History and the History Boys

I have finally now seen Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’, at least the film version of it. It was, as expected, entertaining, touching and thought-provoking, but also, in several ways, more than a little odd. In particular, for a work ostensibly about history, it had a bizarrely non-specific, if not actually nonsensical sense of period. The action, is set, at least according to the film, in 1983, and yet much of the plot makes little sense for that period. Firstly, there were few grammar schools left by that period (and the implication is that this is genuinely a grammar, rather than a fee-paying school still using the ‘grammar school’ label). Secondly, much of the plot is driven by the contrast of Oxbridge and provincial universities and the implication that this matters desperately. Speaking as somebody who got into Oxford in 1983, it didn’t by then. I had contemporaries who didn’t apply to Oxford even though they had the ability, because it didn’t offer the sort of course they wanted. The humiliation of the headmaster in admitting he studied geography at Hull seems archaic. Equally, the actual events of the early 1980s are nowhere to be seen. Despite mass unemployment in cities such as Sheffield, the boys can apparently easily get work ‘on the bins’ or as milkmen, whenever they want. And in the aftermath of the Falklands War, how likely it is that a boy could think that becoming a soldier would never involve fighting? Margaret Thatcher, meanwhile, is a barely mentioned irrelevance, not the central figure to young imaginations that she was.

Most of the plot actually makes far more sense if it is transposed back to about 1963, an era of grammar schools and acute snobbery about Oxbridge versus other universities. Similarly, Hector’s taste for World War One songs fits better for a master born in 1903 and 60 in 1963, than one born in 1923 and 60 in 1983. For a man who normally has such a precise sense of time and place as Bennett, either he has been unusually sloppy or the film was badly adapted in this way.

There are, I suppose, possibilities as to why they story Bennett wants to tell may have been ‘displaced’ by twenty years in this way. One is to get round the problem that all homosexual acts were still illegal in 1967, not just ones with 18 year olds. Another may have been to prevent the piece seeming too archaic, although any piece based around the seventh term Oxbridge entrance exam inevitably seems outdated now. I also wonder whether Irwin is somehow supposed to represent ‘Thatcherite’ tendencies in education. The problem, of course, is that Irwin is no Thatcherite. For all his philistine tendencies, he is also not a charlatan, but a genuine enthusiast about an old-fashioned subject: the later Middle Ages. No thrusting young right-wing historian of the 1980s would really be interested at looking at monastic accounts: Victorian or 20th century history would have been the way to go, probably focusing on economic history or high politics.

This leads me to my second problem with the story: is Bennett really trying to suggest that Hector is a better teacher than Irwin? If so, he is unconvincing, though I wonder if he deliberately hasn’t balanced the arguments rather better than that. The best pedagogy in the whole work, I would argue, is the debate about the Holocaust, and it’s really Irwin who drives that forward. Hector does set up the French brothel scenario, which is impressive, but otherwise, it’s only in his discussion of Thomas Hardy’s poem, that you really get a sense of him as a potentially inspirational teacher, someone who can convey something of the meaning of the great works he loves. Irwin, in contrast, with his demand for bold ideas, may be rather too glib, but he does at least get his students thinking. Ignoring entirely the issue of groping, I’d find Irwin more intellectually stimulating as a teacher than Hector, and probably more inspiring. But again, Hector v Irwin seems a curiously old-fashioned kind of contrast, a world away from a school history syllabus with nothing much beyond Hitler and Stalin and an emphasis on transferable skills. If Bennett does a period piece, that’s in itself fine, and can even be revealing: I just wish he’d been a bit more realistic about which period.


5 thoughts on “History and the History Boys

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  2. You might wish to look at Bennett’s 20-page introduction to the printed text of the play (Faber and Faber, 2004), which addresses some of these questions. Bennett’s own exam experience, on which he admittedly draws, took place in 1951 (!), and he was “well on with the play” when a friend informed him that he was “hopelessly out of date” with regard to the mechanics of university admission.

    “I was shocked and didn’t want to know, not because this invalidated the play (it is a play, after all, and not a white paper), but because what had been such a memorable episode in my life was now wholly confined to history. . . . it was as outmoded as maypole dancing or the tram.”


    “However I now had to decide if I should adapt the play to present-day circumstances, but decided I shouldn’t, as much for practical reasons as any concern for the facts. The current system of assessment, whatever its merits, is no help to the playwright. . . . ”

    “Accordingly I set the play in the 1980s, when people seemed to think the system had changed. It’s significant that without looking it up nobody I spoke to could quite remember the sequence . . . .”

    “Luckily, the eighties were a period without special sartorial stamp . . . . Mrs Thatcher was more of an obtruding presence than she is in the play, but that particular omission will, I hope, be forgiven me.” [Emphasis added.]

    “The school is not a fee-paying grammar school such as Leeds or Manchester, which . . . count as public schools. This, though, is what . . . the headmaster in the play would aspire to.”

    There is much more, though no apparent awareness that Oxford and Cambridge are no longer the ne plus ultra of desirability, nor any real reflection on homosexuality (aside from mentioning that he had “fallen for” one of his colleagues with unrequited passion), much less on legislation relating thereunto. But the whole little essay is, like anything by Bennett, a fine read. Enjoy!


