Eras in Education – Darkness to Light: Helen Keller’s Education Life

?Teach them to think and read and talk without self-repression, and they will write because they cannot help it.? These words, written by a woman named Anne Mansfield Sullivan, could apply to any teaching situation. As students we express ourselves most completely when we are guided in a direction that stimulates our creative desires. This desire for education-for-liberation rather than education-for-restraint is also clear when the subject is differently abled.

Helen Keller, blind and deaf since the age of one, was aided and tutored by a recent graduate of a school for the blind named Anne Sullivan. The process and outcome of Keller’s education illustrates the importance of personal interactions for enriching the learning process.

Helen Keller was born in 1880 and died in 1968. In early childhood she suffered from a ?brain fever,? likely scarlet fever or meningitis, which left her unable to hear or see. At the time, a likely outcome was a life in an institution, especially because she behaved in seemingly uncontrollable ways and ?would kick and scream when angry and giggle uncontrollably when happy.?

Fortunately, Anne Sullivan was brought in as a tutor. Despite their shared status as ?disabled? the relationship between teacher and pupil did not begin auspiciously. ?Helen was curious, then defiant? and it was only when the two of them spent time in isolation in a cottage at the Kellers? cotton plantation that progress was made.

Understanding language as a semiotic system consisting of connections between symbols and objects seems to come naturally when children can see and hear. For Keller to connect objects and words her other senses came into play. Sullivan taught Keller the first word she truly understood, water. She did this by pumping water from a hand pump onto Keller’s hand while tracing the letters ?w-a-t-e-r? onto Helen’s other hand. This epiphany triggered Keller’s inborn desire to know and learn, and she proceeded to ?pound the ground demanding to know its ?letter name.??

This process of learning within the context of one’s personal reality is crucial; without the caring personal attention of her tutor, Helen Keller might never have learned to express herself in ways others could comprehend.

Following mastery of ?several methods of communication, including touch-lip reading, Braille, speech, typing, and finger spelling? Keller attended the prestigious Radcliffe College from 1900 to 1904. (She wanted to attend Harvard but women were barred from entry.) Thereafter she became politically active. She fought for public awareness of blindness and malnutrition in addition to helping found the American Civil Liberties Union. She also advocated for women’s right to birth control.

Hellen was also a supporter of the American Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, Eugene Debs. Her political and social enemies did not see her as an equal; in an attack upon her socialist politics a right-wing newspaper called the Brooklyn Eagle stated that her ?mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.? The fact that women of every ability or ?disability? were being attacked using similar language is important. Marginalization of ?others,? meaning women, minorities, and differently abled people, was rampant throughout Keller’s life.

Keller and Sullivan remained close friends for 49 years, until the latter died in 1936. When Keller had attended college, Anne remained at her side ?interpreting lectures and texts.? Even when Sullivan married a man named John Macy, Helen Keller went to live with them. Gradually, however, ?Anne and John became distant to each other as Sullivan’s devotion to Keller continued unabated.? When Anne’s marriage ended, she and Helen continued to live together.

Helen and Anne’s bond is perhaps axiomatic from a feminist perspective of how people marginalized by mainstream culture adapt and cope. One feminist theorist named Dale Spender argues that ?women constitute a muted group in society because meaning has been controlled by men.? The feminist theorist Adrienne Rich speaks of a ?lesbian continuum? which is not necessarily sexual so much as based on organically arising solidarity amongst women. For Rich, ?woman-identified experience, including sharing a rich inner life? is based on an understanding that the prevalent methods of communication and levers of social power exist for the benefit of some at the expense of others.

As an educated young person, Helen Keller was aware that she lived not only in a male-dominated world but also one that was able-dominated. Speaking of men later in life she opined that ?men would always be more fascinated by her than women?perhaps because the tactile world in which she lived was, for many males, intimately linked with their own eroticism.?

Another feminist theorist, Luce Irigaray, picks up this thread but suggests that it is in fact women who carry a physiological ?autoeroticism? in their consciousnesses, a trait that allows women to naturally bond with one another. Put eloquently though perhaps a tad bluntly, Irigaray states that ?the two lips of the vulva speak a language more complex, subtle and diversified that that of male desire.? Although Keller did not live to experience the second-wave feminist theory of the ?70s, it is interesting to imagine what her response would have been in light of her uniquely marginalized position in society.

The concepts of ?self? and ?other? tend to produce feelings of belonging or alienation. This is especially true in educational situations. In this way Keller and Sullivan’s relationship, based as it was on Keller’s education, provides insights into marginalization as an outcome of education and culture. We learn our culture and its symbols and meanings just as we learn our language itself.

In a recent PhD dissertation, a student of Duke University in North Carolina named Abigail Lauren Salerno discusses Keller as a ?perceptive other.? A ?perceptive other? is someone who ?mediates modern aesthetic experience as both visual and not-visual.? For instance, whereas most of us learn to read with our eyes and ears, Helen learned to communicate in other ways.

Keller’s educational process of first learning to understand words and then to communicate is paralleled in the development of cultural institutions such as the cinema. Cinema developed from ?simple reproductive technology, in a kind of pre-linguistic phases? followed by a ?narrative phase, which requires language and syntax.? As spectators we first learn to see what is happening, and then learn how to interpret action according to social rules and expectations.

In school, codes of normality are learned. Keller and other ?perceptive others? are in a unique position to experience firsthand what the critical theorist Walter Benjamin refers to as ?new modes of organizing vision and sensory perception, a new relationship with ?things,? different forms of mimetic experience and expression, of affectivity, temporality and reflexivity.? It is this position of relative privilege, compared to those who are normally abled, that is reflected in the concept of a ?perceptive other.? Perceptive others can be, see, and feel in ways beyond what the rest of us might ever imagine.

Helen Keller’s ability to transcend what to some would seem insurmountable challenges is a testament to her own will and to the strength of her bond with her tutor, Anne Sullivan. Just as modern feminists write of ?woman as unrepresentable within existing linguistic structures,? Keller also found herself outside and beyond the normal bounds of education and communication. She personified the ?perceptive other? who is marginalized by what ?normal? people feel yet at the same time is liberated from ordinary preconceptions about reality.

The poet Grace Nichols, speaking of feeling emboldened by her contact with other people with whom she felt an affinity, wrote: ?I have crossed an ocean / I have lost my tongue / From the root of the old one / A new one has sprung.? Keller’s growth from frustrated child, alienated from everyone around her, into confident activist adult reflects the process of rebirth so vital to worthwhile educational pursuits.

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