Helen Keller wrote her memoir while enrolled at the prestigious Radcliffe College—an incredible achievement for anyone, let alone for a deaf and blind woman at that time. Nevertheless, the autobiography is largely critical of traditional education. Keller recounts the story of her very nontraditional education, which was presided over chiefly by Miss Anne Sullivan. Sullivan was a teacher of the deaf and blind who, upon arriving at the Keller household, gave Keller the tools to communicate through sign language, lip reading, and eventually regular speech, achieving this through great effort and sometimes unorthodox methodology. Miss Sullivan emphasized the importance of learning not for learning’s sake, but as a tool for enriching the mind and the soul alike. As Keller speaks lovingly of Sullivan and her offbeat but empathetic and holistic teaching style, she suggests that rote learning, repetition, and book smarts should not be confused with intelligence. One can gain a deeper understanding of the world by studying nature, literature, science, mathematics, and art, if one approaches one’s education with an open mind and heart. There is more to the world than can be taught in a book, Keller argues, and a person’s intelligence cannot be measured by the sum of the facts they accrue in a classroom.
Before her education began, Keller writes, she was like a ship “at sea in a dense fog.” With the arrival of Anne Sullivan, however, young Helen soon found herself a compass and a safe harbor. Miss Sullivan’s arrival helped Helen to understand that “knowledge is love and light and vision.” Helen also compares herself, when speaking of Miss Sullivan’s arrival, to Moses standing at the foot of mount Sinai, waiting to receive the Commandments from the Lord. As Miss Sullivan began teaching Helen sign language, Helen experienced a major breakthrough: she finally understood that everything in the world had a name, including feelings and emotions. With the tools to finally express herself and begin to learn about the world around her, the young Helen became overjoyed. After her first day with Miss Sullivan, Helen found herself longing for “a new day to come” for the first time in her life. She was enlivened and excited by the possibilities of language and learning, and described a “sudden awakening” of her soul as a result of her education.
Helen describes the early days of her education as “more like play than work.” Anne Sullivan taught Helen through stories, poems, and exercises in which Helen would pin notecards with words written on them in braille to household objects and members of her family. Most of Helen’s lessons took place in the woods rather than inside, and Miss Sullivan used this unique “classroom” environment to teach Helen the names of as many different types of flowers, trees, and animals as she could. Helen describes her first few years with Miss Sullivan as “beautiful,” and credits Miss Sullivan as instilling in her a sense of “delight in all beautiful things.” The early years of Helen’s education were as much about learning as they were about coming to understand—and fall in love with—the world around her. It was only once Helen’s education in words, feelings, and sensations was complete that she was taken to study at the Perkins Institution for the Blind for a summer, and then began lessons with a woman named Sarah Fuller who began teaching Helen to communicate by speaking.
Helen slowly began taking on more and more challenging material and adventures. She took lessons in Latin, German, and French, as well as classes at the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York and the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in Massachusetts. Along the way, she found that while learning did not grow any more difficult, the obstacles and lack of accommodations she faced impeded her ability to learn with the same carefree, omnivorous attitude she had had in the past. She had difficulty acquiring books in braille, and found that in her algebra and geometry classes there was little her instructors could do for her to help her understand shapes and equations. Miss Sullivan was barred from sitting with Helen during her Harvard entrance exams; Helen was instead given the help of proctor with whom she was much less familiar, and who was of course unfamiliar with Helen’s specific needs. Reflecting on the later years of her education, Keller writes that “every one who wishes to gain true knowledge must climb the Hill Difficulty alone, and since there is no royal road to the summit, I must zigzag it in my own way. […] Every struggle is a victory.” Helen felt herself bogged down by the education in many ways, but still did not let the institutional struggles she faced diminish her love of learning. She threw herself into novels and plays in English, German, and Greek, attended plays and received private visitations with famous actors, and continued her exploration of the natural world through taking up rowing, canoeing, and sailing. Despite all her academic success, Keller always felt that human connection and communion with the natural world was the most important thing of all. In this way, the things she learned in her adolescence—about herself, about the history of the world, and about the possibilities for her own place in it—were far more valuable than the rote exercises and drudgery of her formal education.
