Nothing in Jean-Ovide Decroly’s early life would have led to a forecast of a career in education. Coming from a strict provincial background in the small Belgian town of Renaix, he had to face the demands of his parents, who were obsessed with the academic success of the most gifted of their children. His turbulent spirit led him to detest the two boarding schools that imposed aclassical Greek and Latin education, remote indeed from his passion for drawing, dancing, music and, above all, natural science. He appreciated all the more his years at the medical faculty of the University of Gent, where he was a student assistant before turning to the highly experimental discipline of pathological anatomy. The young biologist was soon to discover the medicine of the mind. As thebrilliant winner of the University’s Competition and of the award of the Travelling Scholarship Foundation, he spent the 1896–97 academic year at the University of Berlin and the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris where he met avant-garde specialists in mental illness and turned towards neuropsychiatry, and then to psychology—just as Freud had done in the same places twenty years earlier. But Decrolysteadfastly affirmed that biological and mental phenomena, the ‘biological and mental foundations’ of all behaviour, were correlated. In 1898, Decroly moved to Brussels with his young wife, Agnès Guisset. At the University of Gent he again took up his research on mental illness and on the pathological anatomy of the brain. The clinic in the hospital setting was of more interest to him than werethe patients. He also began working at the Brussels Polyclinic as an assistant in the neurology department and, shortly afterwards, was put in charge of the section for ‘abnormal and speechdefective children’. This experience was both painful and decisive. Faced with the poverty of the cities, Decroly discovered the human, social and educational abandonment that his little patients suffered from.The working-class state schools almost always condemned them to failure and to the fringes of society. It was remote indeed from the preventive education that became his steadfast ideology. ‘I contend that [these state schools] have a harmful influence, and an unquestionable antisocial effect; not only do they fail to prepare us for life, but they also turn many of us into life’s derelicts, theunderclass, or at least they do nothing to prevent us from entering into that class— which amounts to the same thing’ (1904b). School could nevertheless be ‘perhaps the most powerful means of preventing idleness, poverty and crime, [. . .] not as it is organized at present, since it is itself to a large extent the direct or indirect cause of these ills, but as it ought to be organized and as it isalready organized in some fortunate places where they have understood the evil that it does and the good that it can do’ (1904b). If Decroly ascribes a preventive role to schools as a priority, it is primarily to supplement the parents’ educational function: ‘in the life of our contemporary society, the role of the school becomes more important as the parents’ role has become more difficult and asadaptation to life has become more complicated’ (Anthologie de textes extraits de manuscrits inédits . . .). In the alltoo-frequent cases where the family situation is clearly harmful, the medical and educational protection of the children is obviously preferable to ‘hospices, asylums, reformatories or prisons . . . 1
These are pernicious bandages that infect the wounds instead of curing them’...