Alan Bennett on Education in History Boys
In the first half of the play, Bennett is asking the audience to consider what “education” is. How does his presentation of the characters Hector and Irwin assist with this?
It is clear to the audience that, from the start, the play is concerned with education and schooling. There are “eight boys of seventeen or eighteen” disrobing a man of “studied eccentricity”; prior to this intimate scene that introduces you to the characters, Irwin is speaking to numerous MP’s regarding a political matter and finishes his speech with, “Back to school.”
Hector’s thoughts towards education are clearly negative; on page four of the play, he says that A-level are the “longed for emblems of your conformity”: this quote can be taken as a cynical thing. He believes that the examinations themselves are useless – they do not allow you to have your own mind. You follow what everyone else does, with no substance to the style that you provide in an exam. Irwin, however, believes that “examinations are a fact of life” and, although he believes that “[exams] are for now,” he accepts that Hector’s knowledge, although presented in an unorthodox manner, is good.
He tells the boys to apply Hector’s “gobbets” to help them in an examination. He was hired to add style to their Oxbridge applications, not particularly substance that could affect their being. He teaches them for the now, not for when “you’re old and grey”.
Hector insists that “there is a world elsewhere” of examinations and education for the sake of passing exams: he teaches the boys “culture” and their shared moments are a “pact – bread eaten in secret”. Akthar, when they boys are interrogating Irwin, insists that Hector’s shared knowledge is “just the knowledge” – Timms follows this up with, “the pursuit of it for its own sake”. Irwin, on the other end of the spectrum, believes that truth and, consequently, education, “What’s [that] got to do with it? What’s that got to do with anything?” The boys need flair over the others applying, as they will have done things that the history boys haven’t. If they can find a way to apply Hector’s “gobbets” to spice up their exam, it should be done. If they truly want a prestigious place at their particular university, then they need to use whatever they have at their disposal in order to achieve it – he deems that Hector’s knowledge is good for flair. Not for having substance. “Poetry is good… up to a point.”
Hector, again, is shown to have a negative opinion of Thatcher’s educational reform – “Not to say that I don’t regard education to be the enemy of education”. He believes that your knowledge, what you learn by heart, will stay with you forever – and that application of this lifelong knowledge in real life should be done in order to acquire more knowledge or share knowledge for the sake of knowledge. By doing this, he partially jeopardises their examinations as he allows his personal feelings to cloud his teaching. However, he believes that his view is the best way; his approach encourages the boys to think outside of the box and, instead of regurgitating facts at a rapid-fire rate, they instead can regurgitate quotes that they understand and can apply to situations, unlike what you have to learn for exams; despite Timms’ declaration of, “I don’t understand poetry!”, when you truly understand what you’re saying, it’s “as if a hand has come out, and taken yours”.
Hector believes that education is the “pursuit of knowledge for its own sake”; he doesn’t disagree with teaching, he just wants to make the boys “more rounded human beings” – his “codes, runes” are not to help the boys with their high ambitions, “forget Oxford and Cambridge”, but to give the boys something personal and that will stay with them no matter what they do or where they go. He believes that his quotations and words are “making your deathbeds here, boys”.
Hector also likes to split his lessons up to be memorable; one lesson he is teaching the subjunctive in French (set in a brothel) and another moment he declares, “Now for some silly time”. He is playful and breaks the rules. He likes locking the door to his lessons, which is unquestioned by the Headmaster as Hector shows “commitment”, and Akthar remarks that it’s “locked against the future”. Hector is the embodiment of education for the sake of knowledge, while Irwin is the idol of do it now and you’ll never have to do it again… Regardless, both men are happy with themselves to some degree. Despite Hector’s molestation of the boys and Irwin’s lying about where he got his degree, they are happy – but is it better to be happy when you have so much knowledge bustling in your head, or is it better to be dull for your exams and achieve happiness later on life?