    • This does all get back to one of the greatest paradoxes of the film (and I presume the play): it’s a very entertaining study of the teaching of history, by someone who doesn’t really understand what being a historian is about. It wouldn’t have been hard for Bennett to check whether the Oxbridge entrance arrangements had changed before writing the play, but he was clearly not interested in basic historical facts, just a good story. And the play is still actually a period piece if it’s set in 1983; after all, some of the students starting university this year will have been born in the year (1990) that Margaret Thatcher resigned. (Certainly none of them will have any memory of her, just as L will not remember Tony Blair or George Bush).

      I think that artistically the piece would have worked better if set nearer the ‘real’ time of its occurrence (i.e. the 1950s), because Bennett could have used more of his undoubted genius for nostalgic texture, the atmospheric feel of a particular historical and social milieu. As it is, as I pointed out, the film is stranded in a historically unspecific no-man’s land. But I’m also uncomfortable with the film for a more ‘political’ reason. Although it is set in a past time, this time is sufficiently close and the period detail sufficiently blurry that audiences may think it reflects current Oxbridge practices. And I am very uncomfortable with anything that encourages the idea that getting to Oxbridge is only possible for those with special connections or expensive educational polish.

      I went to Oxford (in 1983!) from a comprehensive school, not doing the entrance exam and with an interview technique that bordered on the pathetic (I was admittedly applying for maths, not history). My college (St Anne’s) had no great historic tradition and most of the students were from state schools. (One of the few students there from a minor public school was heard to complain once that it wasn’t pretentious enough.) A friend of mine who has recently been doing interviewing at both Oxford and Cambridge comes originally from France and probably wouldn’t recognise most public school names if she heard them. Oxbridge is intellectually elite, but the dons nowadays do their hardest to try and choose students on merit alone and not be swayed by expensive schooling or any intellectual ‘tricks’ it might teach.

      Yet Oxbridge still ends up taking a disproportionate number of public school pupils. And one of the reasons is that a lot of good state school pupils don’t apply. They hear individual horror stories and myths about Oxbridge not being for the likes of them and go elsewhere. Oxbridge can’t choose candidates who don’t apply to them and so the public school bias is reinforced. I don’t think a true period piece ‘History Boys’ would add to this vicious circle: I’m concerned that this not quite period piece one might do so, if only marginally.


  3. by someone who doesn’t really understand what being a historian is about.

    I’m not sure Alan Bennett would disagree, yet the fact is (if he himself is to be believed, and why not?) that by using a self-invented version of what comes to be the “Irwin method” in the play he got a First in History from Oxford. (Magdalen, if that matters.)

    So if getting a First in History from Oxford doesn’t teach one “what being a [an?] historian is about,” what does?

    Answers on one side of the paper, please.


    • Firstly on Oxford and flashy history/the Irwin method: the problem is not what you might learn about history at Oxford, but how you are assessed on what you know. The Oxford system has always been heavily weighted towards assessment by a series of 3 hour final exams, and back in the 1950s your degree class may well have been decided entirely by that. Such a system intrinsically favours those with a good memory, the ability to ‘perform’ on a specific day and good technical skills (e.g. able to write a literate essay quickly). It can’t easily test depth of knowledge or ability to work with the sources. There has also traditionally been a bias by examiners towards flashily written essays: when Oxbridge got concerned about why women were less likely to get firsts than men, one of the reasons seemed to be that they were less likely to do such ‘bold’ essays, which examiners favoured. (It also meant that they were less likely to get thirds). I saw a programme discussing these issues of gender bias once, where, for example, an examiner was very taken by a passing reference in an answer to ‘the audit of war’ (which is the title of a book by Corelli Barnett, the British military historian). The problem is that an examiner might assume from that the student has read the book, thought hard about its argument and drawn parallels, when in fact he has simply read the blurb. (OK, I talk about books I haven’t really read, as well, but I’d be reluctant to do it in exams, which is why I’d probably have got a safe 2:1 if I’d done an undergraduate degree in history). In other words, you can get a good undergraduate degree at Oxford without being a good historian (just as I could get a first at mathematics there without having any real spark of creative mathematical ability). The crunch would come if you wanted to take things to postgraduate level, when such tricks are no longer enough.

      As for the film itself, the more I think about it, the more I feel is that intellectually it fails in a broader sense (not just on historical detail) because Bennett doesn’t give Hector an adequate pedagogy (and I know that term would be regarded as pretentious by Hector and presumably Bennett). I assume that Hector is intended in some way as a representative of the idea of the study of the liberal arts for and in themselves. And I can understand the very English reasons why this is never made explicit, but must always be joked about: Hector on not wanting to instil a ‘love of words’ provides two of the funniest bits in the film. But Bennett doesn’t show enough of how someone like Hector could inspire boys with literature even without preaching about it. We don’t, except very briefly in the Hardy passage, see how literature might speak to boys about deeper ideas or how its language, even if not fully understood, might delight them. In fact, judging by the boys’ response, Hector is most successful at showing them the poignancy of ‘cheap music’ and popular culture; two of their most authentic moment are singing ‘Goodbye Dolly’ as they go off to their interviews and singing ‘Blackbird’ at his funeral. I would say that Rudyard Kipling, in the midst of an often extremely hostile portrait of a classics master in ‘Stalkey and Co’ does a better job in showing just how a liberal education might inspire boys with literature almost against their will.


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