The only reason anyone has any interest in Matt Damon’s recent comments about keeping his kids out of public school is that Damon was catapulted to stardom by a movie—Good Will Hunting—which appears to be about education. But that film is not about education; indeed, it is anti-education. It is interesting to consider Damon’s film Good Will Hunting in contrast to My Fair Lady and Shaw’s play Pygmalion, on which My Fair Lady is based.
In Pygmalion, and My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle wants to better herself—become more than a drab, indigent flower girl selling violets in the street—and realizes that it is her speech that is holding her back. She becomes the student of Professor Henry Higgins, who teaches her language, grammar and deportment, so that she can eventually rise out of the class she was born into. The original play, and the musical based on it, differ as to whom Eliza ultimately falls in love with, and to the quickness of her adaptation to what she is taught, but ultimately both have the same message; with work and a desire to master new skills, one can rise beyond one’s original station.
Good Will Hunting stands in sharp opposition to this message, as the “anti-Pygmalion.” Damon’s character does not want to rise—indeed, he’s terrified of the prospect. He only does so because his best friend, played by Ben Affleck, who is smart enough to feel trapped but not smart enough to be able to do anything about it, tells him in no uncertain terms to get lost and make use of his natural gifts. Throughout the film, he is actually doing everything he can to remain a common slob and to avoid rising in the world, even as people come rushing up to him with fistfuls of offers to better himself. In the end, he does not follow his desire to better himself—he has none—but merely follows his gonads to go after the woman he’s hot for.
While Shaw himself was Irish, his play, and the musical based on it, were very American in spirit, in that they endorsed ambition and hard work in pursuit of the desire to rise as leading to a better life. Damon’s film does nothing of the kind. He does not work at his mathematical ability; he is a “natural genius,” with a surly class-ridden attitude, who wants to stay in his lumpen class. He only allows himself to entertain the possibility of permitting his native abilities to give him something better than the slob life he loves because that will get him the hot babe he wants.
I would say Good Will Hunting is an anti-American film—it certainly is, compared to Pygmalion and My Fair Lady—but perhaps those earlier works encapsulate an America which is, in fact, dead, and the surly slob in search of a hot babe, who hates his own abilities, which Damon portrays, is indeed the face of the new America—in which case, God help us.