Pygmalion, 1938 film, Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller
Wendy Hiller is brilliant in the 1938 film of Shaw's Pygmalion when she realizes exactly how she has been played by Higgins and the British establishment.
"Am I free?" she asks.
When you have traded who you are for entrée into another culture, are you ever able to be free again?
So what is a "West Brit" and what's the connection? A "West Brit" - especially, say, 1880-1930 or so - was an Irish Catholic who worked really hard to sound, act, and appear "English," as a way of climbing the ladder of Dublin society or careers in Dublin tightly tied to the British Empire. It was (is) a derogatory term, essentially the same as when one African-American might accuse another of "acting white."
Shaw's Pygmalion is a close look at this phenomena. Is the culture of Henry Higgins really so superior to that in which Eliza Doolittle has been raised? Is it about the language, or, as Eliza points out, is it about dignity - that Colonel Pickering treats her as a human from start to finish, while Higgins only sees her as worthy when "his creation" - the Greek Myth underlying the story - has been fully formed?
Is it "OK" to speak and act, to think and be, Irish? Or, in order to succeed in the rough world of 19th and 20th Century capitalism, must we all learn to mimic those in London's "City."
Who's culture is OK?
The end result of that statement was Barry being traded to "my team," beginning the short but wonderful history of the New York Nets,1 which is why I remember this so clearly. But the key question here is, "was Rick Barry right?"
See, I can use the United States Department of Education's NAEP results to "prove" that if a student has a southern accent, they are both more likely to be "below basic" on school skills, especially reading, and less likely to be "advanced." In fact, I can "prove" that the heavier the southern accent, the poorer the performance on standardized tests in general. These are "statistical facts."
So let us look at the Common Core argument, or that advanced by the "Acting White" theorists like Stuart Buck. According to them, the solution to this disparity - why would Alabama kids perform below Ohio kids? - can't be because of school spending or teacher unionization or economic success over the past decade, right? - would be to wipe out the Southern Accent in schools and to make sure that no one in the South criticized kids for "Acting Northern."
And if we could go one better, get those Alabama kids talking like Massachusetts kids, along with swapping grits for Maine oysters, we'd really leave no child behind. So our "Common Core" might be best be described as "Talk like a Kennedy."
See, "Black English" and "Spanglish" are really no further - linguistically - from "The Queen's English" than the American Southern Accent is, or the thick New England Accent is, our culture has simply decided that certain variations are OK because they embrace the power structure, and certain are not because they represent threats to the power structure. Just as, in the United Kingdom, it is fine if you have an Edinburgh Accent, not fine if you sound like you are from Liverpool. Fine if you are clearly from Devonshire, not fine if you are clearly from Glasgow. None of this is about competency or fluency or understandability, rather, it is completely, and only, about power.2
|Ethnics emerge dressed as Americans after being "dunked" in The Melting Pot|
at a graduation from The Ford Motor Company's "English School."
None of this is new. "Established in 1914, the Ford English School taught the company’s immigrant workers more than just how to speak English. It taught them about American culture and history and instilled the importance of such virtues as thriftiness, cleanliness, good manners, and timeliness." There has always been a tension in the United States between the expressed ideal of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society - you know, that brilliant combination of ethnicities in any World War II film - and the reality on the political ground, which is that "our leadership" would find things "much easier" if we were all "white, protestant, straight, northern Europeans."
They don't want that. If everyone were "the same" the "leadership class" would not know at-a-glance who belonged and who did not. So, what they want is for everyone "else" to waste enormous effort trying to be like them, while they race comfortably ahead. Remember, if we run back through the past 400 years, the number of national leaders of the United States and United Kingdom (combined) who have been - simply - Catholic - totals one. One. And, to put it in history book terms, "He served as President of the United States for a thousand days before he was shot and replaced by a Protestant." The US Republican Party has never even nominated a Catholic (or an African-American, or any other non-white Protestant) for President. These things, just aren't done. Tony Blair could only convert to Catholicism after he stepped down as Prime Minister of the UK. And what, a quarter of Americans are so distraught by having an African-American as their leader that they spin fairy tales about his birth.
