The American “Pygmalion”

It’s an American version of Bernard Shaw’s classic Pygmalion – a play that many have seen in its musical form, My Fair Lady. For those who have not had the pleasure, it’s the story of Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl in London, England, and Henry Higgins, an arrogant professor of phonetics. Higgins bets a friend that, given a few months to train her to speak like the Queen, he can pass off the bawling flower girl as a duchess. This he does, though there are a few fashion items and mannerisms that get worked on, too.

As the song from My Fair Lady goes, “This verbal class distinction by now should be antique.” And increasingly, I have observed, it is.

However, in my two years of university teaching in the United States I have observed a remarkably similar phenomenon. As a text-dominated society, Americans seem to focus their verbal class distinction more on the written than the spoken word, though the latter is certainly important. The upshot is this: Those who can write clearly and grammatically, with access to a full and well-articulated vocabulary, are virtually assured of doing well in life.

And those who cannot? Their prospects are dim, unless perchance they excel in science and math. Given their educational background, however, this is also unlikely. Because the common element in most of their life stories is poorly funded public schools. And I mean really poorly funded, and getting worse as I write this, with legislatures finalizing their 2011 budgets by hacking more money from public education.

In my university classroom I see the results every day: students who can’t match a plural noun with a corresponding verb form, and don’t have the faintest idea what you mean when you point that out. Who have never heard of a pronoun matching its antecedent. Who can’t spot a word like “theirselves” as wrong on a grammar test. And who have tremendous difficulty expressing themselves coherently. I don’t need to ask what kind of previous schooling they have had. By their writing ye shall know them, to paraphrase Margaret Laurence’s iconic character, Christie Logan, in The Diviners.

The converse, I would expect, is also true: Those who articulately express their thoughts and dreams, marshaling fine vocabularies to do their bidding, almost always attended private schools – or those in affluent suburbs where public schools are virtually private, since no one of modest income can afford to live there.

This is, in my opinion, the American way – or perhaps just the Ohio way, since I have not really had a chance to observe other places – of keeping people in their place. I would really like to hear from people in other places about this issue.

The disparities in funding of public schools in Ohio, where I now live, are so great that they have thrice been ruled unconstitutional. Yet despite being ordered to fix this problem by their Supreme Court, Ohioans can’t seem to figure out how to deliver equal funding to their public schools. It’s such a thorny problem. It requires long division!

Let me say right here that I know many Ohioans, and Americans elsewhere too, who disagree with the way public schools are now funded and are actively working to change it. A coalition of churches in the greater Cleveland area has just voted to address this as their top issue in the coming year. It is not something people are ignoring. It’s just something they haven’t been able to solve.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue giving grammar texts to college students who should have learned all this stuff in elementary school, and who find it extremely difficult to undo bad grammar habits as this age. I just tell them the story of Eliza Dolittle. She did it. So can they.  And it will change their lives.

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About Carrie Buchanan

Journalism and communication professor, Canadian, now living and teaching in the United States. Longtime journalist in Canada, primarily for the Ottawa Citizen.
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2 Responses to The American “Pygmalion”

  1. As a graduate of the N.Y. school system whose education began in the late 1950s, and who now teaches post-secondary students in Ottawa, I can agree that there is a generational effect. I do not think that is the entire story, but I think it’s a significant part. Today’s teachers were taught by people whose values included a sensitivity to, and strong rejection of anything that smacked of “elitism.”
    The idea of there being a “right way” and a “wrong way” to express oneself was over-generalized into a rejection of a right/wrong way to speak, write, and even spell. Grammatical usage was also tagged “elitist” in many circles.
    I know that I am not alone in noting that in many traditional media — radio, TV, newspapers and magazines — standards of grammar and usage have markedly declined. Moreover, concern about that decline is frequently perceived as fusty and persnickety (and you try using THOSE 2 words and not getting a blank stare from 90% of your listeners!)
    So, what I’m perceiving is a systemic devaluing if standards of writing and speech, while, as you correctly point out, the use of such standards as “class markers” perseveres.
    My experience is that this holds true on both sides of the border. I respond to this in my own classes by correcting students’ spelling, grammar and usage WITHOUT deducting any marks. I am not teaching English, and it isn’t the students’ fault that their teachers have let them down.
    However, I believe that there are some factors peculiar to the U.S. that exacerbate the effect in that country.
    First, in the U.S., local school boards have greater influence over curriculum than in Canada. English, composition and grammar are often perceived as “soft” subjects, less likely to receive funding and attention.
    Second, greater taxpayer activism in the U.S., which creates the problems in disparity you’ve noted in the Ohio school system.
    Third, the need, — and it IS a legitimate need– to accommodate the African-American community in the U.S.
    Canadians of colour, even if they are immigrants, tend to have been educated by Commonwealth standards, in which adherence to the King’s English is a mainstay. Two decades ago controversy erupted in some regions of the U.S. over the teaching of Ebonics, which was an attempt to formalize African-American verbal usage as an acceptable sociolect with equal legitimacy to standard “White” English.
    I want to be very clear. In no way do I think this was an illegitimate claim, nor do I think that the present decline of standards is in any way the “fault” of African-Americans. What I think is that White administrators did what they usually do when problems present a racial/ethnic side: they simply swept the entire issue under the carpet, and the teaching of standard usage has suffered as a consequent.
    Fourth, and I think that this is a factor that we disregard at our peril, there has been a greater increase in the disparity between social classes in the U.S. than almost anywhere else in the world. The middle class has been shrinking, and the middle class has traditionally been attentive to “proper English” as a means of upward mobility, and a class marker distinguishing themselves from lower classes.
    To believe that the increasing disparity between social classes is an accidental consequent of history is, in my humble opinion, hopelessly naive. What conclusions can we then draw from the fact — and it IS a fact — that so little attention is now being given to the development of good language skills among anyone not fortunate enough to attend a private school?
    Sorry for the length of this reply, but I wanted to give thoughtful reply to the very well-made points in your blog (now bookmarked.)

  2. Pingback: A rose to start your day | dymoonblog

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