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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