Eleanor Roosevelt’s Durable Wisdom on Curiosity, Empathy, Education & Responding to Criticism

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First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a prolific columnist and writer, with an impressive list of clips produced both during FDR’s tenure in the White House and afterwards. George Washington University’s Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project tallies up her output: 8,000 columns, 580 articles, 27 books, and 100,000 letters (not to mention speeches and appearances). Many of those columns and articles can be found on their website.

Their archive offers every one of Roosevelt’s “My Day” columns, which ran through United Features Syndicate from 1936-1962. These short pieces acted like a daily diary, chronicling Roosevelt’s travels, the books she read, the people she visited, her evolving political philosophy, and, occasionally, her reflections on such topics as education, empathy, apathy, friendship, stress, and the scourge of excessive mail (“I love my personal letters and I am really deeply interested in much of my mail, but when I see it in a mass I would sometimes like to run away! I just closed my eyes in this case and went to bed!”)

The “My Day” archive is a little difficult to navigate—you have to browse by year, or search by keyword—but the archive’s short list of selected longer articles is a bit simpler to survey. Some of my favorites:

“In Defense of Curiosity” (Saturday Evening Post, 1935): Roosevelt often drew fire for her insatiable interest in all areas of national life—a characteristic that people thought of as unladylike. This article argues that women, too, should be curious, and that curiosity is the basis for happiness, imagination, and empathy.

“How to Take Criticism” (Ladies Home Journal, 1944): Roosevelt had a lot of haters. This longer piece mulls over the different types of criticism that she received during her public career, and asks how one should distinguish between worthy and unworthy critiques.

“Building Character” (The Parent’s Magazine, 1931): An editorial on the importance of providing children with challenges, clearly meant to reassure parents worried about the effects of the Depression on their kids.

“Good Citizenship: The Purpose of Education” (Pictorial Review, 1930): Much of this piece is about the importance of fair compensation for good teachers. “There are many inadequate teachers today,” Roosevelt wrote. “Perhaps our standards should be higher, but they cannot be until we learn to value and understand the function of the teacher in our midst. While we have put much money in buildings and laboratories and gymnasiums, we have forgotten that they are but the shell, and will never live and create a vital spark in the minds and hearts of our youth unless some teacher furnishes the inspiration. A child responds naturally to high ideals, and we are all of us creatures of habit.”

Related Content:

“F. Scott Fitzgerald Tells His 11-Year-Old Daughter What to Worry About (and Not Worry About) in Life, 1933”

“’Nothing Good Gets Away’: John Steinbeck Offers Love Advice in a Letter to His Son (1958)”

“George Washington’s 110 Rules for Civility and Decent Behavior”

Rebecca Onion is a writer and academic living in Philadelphia. She runs Slate.com’s history blog, The Vault. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccaonion



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