Helen Keller benefited from a rigorous but unusual education. Because she had to learn about the world from the ground up, and did not have the benefit of sight or hearing to help her move smoothly through a traditional education system, she learned about history, literature, and language in a very different way than most people. Though Keller became an accomplished academic and an extremely well-read woman, she argues that the most valuable education originates in a “potent” desire to understand the world and a recognition that much of what is important in life cannot be learned in a book.
Education Quotes in The Story of My Life
It is with a kind of fear that I begin to write the history of my life. I have, as it were, a superstitious hesitation in lifting the veil that clings about my childhood like a golden mist. The task of writing an autobiography is a difficult one. When I try to classify my earliest impressions, I find that fact and fancy look alike across the years that link the past with the present. The woman paints the child’s experiences in her own fantasy. A few impressions stand out vividly from the first years of my life; but “the shadows of the prison-house are on the rest.” Besides, many of the joys and sorrows of childhood have lost their poignancy; and many incidents of vital importance in my early education have been forgotten in the excitement of great discoveries. In order, therefore, not to be tedious I shall try to present in a series of sketches only the episodes that seem to me to be the most interesting and important.
One of my Swiss ancestors was the first teacher of the deaf in Zurich and wrote a book on the subject of their education—rather a singular coincidence; though it is true that there is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.
Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbor was. “Light! Give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.
We read and studied out of doors, preferring the sunlit woods to the house. All my early lessons have in them the breath of the woods—the fine, resinous odour of pine needles, blended with the perfume of wild grapes. Seated in the gracious shade of a wild tulip tree, I learned to think that everything has a lesson and a suggestion. “The loveliness of things taught me all their use.” Indeed, everything that could hum, or buzz, or sing, or bloom, had a part in my education—noisy-throated frogs, katydids and crickets held in my hand until, forgetting their embarrassment, they trilled their reedy note, little downy chickens and wildflowers, the dogwood blossoms, meadow-violets and budding fruit trees.
My teacher is so near to me that I scarcely think of myself apart from her. How much of my delight in all beautiful things is innate, and how much is due to her influence, I can never tell. I feel that her being is inseparable from my own, and that the footsteps of my life are in hers. All the best of me belongs to her—there is not a talent, or an inspiration or a joy in me that has not awakened by her loving touch.
I would not rest satisfied until my teacher took me, for advice and assistance, to Miss Sarah Fuller, principal of the Horace Mann School. This lovely, sweet-natured lady offered to teach me herself, and we began the twenty-sixth of March, 1890. Miss Fuller’s method was this: she passed my hand lightly over her face, and let me feel the position of her tongue and lips when she made a sound. I was eager to imitate every motion and in an hour had learned six elements of speech. Miss Fuller gave me eleven lessons in all. I shall never forget the surprise and delight I felt when I uttered my first connected sentence, “It is warm.” True, they were broken and stammering syllables, but they were human speech. My soul, conscious of new strength, came out of bondage, and was reaching through those broken symbols of speech to all knowledge and face. […] As I talked, happy thoughts fluttered up out of my words that might perhaps have struggled in vain to escape my fingers.
My work was practice, practice, practice. Discouragement and weariness cast me down frequently; but the next moment the thought that I should soon be at home and show my loved ones what I had accomplished spurred me on, and I eagerly looked forward to their pleasure in my achievement.
“My little sister will understand me now,” was a thought stronger than all obstacles. I used to repeat ecstatically, “I am not dumb now.” I could not be despondent while I anticipated the delight of talking to my mother and reading her responses from her lips.
The stories [from “Birdie and His Friends”] had little or no meaning for me then, but the mere spelling of the strange words was sufficient to amuse a little who could who could do almost nothing to amuse herself; and although I do not recall a single circumstance connected with the reading of the stories, yet I cannot help thinking that I made a great effort to remember the words.… One thing is certain, the language was ineffaceably stamped upon my brain, though for a long time no one knew it, least of all myself.
Miss Canby [the author of “The Frost Fairies”] herself wrote kindly, “Some day you will write a great story out of your own head, that will be a comfort and help to many.” But this kind prophecy has never been fulfilled. I have never played with words again for the mere pleasure of the game. Indeed, I have ever since been tortured by the fear that what I write is not my own. For a long time, when I wrote a letter, even to my mother, I was seized with a sudden feeling of terror, and I would spell the sentences over and over, to make sure that I had not read them in a book. Had it not been for the persistent encouragement of Miss Sullivan, I think I should have given up trying to write altogether.
