Texas School Board Votes to Remove Helen Keller from History Curriculum

Helen Keller
Portrait of Helen Keller as a young girl, with a white dog on her lap (August 1887) — Helen Keller smelling flowers, circa 1919

Many Americans cringe when they see the Texas School Board in a news headline. And this headline, sadly, is no exception.

On Friday, the Texas School Board voted on changes that will affect students in Texas of every grade, with the purported goal of “streamlining” social studies curriculum. Amid their pending changes is the removal of references to Helen Keller, an iconic figure who is inarguably the most famous disability rights activist in history. (read below)

Helen Keller was the first deaf and blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree, and received honorary doctoral degrees from Temple and Harvard. Her storied career of activism and prolific authorship made her a civil rights pioneer, and she played an integral role in the women’s suffrage and labor rights movements of her era. The movie The Miracle Worker was based on her life.

She counted leading personalities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries among her friends and acquaintances. These included Eleanor Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Albert Einstein, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Charlie Chaplin, John F. Kennedy, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Katharine Cornell, and Jo Davidson to name but a few. Helen Keller remembered the first time she met her benefactor Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, she wrote that she felt he understood her and she “loved him at once.” Bell described his time with her as “more pleasing to me than even recognition of my work with the telephone.”

The Texas School Board held their preliminary vote Friday. Their proposed changes will be reviewed and possibly amended prior to a final vote in November. If you are in Texas use the Telephone, they would love to Hear from you and use your vote so they can See your view. (512) 463-9007

How did the Texas School Board End Up Removing Helen Keller?

Several work groups consisting largely of teachers were tasked with making “streamlining” recommendations to the board. These groups suggested a number of changes, which are ultimately up to the school board to advance or reject.

Other famous figures were also turned away from the updates to the State’s mandated curriculum. Former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — the first woman in American history to win the presidential nomination of either mainstream party — also didn’t make the grade.

Barry Goldwater, who won the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1964 but lost in a landslide to Lyndon B. Johnson, was also removed.

Evangelist pastor Billy Graham was recommended for removal but will ultimately stay in the curriculum. So too will a number of Christian-themed religious references, as well as the board’s assertion that the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East are the result of “Arab rejection of the State of Israel,” which the work groups recommended should be removed.

The work groups were assigned the task of ranking historical figures by how “essential” they are to learn. The questions asked included things like whether or not the figures triggered watershed changes, if they belonged to underrepresented groups, or if their impacts would stand the test of time.

Helen Keller, it’s safe to say, should check all three of those boxes. And despite what some might think of Clinton from a political perspective, it could be safely argued she marks those points as well. But the work groups only gave Helen Keller 7 out of a possible 20 points, and Hillary Clinton only earned 5 out of 20 points.

The work groups estimate that eliminating Helen Keller would save educators 40 minutes of work, while removing Clinton from the curriculum would save 30 minutes. They did not however comment on the implications of not teaching students about these important figures.

The Texas School Board is no stranger to controversy. They have regularly been accused for decades of inserting political and religious views into curriculum for public school students, despite protests from parents, educators, legislators, and activists.

These potential changes to the curriculum will not impact whether teachers are allowed to teach about Helen Keller or other figures. But educators will no longer be mandated to include them in their lesson plans. Text books will also not be affected yet by these changes, though such changes could be implemented later.

Helen Keller’s Worldwide Celebrity

During seven trips between 1946 and 1957, she visited 35 countries on five continents. She met with world leaders such as Winston Churchill, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Golda Meir.

A group of schoolchildren in Kobe, Japan wave white flags with messages of welcome for Helen Keller and Polly Thomson, who are visiting in 1948
A group of schoolchildren in Kobe, Japan wave white flags with messages of welcome for Helen Keller and Polly Thomson, who are visiting in 1948

In 1948, she was sent to Japan as America’s first Goodwill Ambassador by General Douglas MacArthur. Her visit was a huge success; up to two million Japanese came out to see her and her appearance drew considerable attention to the plight of Japan’s blind and disabled population.

In 1955, when she was 75 years old, she embarked on one of her longest and most grueling journeys: a 40,000-mile, five-month-long tour through Asia.

Wherever she traveled, she brought encouragement to millions of blind people, and many of the efforts to improve conditions for those with vision loss outside the United States can be traced directly to her visits.

Helen was famous from the age of 8 until her death in 1968. Her wide range of political, cultural, and intellectual interests and activities ensured that she knew people in all spheres of life.

She was honored around the globe and garnered many awards. She received honorary doctoral degrees from Temple and Harvard Universities in the United States; Glasgow and Berlin Universities in Europe; Delhi University in India; and Witwatersrand University in South Africa. She also received an honorary Academy Award in 1955 as the inspiration for the documentary about her life, Helen Keller in Her Story.

Sharing the Helen Keller Archive with Students

On June 5, 2018, visually impaired students at the New York Institute for Special Education celebrated the launch of the digital Helen Keller Archive in honor of Keller’s 138th birthday.


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