Let’s Preserve the Complexity of Our Icons

A phrase that stood out to me most from reading “Lies My Teacher Told Me” was:

“We seem to feel that a person like Helen Keller can be an inspiration only so long as she remains uncontroversial, one-dimensional. We don’t want complicated icons.”

This was the chapter where I also learned that Helen Keller was a socialist — and indeed, that it was so much a part of her adult life, that it’s truly shocking that most of us never learn this fact in our history books.

I own one of the “Value Tales” biographies of Helen Keller, the very theme of which is “The Value of Determination.” While I certainly want my kids to be inspired by her determination, I also want them to learn about her complex activism and beliefs, and to form their own conclusions. She wrote:

“I had once believed that we were all masters of our fate — that we could mould our lives into any form we pleased…I had overcome deafness and blindness sufficiently to be happy, and I supposed that anyone could come out victorious if he threw himself valiantly into life’s struggle. But as I went more and more about the country I learned that I had spoken with assurance on a subject I knew little about. I forgot that I owed my success partly to the advantages of my birth and environment…Now, however, I learned that the power to rise in the world is not within the reach of everyone.”

It is truly an injustice to our students to assert that people can only be inspirational if they are essentially perfect.

Unjust because it creates a false sense of unattainable achievement (“only those kinds of saint-like people make a difference”).

Unjust because it conveys that we don’t trust them with complicated truths.

Unjust because it’s the kind of rhetoric that fuels partisan politics and the idea that people are only worthwhile if their views 100% align with our own.

Let’s trust our students enough to trust them with truth. To create spaces where they can sort through difficult topics. To encourage them to form their own conclusions and realize that all people are messy, with strengths and failings. Let’s preserve the complexity of our icons.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto