How does Alan Bennett present education in The History Boys? In Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys, education is a presented as prominent yet ambiguous theme. Each character presents a distinguishing view of education, perhaps reflecting Bennett’s experiences with education as a whole. Within the very first page, Hector’s impression of education is set, wherein he refers to his subject as “useless knowledge” and “A Waste of Time”. This immediately suggests to the reader Hector’s general apathy towards the subject, and, seeming to mock Houseman goes on to quote, “all knowledge is useful whether or not it serves the slightest human use”.
However, as we learn that Hector is a man of “studied eccentricity”, and Bennett later goes on to write in the stage directions, “an elaborate pantomime, all this” (although referring to a later comment) it could be deduced that Hector’s views of education differ from those he presents within the first scene. It is soon revealed that Hector’s idea of education is “the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake” –showing that he is not opposed to teaching; he instead wishes to, as Timms puts it, make the boys “more rounded human beings”.
This, then, gives context to Hector’s referring to General Studies as “bread eaten in secret”: his teachings are not to help the boys’ progressive school careers (“forget about Oxford and Cambridge”), but to provide the boys with something more personal and lifelong. For instance, when Timms tells Hector that he doesn’t understand poetry, Hector placates him by saying that he, himself, doesn’t always understand poetry, but to “know it now and understand it whenever”, going on to say, “We’re making your deathbeds here, boys”. Hector’s approach is a clear substitute and “antidote” to Irwin’s direct and driven approach.
Whereas Hector sees exams as “the enemy of education”, Irwin, conversely, focuses solely on the boys imminent examinations and near futures, saying that education “is for now. The examinations are next month”. This directly counters Hectors ideas of understanding education “whenever”, suggesting that to Irwin, education is the key to the next stage in the boys lives (as Hector puts it; “credentials”). Unbeknownst to Hector, he seems to foreshadow Irwin’s examination approach on page two, where he jokingly uses the acronym of Curriculum Vitae to instead represent “cheat’s visa”.
Shortly after Irwin’s arrival, he suggests that there is “another way” to pass the entry examinations: when Scripps incredulously asks, “Cheat? ” Irwin surreptitiously responds, “Possibly”. However, upon closer examination, the text is suggestive of the fact that Irwin is simply appealing to the boys’ competitive nature: “You should hate them”/”Hate them because these boys and girls against whom you are to compete have been groomed like thoroughbreds”/”on the evidence of these essays, none of you have a hope”.
The reference to grooming makes education seem a game, the prize being an admission to Oxbridge. Although, at first, Irwin’s approach is received with nothing but censure and derision (“he’s such a wanker”/”they have to do it, don’t they? show you their still in the game”), as time progresses, the boys go “over to the dark side” (as put by Dakin, who goes on to admit, “I have never wanted to please anyone the way I do him”).
As the boys step out of the comfort zone set by Hector, who believes that one should not so much analyse and question what they are taught (“there are no ‘in other words’”), they discover that Irwin’s method of “distancing” themselves and “turning a question on its head” can be both enjoyable and academically rewarding. As Rudge puts it, the students, thanks to Irwin, are battery chickens set free, and in the process of “acquiring flavour”. Mrs Lintott, however, is in no particular way of agreement with Hector or Irwin’s teaching methods.
Instead of turning questions on their head and learning poetry “by heart” (again, suggesting that Hector views education as far more personal that a devised curriculum), she discourages “the dramatic”, instead preferring to teach the boys “hard facts” and reminding the boys, “this is History, not histrionics”. She goes on to refer to her subject of History as “storytelling so much of it”, as if chastising both Irwin (who encourages the boys to “garnish” their essays with accounts such as the fourteen foreskins of Christ) and Hector, who seems to live in the teachings of poets, artists and storytellers.
It could be said that The Headmaster and Mrs Lintott present similar views toward education, as neither show an interest in providing the boys with cultural aspects of learning (“fuck the Renaissance. And fuck literature and Plato”), but, even with this considered, the two appear to show contrary views on education. The Headmaster, although similarly interested by facts (“that at least I can categorise”), shows an attitude similar to Irwin’s when he says, “factually tip-top as your boys are, something more is required”, presenting a shared view with Irwin that the boys need “polish”.
However, the Headmasters intentions are not in the boys’ best interest, instead thinking “league tables… open scholarships”. Mrs Lintott soon after presents an honest view of the boys’ futures, saying, “I tend not to distinguish between centres of higher learning”, directly opposing the Headmaster’s “Oxbridge” aspirations, and instead, seeing education as a journey comprising of more than a syllabus (for instance, she praises Durham for the fact that it was where she had her “first pizza”). However, at the end of the play, all of the eight boys gain entrance to Oxbridge universities.
This could therefore suggest that, in the process of “running around, acquiring flavour”, they have taken in and learned from the techniques and lessons taught by all of the teachers within the play. As Hector says in the final line, “Pass it on boys, that’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on”. This could be seen as the epitome of what Bennett is trying to say about education within the play – the boys collated the facts, techniques and culture passed on from Irwin, Hector and Mrs Lintott, and consequently fulfilled their Oxbridge aspirations.