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Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan

[1999] “Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am.” These are the words of Helen Keller, whose legendary triumph is the subject of William Gibson’s play, The Miracle Worker.

The story of how Keller first gained awareness of her own existence, and, later, much more, is the story of one of the 20th century’s most remarkable pair of women. Blinded during infancy with neither bone nor air conduction in either ear, Keller’s mother often wished the child dead. Annie Sullivan was hired as her tutor.

Sullivan, whose own childhood had been miserable, began teaching at the Keller home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, in 1887. Undaunted by her impetuous pupil, she immediately applied a fiercely rational education. Sullivan granted the unruly girl no reprieve from instruction. As Helen Keller began to make progress, Sullivan conducted lessons outdoors – in a field or beside the Tennessee River – permitting Keller to fully feel that the world was hers to master.

“It now remains my pleasant task,” Sullivan wrote early in the process, “to direct and mold the beautiful intelligence that is beginning to stir in the child-soul.” Their relationship was forged: the convergence of raw, free will and the ruthless discipline of reason. The result was a transformation from wild child to an exceptionally intelligent girl.

Frederick Tilney, a neurology professor from Columbia University sent to observe Keller, later wrote: “From the very beginning of her instruction this ingenious teacher has arranged every experience so that it might have real pedagogic value, whether in play, in work or in rest, as well as in all other social activities. Helen Keller has been taught to capitalize every opportunity for learning from each impression entering her sensorium.”

Keller could distinguish between roses and wildflowers, she knew when storms were coming – detecting a concentration in her nostrils – and she learned to speak. She mastered French without a textbook or a Braille dictionary, graduated from Radcliffe, became a writer and lecturer and she was able to grasp abstractions. When friends told her that happiness awaited her after life, she instantly asked: “How do you know, if you have not been dead?” The efficacy of Keller’s mind was matched only by her charm. An admirer observed: “Ask her the color of your coat, she will feel it and say ‘black.’ If it happens to be blue, and you tell her so triumphantly, she is likely to answer, ‘Thank you. I am glad you know. Why did you ask me?’”

As Keller gained fame, Sullivan rejected distortions of her student’s deeds: “Helen Keller is neither a ‘phenomenal child,’ ‘an intellectual prodigy,’ nor an ‘extraordinary genius’ but simply a very bright and lovely child, unmarred by self consciousness or any taint of evil. Every thought mirrored on her beautiful face, beaming with intelligence and affection, is a fresh joy, and this workaday world seems fairer and brighter because she is in it.”

Their relationship lasted a lifetime, bearing the indelible mark of instructor and pupil.

“My teacher is so near to me that I scarcely think of myself apart from her,” Keller wrote in her classic autobiography, The Story of My Life. “I feel that her being is inseparable from my own, and that the footsteps of my life are in hers.” Keller called Sullivan “Teacher” for the rest of her days.

Sullivan taught Keller how to think. That Helen Keller chose to think was the proper reward for both.

Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1999.

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Anti-Hero Worship

“You’re our hero,” read a sign at a statue of the late government university football coach Joe Paterno, who died on Sunday at the age of 85. But Paterno, who, by his own admission, sidestepped, ignored or evaded allegations of child rape, is not a hero. He was a football coach who made crucial errors of judgment which, by the kindest interpretation of his involvement, which was under investigation, may have aided or abetted serious crimes against children. Nevertheless, government-financed Penn State declared that it will hold a public memorial service—where signs, photography and video will be forbidden by the state.

The governor, Tom Corbett, instead ordered state flags to fly at half-staff. Joe Paterno, an employee of Penn State for 61 years who, by most accounts, did his job and coached football better than most, does not in my estimation deserve the accolades. He worked for a well-respected university and his primary responsibility was to teach students and provide an example and, whatever the outcome of the charges against his former colleague, Jerry Sandusky, whom I think is guilty, he failed. “I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” Paterno told the Washington Post about his actions in his final interview. So, he made a mistake and he did so at a place for higher learning at taxpayers’ expense, which, while it does not make him a monster, makes Paterno a non-hero and undeserving of worship by people in the Keystone State and everywhere else. Facts about Sandusky’s alleged crimes and Paterno’s related knowledge and actions are still being discovered. But, increasingly, sports spectators worship thugs, not heroes, as pro hockey team owner Mario Lemieux observed when he threatened to quit. Given what is known, Paterno worship is more of the same.

