Transformational Learning in My Fair Lady
“Someone’s ‘ead restin’ on my knee, warm an’ tender as ‘e can be. ‘ho takes good care of me! Aow, wouldn’t it be loverly?” (Levin, Warner, & Cukor, 1964). Eliza Doolittle sings these lyrics early in the film My Fair Lady. The lyrics represent the first of a series of events that transform her from a flower vendor to a fair lady. The transformational learning theories of Jack Mezirow and Laurent Daloz show up repeatedly in this film during Eliza’s transformation. Interestingly enough, Eliza is not the only character to transform.
“Like breathing out and breathing in. I’m very grateful she’s a woman. And so easy to forget; rather like a habit one can always break. And yet, I’ve grown accustomed to the trace of something in the air, accustomed to her face” (Levin, Warner, & Cukor, 1964). So sings Henry Higgins when he realizes how close he has become to Eliza throughout the film. His journey as Eliza’s mentor transforms him nearly as much as Eliza has been transformed. Again, the transformational learning theories of Mezirow and Daloz are useful in describing this transformation.
My Fair Lady Meets Mezirow
Jack Mezirow’s theory of transformational learning proposes that adults learn best when faced with change (Mezirow & Associates, 2000). That change, which can happen in a moment, causes an adult to reconsider his or her perspective on a particular issue. Mezirow believes that we all have a particular frame of reference that can be challenged when we experience those moments (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). In the film My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle experiences three such moments. It is also interesting to note that Henry Higgins has his own transformational moment. Following these transformational experiences, both of these characters change their frames of reference.
Eliza has her first transformational experience when she sings the song, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” Because of her initial interaction with Higgins, she realizes that she can become more than who she is. It causes her to seek out his guidance to learn to speak properly. Higgins initially refuses; however, driven by her new frame of reference, Eliza persists. Higgins reluctantly agrees, but only as a bet. Higgins bets that he will be able to pass Eliza off as a duchess in six months (Levin, Warner, & Cukor, 1964).
As the six months progress, there are numerous examples of how Eliza learns to speak properly. She struggles greatly. Finally, after an impassioned pep talk from Higgins, Eliza gets it by correctly pronouncing “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plains” (Levin, Warner, & Cukor, 1964). The pep talk that Higgins gives to Eliza is about the majesty of the English language. This pep talk provides Eliza’s second transformational moment. It is as though something clicked inside her that enabled her to speak correctly. Eliza has made the transformation.
When Eliza realizes that she was only the object of a bet, Eliza has her final transformation. Based on the sad treatment she received from Higgins, she leaves him. When she tries to go back to her former life, she realizes that she has made the transition to a fair lady and can never go back (Levin, Warner, & Cukor, 1964). With help, Eliza is able to even convince Higgins that she was much more than the object of his bet.
On the surface, Higgins does not agree that Eliza was anything more than a bet; however, he feels it inside. Eliza’s final transformation has also transformed him. After having left Eliza at his mother’s house, Higgins sings, “I’ve grown accustomed to her face.” He realizes that she does indeed mean more to him (Levin, Warner, & Cukor, 1964). This is Higgins’ transformational moment. Although the film ends shortly thereafter, it is hopeful that Higgins learns from this moment and that the two become friends.
These four transformational moments are excellent examples of Mezirow’s theory of transformational learning. Even so, there are many things that occur during the film that are equally representative of Daloz’s theory of transformational learning. Those examples will be explained in the next section.
My Fair Lady Meets Daloz
Laurent Daloz sees the transformational learning process differently than Mezirow. Instead of seeing learning from a single event, Daloz tends to see learning as a journey (Daloz, 1999). In this sense, Daloz believes that learners take a journey to transform, and they are guided by mentors (Daloz, 1999). Eliza’s journey from that of a street vendor to a fair lady strongly reflects Daloz’s theory, and Higgins is her mentor.
Eliza’s journey with Higgins is not an easy one. On the contrary, she frequently struggles. In many ways, it is Higgins’ consistent pushing that drives Eliza to be successful. In this regard, Higgins acts as Eliza’s mentor—he helps her to transform through a rigorous learning process (Levin, Warner, & Cukor, 1964). Higgins also tries to distance himself in the beginning of the journey. He does not see Eliza as much more than a bet, yet he is committed to his success.
At one point in the film, Higgins believes that Eliza is ready for her first test. He takes Eliza to the horse races. During this scene, Eliza begins by speaking as though she truly fits in; however, her background comes through. Even so, Higgins is there to help her by indicating that her speech reflects what he calls “the new small talk” (Levin, Warner, & Cukor, 1964). This delights most of the people, and Eliza is accepted into society. This scene is important from a learning perspective because Higgins believes that Eliza is ready, yet he is still there to rescue her when needed (Daloz, 1999).
Eventually, Higgins is no longer necessary. At the biggest test for Eliza, she is taken to a ball. Higgins is at ease with her ability to smoothly fit it, yet he becomes alarmed when one of his former students is also there. Zoltan Karpathy is a self-proclaimed imposter detector, and he is determined to find out if Eliza is a fraud. Higgins makes the inevitable sacrifice as a mentor (Daloz, 1999) and allows Zoltan to dance with Eliza. Zoltan determines that Eliza is a fraud—but in the best way! He spreads a rumor that she is too perfect to be English; instead, she must be Hungarian royalty! This both amuses and thrills Higgins. He has realized that his work as a mentor has been concluded (Levin, Warner, & Cukor, 1964).
The transformational journey that Eliza took from street vendor to learner to friend is representative of the journey that Daloz describes. For transformation to occur, the learner must progress, with the help of a mentor, from one state to another (Daloz, 1999). As is often the case, the learner then completes the transformation by becoming a friend and colleague of the mentor.
My Fair Lady is an excellent study in transformational learning. It reflects both the theories of Mezirow and Daloz. Throughout the film, there are transformational moments that support Mezirow’s theory of learning. Moreover, the entire film shows the journey that one must take to experience transformational learning, reflecting Daloz’s theory of learning. It is no wonder that this film won the Academy Award in 1964 (Levin, Warner, & Cukor, 1964). It is charming, heartwarming, and representative of an important learning theory that could be used in many Corporate Training Programs.
Daloz, L. A. (1999). Mentor: Guiding the Journey of Adult Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Levin, H. (Producer), Warner, J. L. (Producer), & Cukor, G. (Director). (1964). My fair lady [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Brothers.
Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Mezirow, J. & Associates. (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.