For anyone who doesn’t know, Alan Bennett’s wildly successful play follows eight sixth form boys in a grammar school in the North of England in the 1980’s as they are prepared for the Oxbridge entrance exams. It examines the questions of what is history?, how should it be taught? and more broadly, what is education and what is its point?
Idealistic English teacher Hector is unconvinced of the wisdom of the attempt, believing the boys only want to go:
“because other boys want to go there. It’s the hot ticket, standing room only. So I’ll thank you (hitting him) if nobody mentions Oxford (hit) or Cambridge (hit) in my lessons. There is a world elsewhere.”
Hector’s approach to education is a long term one along the lines of Miss Brodie’s leading out. That is, of a large and varied amount of information for its own sake, passionate and committed and certainly not curriculum orientated!
Their often astringent history teacher Mrs Linott has seen to it that the boys:
“know their stuff. Plainly stated and properly organised facts” or as Hector puts it:
“You give them an education. I give them the werewithal to resist it.”
She is another unconvinced that it is best for each boy to try for Oxbridge. However, the school’s headmaster has his eye on league tables and open scholarships, and hires the pragamtic Irwin to give the boys a little polish and see to it that they ace their exams. Irwin derides them as:
Dull. Abysmally dull.
A triumph… the dullest of the lot…
I didn’t say it was wrong. I said it was dull.
Its sheer competence was staggering.
and explains that what with bored examiners:
“The wrong end of the stick is the right one. A question has a front door and a back door. Go in the back, or better still, the side.
Flee the crowd. Follow Orwell. Be perverse…
History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entartainment. And if it isn’t, make it so.”
He sets about helping the boys to find an ‘angle’, believing from his own Oxbridge experience that “truth is no more at issue in an examination than thirst at a wine-tasting or fashion at a strip-tease.”
This ideological conflict is the heart of the play. But it is not all so cerebral – these being young men there is plenty of sexual discussion, especially by the good-looking and cocksure Daikin. Rather disturbingly, both teachers make their attraction to a pupil or pupils clear, a weakness that is important to the play’s unexpected and moving conclusion.
In The history boys, Bennett convincingly creates eight individual boys full of promise at a turning point in their lives. With a liberal amount of cultural allusions high and low and humour, Bennett shows us what is “the only education worth having”. At one point, Hector explains that:
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something- a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things- which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
For this devoted reader, The history boys is full of such moments. I thoroughly enjoyed it (and will be seeking out the film version as a substitute for seeing it performed). Bravo Mr Bennett!