For a class, I recently read an article* discussing the literacy narrative, a genre of autobiography that relates one’s process of acquiring language/education. In this particular study, the authors looked at George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (or more familiarly, My Fair Lady).

Their topic:Pygmalion raises … questions about the nature of literacy education, about whether literacy can be acquired without institutional training, about the relationship between literacy and socialization, employment, and mobility, about the continuities and tensions between speech and writing, about the influence of popular and literary genres on literacy formation, and about the role of gender in the acquisition of schooled language.”

Their thesis: This is the great literacy myth: “Training in reading and writing [are] the skills necessary for the survival of modern culture as we know it.”

In other words, Literacy (or the education to gain literacy)=Success is a false idea.

In Shaw’s play, Eliza is reformed by Henry Higgins; he trains her to speak and behave like an educated woman. Those who purport education would say this training is helpful, necessary even, for Eliza’s developing of her talents and mind. But the authors of this article (and Shaw, possibly) disagree: “[Eliza’s] journey involves, as we have noted, a failure of memory, an erasure of origin … Henry leaves Eliza with no place in which to use literacy she has been compelled to acquire at Wimpole Street.”

So, the questions they raise for me are thus: Do the benefits of education (particularly for women) outweigh the negatives? Or even, are there negatives? Do uneducated people, as this article suggests, lose something in gaining literacy?

*Article: Eldred, Janet Carey and Peter Mortensen. “Reading Literacy Narratives.” College English, Volume 14, Number 5, September 1992. Pp. 512-39.

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