Every teacher has experienced their own Fathers and Sons moment, where the outdated grump resists change (the cranks seem to specialize in literature, history, or physics) and is challenged by the avante-garde and often shallow upstart. The History Boys is a witty and raucous parody of these stereotypes, written by playwright Allan Bennett and made into a film in 2006.
But it is more than a parody – it is an allegory for our times, where the goals of education hang in the balance between the needs of the soul, and a definition of worldly success that is both hollow and well-trod by the impressionable masses. I’m probably making more of the analogies in the play than I should. But the ironies related to current academic practice are too juicy and mordant.
Eight young men in a British grammar school compete for acceptance into Oxford University. The plot revolves around their relationship to their unorthodox but inspirational General studies teacher, Hector, who insists that the purpose of education in the arts is to produce “well rounded people.” Hector’s lessons consist of singing, poetry recitation, and acting. The boys love Hector, but also ridicule his portly and silly Falstaff nature, as students often do when teachers reveal too much about themselves.
The headmaster, whose stilted manner is the very image of soul-sucking bureaucracy (he remains nameless throughout the film), finds this liberal arts approach “unpredictable and unquantifiable.” It’s a poignant message for today’s educators, who are enthralled by Google’s bid to define human nature and the educational process by relying on “metrics.” To make sure the boys become a feather in his cap, he hires a young Oxford graduate, Irwin, to give the boys an “edge” to their applications. Irwin seduces the boys with “gobbets” of rhetoric, embellishing their learning with novelty and a smattering of Nietzschean rebellion, laughing at Hector’s advice to be true to themselves.
Irwin is the spitting image of the cock-sure academic, supported by reams of pointless footnotes. He represents the crisis in the arts today – where armies of young scholars scramble for tenure by publishing critiques of critiques, based on heady appeals to authority no one has the time to examine. Still, Irwin is more respectable and seductive than Hector, to both the headmaster and naïve schoolboys.
The twist (spoiler alert) is that Irwin succeeds in his mission to impress the Oxford application boards. All eight boys make it into the weightiest liberal arts institution in the world. What does this say about academia? It certainly doesn’t help that Irwin is exposed as a fraud. He never actually graduated from Oxford, he only has a teacher’s certificate. Ostensibly a history boy himself at one point, Allan Bennett is a harsh critic of standards in Academia today.
Critics have noted the unrealistic dialogue, full of poetic lines and historical references. But the most unconventional aspect of Bennett’s play is the underlying theme of the boys’ “erotic” relationship with Hector. The film is replete with the sexual innuendo of a highly charged boy’s school, and all the old homosexual stereotypes of English boarding schools are out in the open.
Bennett’s fearless portrayal of sexual energy may be shocking, but is connected to a larger purpose. By referring to eros, Hector points to the classical Socratic form of education in which the pursuit of knowledge was always consciously related to desire, and thus the whole human psyche. As he says to Irwin, “I didn’t want them to say in middle age that they loved literature or words.” Instead, Hector sees poetry and history as a very personal endeavor, which draws not only the cold analysis of reason, but demands an account of the relationship between reason and desire, and thus the whole of one’s life.
The virtue, and ultimately the fatal flaw of Hector’s erotic education, is the desire to form lasting relationships with some of his students rather than produce star pupils. The boys have such affection for Hector that they even play along with his eccentricity and keep it a secret. Based on a common love of beauty or not, his advances (represented by a ride on his motorcycle) land him in the headmaster’s office. Hector flouted other administrative conventions, such as swatting the boys on the head with a book when they give silly answers. He insists he’s innocent, stubbornly holding to his own peculiar moral code.
Hector’s disdain for convention rivals the headmaster’s disdain for the liberal arts (“Fuck Rembrandt and Plato, this is a school!…”). He insists Hector retire early. Even though he has formed a very close-knit cadre of students with a strong desire for learning, Hector remains a lonely and ultimately rejected soul, who has devoted his entire energy to ungrateful students. Dejected, he breaks down crying in front of his class and exclaims, “I’ve pissed my life away in this place….there is nothing of me left.”
