Pygmalion of the Soul
by Lisa VanDamme
Several years ago, I taught Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, to a class of junior high students. Pygmalion is the story of a lowly flower girl who is invited into the home of a brilliant phonetician after he makes a bet that he can teach her the elegance and speech of a proper English lady and pass her off as a duchess at a garden party. The musical My Fair Lady was based upon this classic play.
In the play’s most comical scene, a favorite among the students, Eliza, the flower girl, ventures into society for the first time. Having been told to confine her conversation to the benign and inoffensive topics of weather and health, she discusses, with the utmost elegance of manners and articulation, her suspicion that her aunt who had allegedly died from influenza had actually been murdered over a hat. And so begins a comedy of errors, in which, as Higgins the phonetician says, the problem is not “how” she says things but “what” she says.
With more training, Eliza learns to curb her coarse speech, and she becomes thoroughly polished, dignified, and charming. Her debut at the garden party is a smashing and unmitigated success. She has become a proper English lady.
But in the last and most important scene of the play, we discover that though she has learned to be a lady, she has not yet learned to be a human being—an independent, self-sufficient individual with her own judgment and her own sense of self worth. She has learned how to conform to the standards of elite society, but she has not learned how to form her own standards.
It is only when she drops her decorum and stands up self-confidently against Higgins that he says, “By George Eliza, I said I’d make a woman of you; and I have.”
Because for Higgins (and for Shaw), the mark of a worthy person is not conformity to the standards of the upper classes. Rather, a worthy person is one who has—in my favorite expression of the play—his “own soul” or his “own spark of divine fire.”
Teaching the play this time, it struck me as metaphorical for my own view of education.
Just as Eliza was taught in a way that allowed her to be passed off as a duchess at a garden party, the best of schools today teach children in a way that allows them to be passed off as educated at a cocktail party. But have they learned to be clear-thinking, independent, passionate human beings? Have they gained their own “spark of divine fire”?
That is our goal at VanDamme Academy. Our aim is not to teach the children a stock set of facts that will make them culturally literate. Our aim is to empower them with the lessons of history, to equip them with the tools of math and science, to provide them the fuel and inspiration of literature—to endow them with the wisdom that will give them the means to live a meaningful and deeply fulfilled life.
That is why the following were highlights of my teaching experience.
First, when the class read the last act of Pygmalion, we came to a scene in which Higgins calls Eliza a fool and she responds that the comment is “not proper.” I put down the play and asked the class what Higgins’s response to that would be. 11-year-old Taylor’s bright eyes became incandescent with understanding and her hand shot in the air. “He would say he doesn’t care what’s proper!” In that moment, she had not just grasped something deeply important about the character, she had grasped something about Shaw’s philosophic perspective on life. She had understood that Shaw cares little for conformity to social standards. And her expression revealed that that kind of understanding was thrilling.
Second, I was stopped in the hall one afternoon that same week by the mother of a 7-year-old girl named Emily. She told me that Emily had related to her a story from her book Adventures of the Greek Heroes. Emily told her mother the tragic tale of Admetus the king and his true love Alcestis. Admetus was dying, and the gods declared that if he were to remain with his love, someone would have to die in his place. Admetus went to his loyal subjects, his soldiers, his servants, then even to his own parents, but all feared to die for him. Finally, in a tragic twist, his own dear Alcestis, the love for whom he wanted to live, gave her life for his. As 7-year-old Emily shared the story, her voice became halting, and her mother noticed that she had tears in her eyes. (And as her mother told me this story, both she and I both had tears in ours.)
Our goal at VanDamme Academy is not to produce students who are refined, polished, and superficially educated. It is to produce students who are perceptive, passionate, and wise.
My favorite author, Victor Hugo, has a passage in which he describes the role of a teacher. He says, “It is a beautiful thing to mold a statue and give it life; it is more beautiful to shape an intelligence and give it truth.” And he captures this whole metaphor in an exquisitely poetic description, calling a teacher “a Pygmalion of the soul.” This blog is dedicated to all these Pygmalions, striving to raise children with exalted ambition and depth of soul.