This is not about language, or behavior, or communication, or shared culture, it is about power and the preservation of power.
How to speak and how to drink tea
There are many odd parts to the "Common Core" idea, it isn't just content that is being standardized, but delivery. The Onion, as expected, has it right, '“Before these standards, there was too much pressure in doing my job. Having to figure out what I needed to teach and how to teach it all by myself; it’s way too much to expect. I’m much more relaxed now by just sticking to the standards.'
'“I just turned to the section on ‘Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas’ to see if there was something I hadn’t considered and there it was! Item #5 said to ‘Add audio recordings and visual displays to presentations when appropriate to enhance the development of main ideas or themes.’ Eureka! I hadn’t thought of that one before, so I checked out a record player and film strip projector from our building audio-visual room and presented a film strip on Hairless Mammals of North America that very day!"'
Gentleman's Agreement, 1947, do we really have to let Jews into our country clubs?
Those advocating the "Common Core" are fascinated with standardizing large parts of instruction - the "Core Knowledge" folks carry this to extremes, listing acceptable poets and when they can be read. But this comes out of world view crafted in post-World War II America, with only white people on the television (saying stuff like "soda pop"), only white people in the schools attended by people like E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and the biggest social issue on the agenda being, in the wake of the Nazi slaughter, would we really have to let Jewish people into our country clubs?
But the basic idea is that we must teach all of our children to be exactly like "us." This would (a) make people like E.D. Hirsch, Jr. more comfortable - he would not be faced with having to learn other cultures or behaviors, and (b) as a bonus, the children of the rich and powerful can trod softly ahead of the pack while poor kids sit in KIPP Academies and Common Core schools spending years learning how to behave, speak, and learn, correctly. A win-win, as they might say.
|We all need to learn to look the same and drink tea correctly.|
Honestly, they looked ridiculous. It couldn't have been more bizarre to us New Yorkers (who I'm sure looked like the barbarian hordes to the hosts) if we had stumbled into a full hip-hop wedding with everybody sagging. I mean, is there a difference? Or is it simply that one group owns 50% of the money in the US and the other doesn't?
You know, there's a reason great universities crave diversity in their student bodies (and I will exclude Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania from that group because those three Ivy League schools are homogeneous social class finishing schools3): It is because, education, like societies, work best - makes the greatest strides - when there is neither "Common Core Knowledge" nor "Common Culture."
It is exactly the clash of cultures, of language, of knowledge - the synthesis of thesis and antithesis - which produces breakthroughs in learning, invention, culture, and understanding. Michigan State University - as an example - seeks out students from just about every nation on earth.4 Not because they are the same - because they have the same Core Knowledge and the same understanding of the classroom culture - but specifically because they do not. As at every great university it is that "coming together" which builds an atmosphere of creation.
That is what makes London and New York, Paris and Berlin, Chicago and Los Angeles great cities - not homogeneity, not any "Core Knowledge," not any standard behavior - but the richness of the often uncomfortable clash of cultures.
We don't need E.D. Hirsch, Jr, Bill Gates, and Arne Duncan making Eliza Doolittle's out of us. We don't need to be sculpted by Pygmalions from any era. We need to be who we are and we need the equal opportunity to turn ourselves into the best that we can be.
And there's my rant for the Fourth of July... the freedom to be who we are.
- Ira Socol
1 - My junior high era basketball buddies did want me to grow much taller and get a hook shot so I could be more like "my namesake," the Virginia Squires Ira Harge, though I'm not sure now why we we liked the guy.
2 - Fabulous archive of accents http://web.ku.edu/~idea/dialectmap.htm
3 - If you need to go an Ivy League school, do yourself a favor and stick with those in New York and Rhode Island.
4 - "While 89% of students come from all 83 counties in the State of Michigan, also represented are all 50 states in the U.S. and about 130 other countries"