30 Learning freedom, the ability to govern oneself and thus to be responsible for one’s actions is incompatible with the desire to make education a science. Indeed, education refers, even before the acquisition of knowledge, to the art of using one’s judgment, the art of adapting to each new experience one’s capacity to set good ends and to attribute the best means to them. Education is then what Philonenko calls an “oriented experience” [30]. Kant speaks of an accomplishment not only of the individual but of the human species to which the individual can only partially contribute. [31] Thus, perfect education cannot exist, despite the scientistic ideal of total control, which is attempted for example with quantitative tests of behavior to which “physical” and thus supposedly “objective” solutions are proposed. Thus, Ritalin, still called the “pill of wisdom” because it is only prescribed during school time, certainly allows for rapid compensation of the disability of the agitated or “hyperactive” child, but no longer calls for the responsibility of each of the actors (child, parent, school). Passing from the guilty child to the child under such medical treatment, one could conclude with Roland Gori and Marie-José Del Volgo that: “our means of sanctioning have changed, the rewards and punishments that used to validate positively or invalidate negatively our behaviors have become medicalized” [32]. “Child psychiatric filing and its legal drugs” [33] would be a quick response to the turbulent child. The difficulty that consists in developing –albeit more slowly –one’s reason to be able to make a good use of one’s freedom, a condition of an effective education, would thus be bypassed, avoided, even prevented. The care given to the child would risk reverting to a simple normalization. To speak of “ineducable” children would be to invent a term to take away responsibility for their education and to entrust to chemistry the task of containing the symptoms.

31 Thus, an “ineducable” being could just as easily refer to a delinquent, a child in mental or physical distress, as to a pupil recognized as disabled by the institutions. These very different realities, which for a while were brought together under the term “maladjusted”, refer to societal priorities behind which lie different pedagogical conceptions: “educating” to protect society, to help suffering children, to include the excluded. These different approaches can be limited when education seems impossible or too difficult. Kant’s philosophy of education makes it possible to establish some safeguards, on the one hand, in order not to fall into the barbarian prejudice of ineducability understood as educational impossibility and, on the other hand, to pursue the educational ideal, an art based on a praxis aiming at conquering one’s freedom through the renewed exercise of judgment. If this exercise proves difficult, it is because it refuses the ease of training and implies work, a tenacious effort for the development of a humanity whose recognition is not so much in the individual as in the species. This is certainly a demanding approach, but one which, even if it neglects the role of affection in education, could prove to be a precious guide for supporting those who are somewhat hastily called the ineducable. This term is by no means artificial. It does not refer to a reality of individuals sharing the same shortcomings, but to a globalizing view of the child that obliterates certain philosophical-educational principles, to a doxic phenomenon seeking a standard solution to difficulties that are above all singular. There does not exist a category of ineducable children but rather a prejudice of ineducability.

32 Kant asserted in the second preface to the Critique of Pure Reason, that he had “had to suppress knowledge in order to make way for faith”. In the same way, against any scientistic vision of a technocratic and totalizing management of children (denying their diversity), his conception of education would be based more on faith in Man and in his future [34] than on an established science. In this sense, education should remain an art.


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