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  Anne Sullivan Macy: Miracle Worker

Portrait of Anne Sullivan Macy: Miracle Worker

Anne's Speech at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (1915)

From my heart I thank the department of education and the Panama-Pacific Exposition for the distinguished honor they have conferred on my pupil and myself. The beautiful medal I accept not only as a personal tribute, but as an earnest of your faith in new and more free methods of education. The medal, Helen Keller Day, the splendid compliment paid us by this great assemblage all celebrate an achievement in education. No greater honor can be paid a teacher than the recognition of her work. You see before you a teacher whose mature years have been passed wholly in the performance of one task, the training of one human being. For years I have known the teacher's one supreme reward, that of seeing the child she had taught grow into a living force in the world. And today has brought me the happiness of knowing that my work is an inspiration to other teachers.

In honoring Helen Keller and her teacher you declare your faith that in every child born into the world there are latent capacities for the development of an individual that shall be an honor to the human race; you attest your belief that every teacher worthy [of] that exalted name is able and willing to help to build the school of the future, the school of freedom.

Each of us has come here with dreams and hopes and plans for this new school. To many Helen Keller is a living example of the potency of the new education, one of the first pupils of the school of the future. That is why there is a Helen Keller Day at the Panama-Pacific Exposition.

Here is no dazzling personage, no startling circumstance. A young woman, blind, deaf and dumb from infancy, has, through the kind of education that is the right of every child, won her way out of darkness and silence, has found speech and has brought a message of cheer to the world. Men and women have listened and rejoiced, the[y] have learned to love the brave girl. They love her for her sweetness and courage, and for the lesson she has taught.

What she has accomplished without sight and hearing suggests the forces that lie dormant in every human being. And may we not hope that her education foreshadows the results that will be attained when the minds and senses of normal children are cultivated to their highest efficiency? If Helen Keller, lacking the two senses that are usually considered the most important, has become a writer of ability and a leader among women, why should we not expect the average child, possessed of all its faculties, to attain a far higher ability and knowledge than the schools of today develop? Many realize that there is something radically wrong with a system of education that obviously does not educate.

Every child begins life an eager, active little creature, always doing something, always trying to get something that he wants very much. Even before he can utter a word, succeeds in making known his desires by cries and grimaces. He invents and devises ways to get the things he wants. He is the star performer in his little world; he is the horse, the coachman, the policeman, the robber, the chauffeur, the automobile. He will be anything that requires initiative action. The one thing he never voluntarily chooses to be is the grown up personage that sits in the car and does nothing.

Our educational system spoils this fine enthusiasm. We impose the role of passenger upon the child, and give him no opportunities to exercise his inborn creative faculties. The alluring joy of creation is not for him. He is deluged with accomplished facts. Naturally, he becomes mischievous and difficult to manage. He is compelled to defy his teachers in order to save his soul.

Our schools give no encouragement to assimilation, reflection, observation. They kill imagination in the bud. They uproot the creative ideals of childhood and plant in their place worthless ideals of ownership. The fine soul of the child is of far greater importance than high marks, yet the system causes the pupil to prize high grades above knowledge, and he goes from the schools into his life work believing always that the score is more important than the game, possession more praiseworthy than achievement.

We try to model our children after a pattern we have in our own minds. We read and talk a good deal about evolution, individuality, natural tendencies; but we seem to be unable to fit these ideas into our system of education. We continue to impose our wills upon children. We deny them any right to wills and natures of their own. We reverse the known laws of evolution, we mark out our own path for the child's development and suppress his spontaneous impulses.

We have followed this mechanical method of education for a good many years, with what result? Our children leave school uneducated, doomed to go through life unreceptive, lacking imagination and initiative.

In Helen's education she never played the part of ignominious passenger. I early abandoned the conventional system of lessons; arithmetic at nine, language work at ten and so on. Regular lessons seemed to benumb my little pupil's natural impulses and self-educating instincts. Slowly the conviction formed in my mind that it is the child's prerogative to take the initiative, and the teacher's duty to follow the pupil's adventures and discoveries as intelligently and as sympathetically as she can. It is a waste of the teacher's time and of the child's energy to make him read when he wants to build castles with his blocks, to make him do sums in arithmetic when his whole mind is absorbed in the problem of keeping his boat right side up in the water. The child will learn more if the teacher lets the arithmetic go and turns her attention to navigation. This is not always the easiest way for the teacher, but it is the pleasantest and most profitable for the child.

I made it a rule to change the lesson the moment I noticed that Helen's interest in it flagged, and to follow her initiative in the choice of the next lesson. At first I had many misgivings as to the wisdom of what seemed a haphazard course. I had periods of profound melancholy when I thought that my pupil's mind was not receiving proper discipline. I was haunted by the fear that because our work was so pleasant, there must be something wrong about it. But, as time went on, my fears faded before Helen's joyous activity. All day long she was receptive, responsive, happy. Her delight in everything kept us all at a high pitch of enthusiasm, and enthusiasm makes work succeed.

It did not occur to me for some time that my experiments and deductions in the teaching of a deaf, dumb and blind child had any bearing upon the education of normal children. My task seemed to me a special one, quite apart from general education. I was trying to make the process of teaching a child that lacked two important senses pleasant to the child, and at the same time interesting to me. But as my work advanced, I saw that my ideas were proving successful. People began to talk about Helen's amazing progress, and to compare her mental development to that of normal children. Here was a little girl, without sight, without hearing, who was learning faster than most children with all their faculties. It began to dawn on me that my method, or lack of method, might have a broader application, might be of value to teachers of children with all their senses.

The more I read the more clearly I saw that my work with Helen offered a partial answer to many half-articulate doubts, and half-formed hopes of a new conception of education. I realized that the acceptance of my fundamental idea, that the child should be free, would mean a revolution in education; that it went beyond the schoolroom and met the dawn of a new democracy that shall include all men and women and children.

To that wonderful woman, Dr. Marie Montessori, belongs the honor and the everlasting gratitude of mankind for having systematized these ideas of education and recorded them in her book, a book that is at once a thrilling human document, a scientific text book, a prophecy and a torch unto all those whose work it is to teach little children. Dr. Montessori learned, as I learned, and as every teacher must learn, that only through freedom can individuals develop self control, self dependence, will power and initiative. There is no education except self-education. There is no effective discipline except self-discipline. All that parents and teachers can do for the child is to surround him with right conditions. He will do the rest; and the things he will do for himself are the only things that really count in his education.

The hope of the future lies in the right education of the child. He must begin with a new outlook on life. We must awaken in his soul the will toward emancipation. Let us begin now and apply all that we know, and progressively all that we shall learn to awaken and develop in his soul the will to be free.

I am convinced that restraint arises from ignorance. Every teacher worthy of the name obtains results through the spontaneous response of the child. The new education will permit the child to grow in the environment in which he lives. Real impressions and observations will take the place of book learning. The child's natural desires and idiosyncrasies will be given wise and sympathetic direction. In the school of the future the child will be the important thing. If we get no further than this, we shall have prepared the way for the child's deliverance.

I am aware that the freedom of the child cannot be won without a hard struggle. But our battle for the freedom of the child is part of the age-long battle of mankind up from serfdom to freedom; a battle that began in the dateless past and will continue as long as new hopes and new visions arise in human minds.

This is the lesson that Helen Keller's education has for the world.


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