Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan
Humanity has a long history of aggression, oppression and competing so we know how to do all of those thing. However, now that more and more research is showing that cooperation and reciprocity are not only nicer ways to live but actually more productive and successful, we might like to try changing our ways. But it’s difficult when you don’t know the lie of the land. If it was physical land that we’d never travelled in before, we’d use a map. In just the same way, we can use conceptual maps and frameworks to help us find our way as we learn to live harmoniously together.
The Power of Concepts
Helen Keller was born in Alabama, in 1880. Born sighted and with hearing, just before she turned two, Helen contracted a serious illness which left her blind and deaf.
Helen’s parents were wealthy and devoted to their daughter. Helen, a bright little girl, worked out signals so her family could understand her but even so, as she grew she became increasingly frustrated. By the time she was six, Helen was wild and animalistic, throwing tantrums and struggling in a world she couldn’t understand.
In 1886, Helen’s parents employed Anne Sullivan as a teacher for Helen. Anne’s parents had travelled to America from Limerick, Ireland to escape the Famine. By the time Anne was ten, she was almost completely blind, her mother had died, her father had abandoned her and she was living in the State Alms House in Tewkesbury, Massachusetts.
But Anne was famously determined. At fourteen, she personally asked one of the patrons of the Alms House for help. He responded by sending her to the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. The School sent Anne for corrective surgery and her eyesight, though not completely restored, was greatly improved. At Perkins she learned to read and write and also learned a manual alphabet that she used to communicate with a friend who was deaf as well as blind.
In 1886, at the age of 20, Anne graduated from Perkins as valedictorian of her class and was employed by the desperate Kellers to come and teach Helen. Due to her earlier blindness, Anne understood some of what Helen was feeling but even so, by the time Anne arrived, the little girl was so entrenched in her own world it was hard to reach her. As Helen herself later wrote of this time,
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 harbour was. “Light! Give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul…(1)
As Helen was such a bright child she had no difficulty learning the signs for words once Anne Sullivan began to teach her but even though she could make the signs she still had no concept of these things.
I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. (2)
Helen initially hated Anne and threw tantrum after tantrum as her new governess tried to teach her to understand and communicate. It looked hopeless and then, one day…
Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! …I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house each object which I touched seemed to quiver with life.(3)
Once Helen grasped her first concept her tantrums stopped. She now had a way to understand the world. From then on, even though she couldn’t see or hear she could ‘picture’ reality by using concepts – like internal maps – to guide her.
Helen moved from understanding material concepts like water, table, mother etc to understanding more abstract concepts – like thinking and love – also courtesy of her painstaking teacher. As David Bohm says of this incident in Helen Keller’s life.
This (the concept of water) initiated a fantastic revolution in the whole of her mind, the depth and scope of which we find hard to appreciate without having experienced directly what it means to live without conceptual abstractions. As a result where there had been a child without the ability to communicate or even to think, there was now a more or less normal human being.(4)
Helen Keller went on to become the first deaf-blind person in the US to obtain a Batchelor of Arts degree. She lived a long and successful life which included campaigning for peace and female suffrage as well as helping others with disabilities.
Those of us lucky enough not to be deaf-blind can easily take for granted the formation of concepts. From the moment of birth our senses provide us with information that helps us to automatically develop concepts for everything we see and experience. Then, as we grow and develop, we become able to add other information in order to help us to better understand the world.
For example, as children we develop our concept of family based on our experiences – for good or ill – within our own families. When we grow up we move out into the world and begin to add to this basic concept. Eventually, most of us have a ‘concept’ of family that includes our experience of our own family, our observations of other families and even a notion of how our ideal family should operate.
Making Our Own Maps
Taking time to look at the world and reflect on things we see and experience is a valuable and rewarding process. This process engages us consciously and can help enhance our understanding of living in every way.
Helen Keller knew something we often don’t realise – that one might have to struggle to gain a concept but that it is a worthwhile struggle as it isn’t truly possible to make much progress or even gain much happiness without them.
How Can We Live Together? – Part V – Gate-Keeping Knowledge.
(1) Helen Keller,The Story of My Life, Cosimo Inc, 2010, p.11
(4) David Bohm, On Creativity, Routledge Classics, 2004, p.6