Why Isn't Helen Keller a Bigger Deal?

My kids have never even heard of Helen Keller. Given the sort of topics that elementary schools emphasize these days (e.g., a few weeks back, it was national anti-bullying day; my 10-year-old has painstakingly spelled out “Save the Earth” on her bedroom door), shouldn’t Helen Keller be front and center in the curriculum?

I mean, think about it. She can neither see nor hear, yet somehow she graduates from Radcliffe, writes 22 books, and travels the globe giving public lectures (my father even saw her speak when he was in grade school).

She was a rabid socialist, but nobody’s perfect.

It doesn’t really even make sense to me how she pulled this off. The only thing that even brings it into the realm of plausibility is that she didn’t lose her sight and hearing until she was 19 months old, but still it is incredible. My graduate students can see and hear, but they can still barely give coherent public lectures. To their credit, at least they aren’t socialists.

Can anyone think of a single human’s accomplishment that is more remarkable than hers?

I think we need a modern adaptation of her life story on the big screen. If they can remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, why not The Miracle Worker?

Just saying

If your kids don't know who Helen Keller was then you're not doing your job as a parent to educate them (don't leave it up to the public schools to do that, they'll just socialize your kids into being unthinking, uncritical, socialist, liberal Obamabots).


Well, Johnny Depp would make an interesting Keller - or perhaps play the Annie Sullivan role?

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This is such a great point. There's always a tone of admiration and amazement surrounding Helen Keller, but I think anything less than your reaction here is insufficient. With most accomplishments, one can map the steps in their head and imagine how the person/people did it. It's impossible in Keller's case and I just don't get it.

Thaly Andrea

Totally agree with you Steve!

By the way, congrats on the new Freakonomics' site.

Mike S

Anne Sullivan's?

Soquel by the Creek

An excellent point.

If she were alive today, she'd likely be exploited for political purposes.

However, despite being a rabid socialist, the Left probably would disown her because she proves in the flesh that a person can overcome incredible obstacles to obtain success in life.


They kinda already did, unless you were hoping for something with a higher budget. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0246786/


I have always been in awe of Helen Keller's story. I read her biography when I was ten and have been curious about her ever since. She inspired me to learn ASL despite my having full vision and hearing abilities. The lesson I got from her was that the onus shouldn't be on those who are without, but on those who have more than they can ever use in one lifetime. Socialist? Ok, in Canada it's not a dirty word. In Canada, that means those who have more give to those who don't. I'm down with that. In a big way. Could be just because I grew up in a housing project and went onto having my own hearing damage years later from hormones that she struck a few right chords in me, but I'm the better for it. I'm proud to be a "socialist" who isn't materialist, who is generous and recognise there are others far worse off than me, so I should stop my whinging and life a happier life based on what I do have. I don't live a big life. I'm not a hog or a hoarder, obsessed with status or things. I can't say the same for most of my peers today.


Mo Kilma

In light of the recent protests in the Middle East, Gandhi's accomplishments are even more remarkable. This quote from the movie best summaries his character:

"The object of this massive tribute died as he had always lived - a private man without wealth, without property, without official title or office. Mahatma Gandhi was not a commander of great armies nor ruler of vast lands. He could boast no scientific achievements or artistic gift. Yet men, governments and dignitaries from all over the world have joined hands today to pay homage to this little brown man in the loincloth who led his country to freedom. Pope Pius, the Archbishop of Canterbury, President Truman, Chiang Kai-shek, The Foreign Minister of Russia, the President of France... are among the millions here and abroad who have lamented his passing. In the words of General George C. Marshall, the American Secretary of State, "Mahatma Gandhi had become the spokesman for the conscience of mankind, a man who made humility and simple truth more powerful than empires." And Albert Einstein added, "Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth."



Using Socialist as a pejorative? Maybe your daughter should take you and "Just Saying" to class with her to show some real-life examples of ignorant and/or stupid people who try to be bullies to make themselves feel better?


I would think that Stephen Hawking would be at least a partial comparison. Yes, his onset of symptoms occurred later in life; yes, technology allows him to communicate at some level; and yes, he has an army of students at his disposal. However, he's not just sharing life experiences or overcoming obstacles, this guy has made us rethink our universe!


Miley Cyrus would make a great Anne Sullivan.

Joshua Northey

1) I think so many people were taught a sanitized version of her life during the cold war that she ceased to be interesting. Don't underestimate how destructive to true understanding of the recent past most history lessons are. World War II was a done deal by early-mid 42, you see much acknowledgment of that in the classroom, even at the college level? Much better to make it seem dramatic!

2) It sounds like you need better graduate students. When we were undergraduates several of us had no trouble giving coherent public lectures, and I went to a rather underwhelming state school.

3) The snarky remarks about socialism lead one to suspect you have a lack of understanding about human beings and recent history. Sure it is a wrongheaded approach to solving many policy problems, but it is wildly popular for some pretty obvious reasons (one of which was that its main competitor was the idea that those people's problems were not important).



As you say, she was a Socialist. That's a dirty word right now (like "Fascist Pig" in the Nixon era), although all it seems to mean these days is "is in favor of Government programs that I don't use so I don't like them". Truth is, almost everyone in this country believes in socialism for themselves. It's become a meaningless epithet.

When we move on to our next insult of the year you'll be able to talk about her again. To everything there is a season.


My mother is Deaf-Blind and I can tell you she is an amazing woman who has accomplished much in her life. I know several Deaf-Blind people with B.A. and M.A. degrees who travel the world and have amazing lives. Thank you for running this story. Deaf-Blind people don't get nearly enough recognition. Good article, even for a rabid fascist. For the record, Helen Keller was not a rabid socialist. You may want to think about why she was a Democrat. Was it possibly because Deaf-Blind people were facing (and still face) tremendous discrimination and lack of support from society (government) to succeed? Most likely.


I'm not surprised.

There are a lot of people all over the world who overcome things who we don't recognize/celebrate.


In defense of your college students, as I am one myself, the hardest part of speaking publicly is that you can see and hear the audience. Not to take anything away from Helen Keller, but she probably didn't have to deal with the stresses of facing the audience. It is similar to speaking over the radio while having no idea whether or not anyone is listening. Though that doesn't incorporate the fact that you'd never know how to sounded.


South Park celebrated Helen Keller in Season 4 Episode 14 (cumulative episode 61), called "Helen Keller! The Musical"

Mike B

I think you are underestimating the ability for the human mind to adapt. Once Kellen Keller had someone who could work with her and apply proper special education techniques the rest was simply the result of Ms Keller being a higher effective person.

Anyway your kids were probably only familiar with the updated version of The Miracle Worker that is performed entirely in binary code.


The problem with "The Miricle Worker" is that it pretty much ends with Helen first learning that signing means something. It doesn't, as far as I remember, even begin to get into the truly amazing accomplishments of her later life, let alone her dedication to various social (or even socialist) causes. Without discussing her politics and how she came to have those beliefs, whether you agree with them or not, you aren't really doing justice to her life. That's probably why she isn't discussed in school -- too many embarrassing questions will be asked about what exactly she was lecturing about.

For that matter, you've done exactly that here. Disagree with her. Refute her points. But don't just call her a "rabid socialist", clearly meant as a pejorative, without reference to any of her particular positions and rationale. Phrases like that mean different things to different people, and these days in the US is mainly shorthand for "don't listen to what they are saying." You can tell that just from the other comments to your post. Referring to somebody as a socialist is a conversation stifler, not an elucidator.