I was learning, as all young and inexperienced persons learn, by assimilation and imitation, to put ideas into words. Everything I found in books that pleased me I retained in my memory, consciously or unconsciously, and adapted it. The young writer, as Stevenson has said, instinctively tries to copy whatever seems most admirable, and he shifts his admiration with astonishing versatility. It is only after years of this sort of practice that even great men have learned to marshal the legion of words which come thronging through every byway of the mind. I am afraid I have not yet completed this process. It is certain that I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read becomes the very substance and texture of my mind. […] But we keep on trying because we know that others have succeeded, and we are not willing to acknowledge defeat.
I do not blame any one. The administrative board of Radcliffe did not realize how difficult they were making my examinations, nor did they understand the peculiar difficulties I had to surmount. But if they unintentionally placed obstacles in my way, I have the consolation of knowing that I overcame them all.
I remember my first day at Radcliffe. It was a day full of interest for me. I had looked forward to it for years. A potent force within me, stronger than the persuasion of my friends, stronger even than the pleadings of my heart, had impelled me to try my strength by the standards of those who see and hear. I knew that there were many obstacles in the way; but I was eager to overcome them. I had taken to heart the words of the wise Roman who said, “To be banished from Rome is but to live outside of Rome.” Debarred from the great highways of knowledge, I was compelled to make the journey across by unfrequented roads—that was all; and I knew that in college there were many bypaths where I could touch hands with girls who were thinking, loving and struggling like me.
I need more time to prepare my lessons than other girls…I have perplexities which they have not. There are days when the close attention I must give to details chafes my spirit, and the thought that I must spend hours reading a few chapters, while in the world without other girls are laughing and singing and dancing, makes me rebellious; but soon I recover my buoyancy and laugh the discontent out of my heart. For, after all, every one who wishes to gain true knowledge must climb the Hill Difficulty alone, and since there is no royal road to the summit, I must zigzag it in my own way. I slip back many times, I fall, I stand still, I run against the edge of hidden obstacles, I lose my temper and find it again and keep it better. I trudge on, I gain a little, I feel encouraged, I get more eager and climb higher and begin to see the widening horizon. Every struggle is a victory.
While my days at Radcliffe were still in the future, they were encircled with a halo of romance, which they have lost; but in the transition from romantic to actual I have learned many things I should never have known had I not tried the experiment. One of them is the precious science of patience, which teaches us that we should take our education as we would take a walk in the country, leisurely, our minds hospitably open to impressions of every sort. Such knowledge floods the soul unseen with a soundless tidal wave of deepening thought. “Knowledge is power.” Rather, knowledge is happiness, because to have knowledge—broad, deep knowledge—is to know true ends from false, and lofty things from low. To know the thoughts and deeds that have marked man’s progress is to feel the great heart-throbs of humanity through the centuries; and if one does not feel in these pulsations a heavenward striving, one must indeed be deaf to the harmonies of life.
I read [books] in the intervals between study and play with an ever-deepening sense of pleasure. I did not study nor analyze them—I did not know whether they were well written or not; I never thought about style or authorship. They laid their treasures at my feet, and I accepted them as we accept the sunshine and the love of our friends. I loved Little Women because it gave me a sense of kinship with girls and boys who could see and hear. Circumscribed as my life was in so many ways, I had to look between the covers of books for news of the world that lay outside my own.
In a word, literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourse of my book-friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. The things I have learned and the things I have been taught seem of ridiculously little importance compared with their “large loves and heavenly charities.”
Is it no true, then, that my life with all its limitations touches at many points the life of the World Beautiful? Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content. Sometimes, it is true, a sense of isolation enfolds me like a cold mist as I sit alone and wait at life’s shut gate. Beyond there is light, and music, and sweet companionship; but I may not enter. Fate, silent, pitiless, bars the way. Fain would I question his imperious decree; for my heart is still undisciplined and passionate; but my tongue will not utter the bitter, futile words that rise to my lips, and they fall back into my heart like unshed tears. Silence sits immense upon my soul. Then comes hope with a smile and whispers, “There is joy in self-forgetfulness.” So I try to make the light in others’ eyes my sun, the music in others’ ears my symphony, the smile on others’ lips my happiness.