Irwin, the young emotionally restrained and pragmatic tutor, undermines what Hector has built up in his students by encouraging them to flatter, embellish with “gobbets” (quotes), and disdain common sense. He holds impossible standards of the authoritarian. It is only when faced with his own uneasy erotic desires for Dakin that he is unmasked as a fraud. While Irwin says he is “not clever enough” to get in to Oxford, he represents the new wave of disinterested cynical scholarship – the antithesis of Hector’s erotic education. Hector refers to Irwin’s method accurately as “journalistic.” In the end, Irwin uses his rhetorical shock tactics to become a reporter.
So why is the film called The History Boys? The history teacher, Mrs. Lintott, figures slightly. As a realist and a feminist she brings balance to the teacher triumvirate – she disdains Hector’s unrealistic eroticism while scoffing at the idea that Irwin might replace him. Each appearance adds a voice of prudence, though they are few and far between. We only discover the meaning of her character toward the end of the film.
Though the eight boys achieve something extraordinary, their life trajectories are commonplace and are well represented in the history of education. Everyone benefits from Hector’s method of education, but the passion for the liberal arts is passed on to only one boy. They have used the methods of conceit to tweak “mere competence.”
Dakin, the attractive centre of attention, becomes a highly paid tax lawyer, while another opens a chain of laundromats. Only Posner, the lonely Jewish homosexual, becomes a Hector protégé by choosing the path of teacher. And it is only Posner who is shown in a private meeting with Hector truly identifying with his suffering eros. Posner’s desire for closeness did not make an impression on Hector, leaving the boy roiling with desire, ultimately sublimated toward an understanding of erotic education.
Characteristic of so many educators, the headmaster marrs Hector’s legacy when defining the liberal arts for the masses. In a eulogy upon Hector’s death, the headmaster says his legacy was to instill a “love of literature and words” – exactly what Hector sought to avoid.
This pretty much sums up how the liberal arts are seen by most educators today. Education is not about the soul. Literature is a subject or an interest. Its value lies in the fact that teachers have accomplished the task of instilling a desire for something, not for its intrinsic qualities of refining thought or “educating the imagination.” We are told that life-long learning is what counts, and that it will lead to success and fulfillment. Active minds is the educator’s goal, but the method and content of the mind’s activity is left unarticulated. People with active minds who cannot distinguish well-formed arguments from bad are just as susceptible to rhetoric, deceit, and manipulation in modern democracy. In his address to the Ontario Council of Teachers of English in 1980, Northrop Frye pegs the current low definition of literacy: “society aims at a literacy that is merely passive, a training in the ability to make conforming acts.”
What does all of this mean for the arts teacher in public schools today? If we take the film as an allegory, the extreme characterizations attain a new applicability. The underlying current of homosexuality, for example, can represent the tension within any student between what they know, and what they desire. Every stakeholder in the school system experiences this tension, which is why professional codes of conduct are there to limit the extremes described above.
However, the film seems to argue that “professionalism” as an end in itself may lead to the detachment of reason and desire. Teachers are to be in loco parentis, but are not allowed to love in the same way as parents or friends. The extreme effect of this detachment is exemplified by the headmaster, who is shown to be a bit of a boor divorced from a conscious appreciation of his own desire. He remains unnamed throughout the film, suggesting that he is not fully human. He is a hypocrite, denouncing Hector’s behaviour while he fondles the secretary out of pure lust rather than in the context of a shared desire for beauty and wisdom. If we judge both Hector and the headmaster not just on a scale of infringement of rights, but on the effort to address the whole human person, then Hector seems better balanced than the headmaster. The moral of this observation should not be taken literally, of course, but should emphasize the dangers of being too distanced from the student’s whole learning experience. It speaks to the experience of every teacher – that extreme pragmatism kills the love of learning in every subject, just like the desire for efficiency kills the study of history and makes it into “one damn thing after another.”
In the end, the hardnosed realism of Mrs. Lintott, the history teacher, is the prudent compromise required in today’s public schools. Teaching, like politics, is the art of the possible and we should avoid the flaws of any extreme. By pitting the extremes of Hector’s erotic education against the administrative desire for “success,” playwright Allan Bennett has taught us more about ourselves. The History Boys is certainly successful in raising the question about the purpose of education in the modern era.