Educating Helen Keller
What The Miracle Worker tells us about the art of teaching.


Thomas S. Hibbs

‘The world isn’t an easy place for anyone. I don’t want her just to obey, but to let her have her way in everything is a lie, to her,” says Anne Sullivan about her pupil, Helen Keller, in William Gibson’s famous play The Miracle Worker. The riveting play, made into an excellent film starring Oscar winners Anne Bancroft (Sullivan) and Patty Duke (Keller), is one of the greatest American statements on the nature of education, the craft of teaching, and the many obstacles to its implementation. The story of Sullivan and Keller remains a devastating critique of the self-esteem movement and an affirmation of the proper role of obedience and repetition in the life of the student. Most dramatically — and most surprisingly — it insists that the true teacher cannot simply be an instrument of the wishes of the student’s family.

Left blind, deaf, and mute from an undiagnosed illness as an infant, Helen is the issue of a wealthy and influential Alabama family. Having tried a variety of means of curing and educating their child, the Kellers eventually arrange for a tutor, Anne Sullivan — the “half-blind Yankee schoolgirl” — to be sent from the Perkins Institute in Massachusetts. Upon her arrival, Sullivan finds a young girl who is undisciplined, defiant, and increasingly violent in her relations with others. To fulfill her task, Anne must overcome numerous obstacles: Helen’s disabilities, the bad habits that have festered in her soul, and especially the disordered affection of Helen’s family.

Tension between the family and the new teacher builds throughout the play. A Southern family proud of its heritage and blood connection to General Robert E. Lee, the Kellers encourage proper respect for the hierarchy of authority in the family. During one of many arguments between Sullivan and the Kellers over how Helen should be treated, Mr. Keller reminds Anne that she is there as a “paid teacher.” Keller treats teaching like other services rendered for a fee — but teaching is not exactly that kind of craft. Like a medical doctor, a teacher who frustrates the student’s progress in learning — by commission or omission — violates the calling of the profession. It was, after all, a sign of Socrates’ independent commitment to the truth that he, unlike the Sophists, refused to take a fee for his instruction. Anne’s unwillingness to reduce teaching to a paid service is a refusal to treat the student and her parents as mere consumers — a common enough problem in today’s universities.

Seeing that Helen is not improving, the Kellers finally grant Anne’s request to have Helen and her isolated from the family. Only then does Anne succeed in introducing order into Helen’s daily activities. The girl becomes more disciplined at the dinner table, less inclined to make a mess of herself and her environment. Frustrated that Helen is not making progress in understanding language, Anne reluctantly returns with her charge to the Keller home, where the family is delighted at Helen’s transformation. Her father observes that she “behaves like — even looks like — a human child, so manageable, contented.” When her father genially states, “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” Anne quips, “Cleanliness is next to nothing.”

The gap between teacher and parents remains one of expectations. “She’ll live up to just what you demand of her, and no more.” The Kellers’ pampering of Helen has insured that she has had to learn very little. Anne bluntly tells the parents at one point, “her worst handicap is your love. And pity” — a term that shows up frequently in the play. Anne is repeatedly scolded for not having pity on Helen. Her terse response is: “Pity? this tyrant?” Of course, the parents have no pity for Helen’s tyrannical impulses, but their pity fosters those impulses. Pity arises from the perception of suffering. But whose suffering? Anne hints that, beyond the suffering of the one incapacitated, the deeper suffering is our own. Pity is a way of quelling or avoiding our own pain, the pain of watching a very difficult educational process, the outcome of which is uncertain. Anne concedes that teaching her, watching her, is painful. In this context, pity is a cover for cowardice and the lack of imagination, and a tacit acceptance of pedagogical defeat.