Education in the light of present-day knowledge

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan in 1893

Education in the light of present-day knowledge and need calls for some spirited and creative innovations both in the substance and the purpose of current pedagogy.
Anne Sullivan

These words reveal the pioneer she was in her time, ahead of her time.

Anne studied in the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston where she enrolled in 1880; then, she befriended and  learned the manual alphabet from Laura Bridgman, herself a graduate of Perkins and the first person with deaf-blindness to be educated there.

She graduated in 1886 at age 20 and on her farewell speech, she said:

Fellow-graduates: duty bids us go forth into active life. Let us go cheerfully, hopefully, and earnestly, and set ourselves to find our especial part. When we have found it, willingly and faithfully perform.

Anne Sullivan met 7-year-old deaf-blind Helen Keller in 1887 and her teaching/mentoring became the blueprint for education of children who were blind, deaf-blind, or visually impaired, which led Mark Twain to describe her as a “miracle worker“.

Later in life, 1930, after more than 40 years of teaching, Temple University (Philadelphia, USA)Ai??decided to recognize Anne and Helen’s achievements with honorary degrees. Helen accepted but Anne refused.
An year later, at the urging of Helen and other friends, Anne reluctantly accepted the honor.

Here is the full transcript of her speech at Temple University (February 15, 1932).

President Beury, your Honor, Ladies and Gentlemen,

During the long period of time that I have been with Helen Keller, I have been present, and taken part in many and diverse exercises. May I say, this is the most embarrassing ceremony I have ever attended. Nevertheless, I am glad to be here, and I sincerely appreciate the distinguished honor conferred upon me by Temple University. It is not necessary to thank you, words would not deliver my feeling anyway. Yes, I am proud, and very humble too.

I wish to say a word this morning on education in the light of present-day knowledge and need.

Certain periods in history suddenly lift humanity to an observation point where a clear light falls upon a world previously dark. Everything seems strangely different. Familiar ideas put on new garments and parade before us. Scholars and thinkers scrutinize events with a new intensity to learn their meaning, and the people look for a sign, a miracle.

I believe we are living in the beginning of such a renaissance. The creative achievement of three men, Lenin, Gandhi and Einstein, proclaim it.

Every renaissance comes to the world with a cry, the cry of the human spirit to be free.

This aspiration is basic in present-day thought. It is manifesting itself in many ways and many places against great opposition.

The Russian Revolution is the most disturbing manifestation of the new spirit that has come into the world, and by far the most hopeful; for, no matter how mistaken Communist ideas may be, the experience and knowledge gained by trying them out have given a tremendous impetus to thought and imagination. And, whatever the outcome of the experiment, it is inspiring to see the youth of Russia working together to raise themselves from the level of beasts of burden into an atmosphere of investigation and discovery. Surely, the greatest social experiment in history should arouse the profoundest interest in every one who is trying to understand economics, industry and politics.

The Great War proved how confused the world is on these vital questions, and depression is proving it again. We have no firm hold on any knowledge or philosophy that can lift us out of our difficulties. And, what is more discouraging, we fail to recognize the gravity of the situation. We are afraid of ideas, of experimenting, of change. We shrink from thinking a problem through to a logical conclusion. We imagine that we want to escape our selfish and commonplace existence, but we cling desperately to our chains. Our material eye cannot see that a stupid chauvinism is driving us from one noisy, destructive [sic], futile agitation to another.

The immediate future is going to be tragic for all of us, unless we find a way of making the vast educational resources of this country serve the true purpose of education, truth and justice.

When I was assembling my ideas for this talk, I happened to read in the “New York Times” an interview with Sir Norman Angell. He expresses so forcefully what I am trying to say, I shall quote him.

“What is principally wrong with the world is that education as now ordered does not educate, does not include the teaching of the fundamental meaning of modern society. Children are not well taught. They are told about hatchets and cherry-trees and a king who ran away and let the cakes burn, but they are not told what the money in their pockets means, what isolation of nations and armaments mean, or the rest of the unseen ideas which cause wars and depressions.”

Sir Norman Angell is right. The wrong things are predominantly stressed in the schools things remote from the student’s experience and need.

Education in the light of present-day knowledge and need calls for some spirited and creative innovations both in the substance and the purpose of current pedagogy. A strenuous effort must be made to train young people to think for themselves and take independent charge of their lives. Only when we have worked purposefully and long on a problem that interests us, and in hope and in despair wrestled with it in silence and alone relying on our own unshaken will only then have we achieved education.

May I express the hope that Temple University will continue to carry forward the standard of progressive education in the spirit of her noble founder, Dr. Conwell, that the teachers and students will always keep the consciousness that they serve their country best when they maintain its unity with the rest of the world and with the highest intuitions of mankind.

Anne Sullivan Macy.

Temple University, Philadelphia.
February 15, 1932

Anne Sullivan at Temple University (1932)

Source:American Foundation for the Blind.

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