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


Setting low expectations — by both parents and teachers — is the great enemy of learning in our time. Often enough, it arises from a contemporary form of false love or pity — a concern that we not disturb the fragile self-esteem of youth. True enough, merely being tough, demanding obedience, and requiring rote repetition are not sufficient for effective pedagogy. But each is indispensable to that end. The delicate task, as Anne puts it with respect to Helen, is to “discipline her heart without breaking her spirit.” Where discipline does exist in our schools, it is too often an instrument, not of educating young adults, but of creating “manageable, contented children.” Obedience, Anne says, “is the gateway through which knowledge enters the mind of a child,” but “obedience without understanding” is “blindness.”

Helen’s spirit, manifest in her rebellious streak, is a sign of her desperate longing to understand. Asked how she will compel Helen to learn, Anne states that she is not “counting on force” but “on her.” She explains, “That little imp is dying to know . . . any and every crumb of God’s creation. I’ll have to use that appetite.” Anne here makes the Platonic point that education is not so much a matter of putting things into the soul but of arousing the desire to know and of turning the soul toward what is knowable.

Early in the play, the Kellers ask Anne what she will teach Helen first. She responds, “first, last, and in between, language.” Language, she argues, is to the “mind more than light to eyes.” The only way for the light to reach her mind is for her to make the connection between words and what they signify. Unable to move Helen directly to understanding, Anne’s principle is: “Imitate now, understand later.” Anne conjoins Helen’s experience with the activity of spelling out in her hand the letters of the words signifying the experience. Helen quickly becomes a gifted mimic, able to spell back into Anne’s hands whatever words she has just learned. The rote memorization of letters is not knowledge, however: “She knows how to spell but she doesn’t know that she knows.”

Simple repetitious tasks (solving problems and memorizing dates, places, vocabulary, and grammatical forms) are indispensable elements in any education. Contemporary educators’ aversion to these tasks, born not so much out of pity as out of banal progressive notions of creative freedom, results in high-school graduates who can barely read and who are ignorant of history, foreign languages, and basic math and science.

To educate is indeed to liberate or make free, as the phrase “liberal education” indicates. Of course, freedom is precisely what the Keller family gives Helen. But Annie makes clear that the sort of freedom she has been allowed in fact serves only to enslave her further, to keep her trapped in an isolated world. The word education comes from a Latin term, educare, which means “to lead forth.”

Certain conceptions of education — liberal and conservative — fail to lead students forth, but keep them trapped where they are. In liberal academic circles, skepticism and relativism suppose that there is nothing to be known. Academics sometimes contend that fostering skepticism is in fact liberating; it frees students from erroneous views. Having been disabused of overconfidence, students are deprived of the possibility of making any further progress in inquiry. There is no pursuit of truth, only endless, comparative analyses of various opinions and of various rival — but equal, always equal — cultures. Indeed, since most of our students now imbibe some form of despairing skepticism from the popular culture and bring it with them to college, academic relativism leaves students where they began. But contemporary liberalism is not the only source of the frustration of students’ natural desire to know. In conservative circles, the process of leading forth can be undercut by peremptory appeals to authority — sometimes religious, sometimes political — that would seek to foreclose legitimate discussion and debate.

Individual teachers and schools can avoid these common misconceptions of education and still fail at the craft of teaching, fail in the art of disciplining and drawing out the soul so that it opens in wonder to the wider world. The magical results of that art are nowhere more dramatically on display than in the scene toward the end of The Miracle Worker, when Helen finally puts together the feel of flowing water with the letters and, in rapturous joy, proceeds to spell the words for dozens of objects in her midst. Having decried the Kellers’ love as a “handicap,” Anne now cradles in her arms an affectionate and grateful Helen and says, “I love Helen.” The teacher’s love — which cannot be induced by money, and for which the only recompense is gratitude — is simultaneously a love of the truth and a love for the student. This sort of love makes true learning possible.

Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.