I saw Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys at the National last night. Twas exceptional – very funny, great characters and a thoughtful message. And I kept seeing my own History teachers mixed into the different characters which was interesting\disturbing.
I think Bennett is wrong.
Well not ‘wrong’ as such. But I don’t agree with his mouthpiece in the play, the lovable (if mild child-abuser) Hector. He is contrasted against Irwin, the sophist, the liar, the government aide of the future who twists and spins our liberties away and then presents Simon Schamaish TV programmes with sensation over fact. He gears the students towards passing exams and getting into Oxbridge by trying to ‘stand out’ and be special instead of nice and truthful and scholarly. And of course he’s a fake – he lied about going to Oxbridge! Oh the shame! What a bastard. He’s a journalist!
Except the trouble is that his history lessons were much more interesting that Hector’s versions. I actually wanted to be in them. He would take an argument and turn it on its head – trying to find a new angle. But I like that. Our perspective on historical events changes and there’s nothing wrong with arguing something novel because you might end up with a deeper truth.
And then there’s the obvious critique of the education system. Oh, to have gone from the days when slightly mad teachers could be free to inspire their students with French and Latin and memorising poetry instead of trying to pass ghastly exams. When you didn’t need to coach people on how to present themselves in university interviews because that was somehow beneath you. Where did it all go wrong?
This is where it all went wrong: Bennett’s idealised classroom (and it was certainly idealised) was built on a lie itself. It was built on the grammar school model of discarding 90% of the population because they couldn’t pass a test at age 11. That’s right, a test! Hector didn’t need to exam-school his students because it had already been done, only in a bitter, divisive way. I simply can’t get nostalgic about a system which preached ‘education for education’s sake’ and then denied that education to the masses because they couldn’t jump through a hoop.
But the most important thing to take away from The History Boys is that it’s the biggest advert for mixed-sex education I’ve ever seen
However, certainly a great play. I’d give it a grade A for achievement but I think Hector would disapprove.