Another non-hero is, like Paterno, a government employee. Her name is Gabrielle Giffords, the stricken Arizona congresswoman who was shot and survived an attack in Tucson, Arizona, last year. It was a good call for her to quit, as she recently announced, though it would have been better had she done it sooner. Her district has essentially been without representation since she was injured in a terrible tragedy in which lives were lost. It is a representative’s job to serve the republic and represent constituents and she should have quit her job months ago. Instead, Congresswoman Giffords, too, is being treated as some sort of heroine. I am sure there are millions of Americans like me who are sorry she was shot and wish her well. But being shot makes her a crime victim, not a heroine, and the lack of representation for Americans deserving full, congressional representation diminishes whatever heroic qualities she possesses.

A third government non-hero, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a Christian libertarian son of a GOP presidential candidate, was detained earlier today by the TSA for refusing a government-dictated security pat-down. While Sen. Paul exercised his individual rights and I hope (and doubt) his act of civil disobedience encourages people to act to kill the TSA, the outrage ought to be that Americans are submitted to the tyranny of unconstitutional restrictions on travel and association every day. That a politician is affected, too, is more of the same and any decent politician would use his detainment as an opportunity to push for abolishing the government agency.

Praise for non-heroes as heroes trivializes the concept of heroism. Glorifying these three government workers—Coach Paterno, Congresswoman Giffords, Senator Paul—redounds to anti-hero worship. Heroes—men such as Andrew Carnegie, Steve Jobs and John Lewis—are examples of man at his best, not at his mixed or mediocre. Hero-worshippers know the difference.

Citation

Marva CollinsMy 2009 blog post on teacher and educational entrepreneur Marva Collins is cited in Investigating University-School Partnerships: A Volume in Professional Development School Research (Information Age Publishing, March 16, 2011), the fourth book in a series developed by editors to “represent the best and latest examples of practitioner thinking, research, and program design and evaluation in the [professional development school] field at the national level.” The book publisher’s description explains that the 26-chapter, 514-page edition features a wide variety of authors from the professional community of PDS researchers, practitioners, and others in research or case studies “that foreground real-life, authentic contexts, which, in turn, are designed to generate and fashion more questions and ideas.” The footnote refers to a section heading quoting Marva Collins: “there is a brilliant child locked inside every student.”

Marva Collins’ Way

marva

Chicago businesswoman Marva Collins brought logic to learning when she rocked the Windy City years ago with her radically rational approach to education, as Susan Crawford, RN, recently reminded readers on her Rational Parenting List (RPL). Like the basketball coach in one of my favorite sports-themed movies, Coach Carter, Ms. Collins confronted the reality of government-run education in the ghetto with reason, optimism, and determination, not determinism.

Teaching that one should examine ideas before accepting them, she started teaching troubled students in her own home, opened her own school, wrote a book, Marva Collins’ Way, and became the subject of a television movie starring Cicely Tyson (read my review here). Today, she insists that “there is a brilliant child locked inside every student.”

Explaining her program on her Web site, Ms. Collins writes: “The child is taught to refer to what has been learned previously to support an opinion. References come from many different sources, from poetry, newspaper editorials, magazines, great speeches, novels, or any other written material. Everything everywhere provides potentially excellent material for developing reasoning skills…Textbook word-for-word, lock-step methods never make good critical thinkers. There is a difference between word reading and word understanding. And, there is a difference between knowing how to read, and loving to read.”

Learn more about Marva Collins’ philosophy here.

[Postscript Summer 2015: Marva Collins died on June 24, 2015. Read my review of The Marva Collins Story here].