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When I was in college, I worked for two years at a large state home that housed 1200 developmentally-disabled children, including one feral boy.
We have lots of myths and stories about feral children, the so-called “wild child” phenomenon. The Roman myths tell the stories of Romulus and Remus, raised by wolves rather than human parents. We all know Tarzan, Mowgli and Peter Pan, the more familiar feral figures in contemporary literature and film. The Iranian Book of Kings tells the story of a feral child named Zāl, raised by the Simurgh, the Phoenix-like mythical bird. The hero of Robert Heinlein’s classic novel Stranger in a Strange Land, Valentine Michael Smith, is a human raised by Martians. All of these characters, brought up without normal human contact, illustrate the importance of early childhood nurturance and education.
But the boy I knew wasn’t like any of these delightful mythical or literary creations—he was a very sad case, severely damaged psychologically and developmentally by a deeply neglectful and abusive early infancy that lacked much human contact, since his parents were both severe drug addicts. No one knew much more about his history, but I often worked in the ward where he was housed, so I got to know him. He seemed to have normal intelligence, but couldn’t yet speak, and could only form sounds rather than words, even though he was six years old when I first met him. He had uncontrollable emotional outbursts often, so unsocialized, frustrated, troubled and violent he had to be isolated from other children because he might harm them. He needed human physical contact, but deeply feared it.
In the two years I knew him, despite much effort from many people, I don’t think he ever made any real progress. The professional staff told me that his lack of an early childhood education and the crucial stages of regular development he had missed might never allow him to mature or have even a semblance of normality.
I think of him now, forty years later, and wonder if he survived into adulthood, and if he ever grew up.
I think, too, about the enormous importance of education for us humans, because the feral boy I knew showed me what a child without loving, attentive parents and their gentle guidance might become.
We human beings, that feral boy helped me understand, need educators. From our earliest moments as completely helpless infants, we require an enormous amount of care, attention and education. Our minds, hearts and souls, open and receptive to all input from day one, cry out for nutritious food just like our bodies do. If babies have stimulation, attention and love, they grow up to be functioning adults—but without those things, I learned, they cannot progress or evolve.
The Baha’i teachings say that humanity, as a whole, needs an educator too:
When we consider existence, we observe that the mineral, the vegetable, the animal, and the human realms, each and all, are in need of an educator.
If the land is deprived of a cultivator, it becomes a thicket of thriving weeds, but if a farmer is found to cultivate it, the resulting harvest provides sustenance for living things. It is therefore evident that the land is in need of the farmer’s cultivation. Consider the trees: If they remain uncultivated, they bear no fruit, and without fruit they are of no use. But when committed to a gardener’s care, the barren tree becomes fruitful, and, through cultivation, crossing, and grafting, the tree with bitter fruit yields sweet fruit …
Consider likewise the animals: If an animal is trained, it becomes domesticated, whereas man, if he is left without education, becomes like an animal. Indeed, if man is abandoned to the rule of nature, he sinks even lower than the animal, whereas if he is educated he becomes even as an angel. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 8.
So who educates humanity? If our parents educate us as infants and children; who fulfills that role for the generality of humankind? Baha’is believe—and this belief forms the essential key to the Baha’i view of human history—that the educators of humanity are the prophets and messengers of God, all the founders of the world’s great Faiths:
… the universal Educator must be at once a material, a human, and a spiritual educator, and, soaring above the world of nature, must be possessed of another power, so that He may assume the station of a divine teacher. Were He not to wield such a celestial power, He would not be able to educate, for He would be imperfect Himself. How then could He foster perfection? If He were ignorant, how could He make others wise? If He were unjust, how could He make others just? If He were earthly, how could He make others heavenly?
Now, we must consider fairly whether these divine Manifestations that have appeared had all these attributes or not. If they were devoid of these attributes and perfections, then they were not true educators.
Therefore it is through rational arguments that we must prove to rational minds the prophethood of Moses, of Christ, and of the other divine Manifestations …
It has thus been established by rational arguments that the world of existence stands in utmost need of an educator, and that its education must be achieved through a celestial power. There is no doubt that this celestial power is divine revelation, and that the world must be educated through this power which transcends human power. – Ibid., pp. 12-13.
In the next essay in this series, we’ll explore this unique theme further, examining the Baha’i teachings that explain the progressive development of human history, and asking: who were history’s greatest and most influential individuals?