Monday, January 05, 2009

The History Boys: Why Teach?

(reflection on the film THE HISTORY BOYS and the play script of the same name by playwright Alan Bennett)

The beauty of THE HISTORY BOYS isn't what the critics think it is. I read a lot of hoopla about Alan Bennett's script when the show opened on Broadway with the London cast, and again when the movie version appeared, with the same cast. Everyone I read focused on the threat posed to meaningful education by Irwin, the supercilious new breed of teacher who advises the boys to lie, or at least to disregard what they know is true, to impress their examiners.

The thing is, I know that Irwin's "new" approach is nothing new at all. In Shakespeare's day, it was called "disputation," and even then it was a game to argue the opposite of what one believes, to show off resourcefulness in citing and twisting authorities. Shakespeare shows off his school boy education when he has Iago argue both for and against the importance of "honor." It's nothing more than "playing devil's advocate." I humbly admit that, at the age of ten, I planned to write a book How to Write a Report That Won't Be Blah Blah by advising my fellow fifth graders to find an angle on the topic opposite to readers' expectations. No big deal. If that's the focus of Bennett's script, it's not so interesting.

Bennett explores the question, "What does it all mean, anyway?" "It" is history itself -- "Just one f***ing thing after another," says one boy (and the plot, what little there is, seems constructed to support that view). "It" is also an education that, twenty years on, seems to have done little to shape the lives of the boys we see. In his introduction, Bennett relates the scene from his real life that he puts at the core of this play, in which a long-time teacher lays his head on his desk and asks why he has frittered away his life for these kids.

Bennett's play does focus on the vitality of these eight lower-middle class boys in a low-status village in an adequate "public" (read "private") academy with pretensions. "Vitality" could be a euphemism for "sexuality," and that is subtext or more to every scene, but I really do mean "vitality." The boys are probing, not just for advantage in their upcoming exams, but also for the truth, and for a clue to what their whole lives will be.

In their quest, they're confused by opposites. Bennett structures his play in dialectic pairs: rumpled old Hector v. smart young Irwin, knowledge for its own sake v. knowledge to dazzle, words that express the truth in your heart v. plausible sounding lies.

A couple of scenes don't fit the pattern, and they stand out as the core. Shy boy Posner recites a Hardy poem for Hector in tutorial and Hector says something from the heart:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something -- a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things -- which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and takes yours.

He puts out his hand, and it seems for a moment as if Posner will take it ... but the moment passes.
In another scene, student Dakin confronts teacher Irwin and confidently becomes teacher to his teacher, propositioning him and asking, "Why are you so bold in argument, but when it comes to the point, you're so careful?"

Framed by scenes in which the actors speak from the perspective of twenty years on -- when they're largely ordinary guys in humdrum careers, except for a phony historian and a shyster tax lawyer -- the play begs the question, "What did any of this education matter?"

The answer is in the fabric of the play itself. The vitality of the argument, and the inspired silliness of the boys' learning scenes and songs from trashy "classic" movies and shows, say something in themselves. Old teacher Hector gets the last word in the play. He has already said that the "tosh" of his unplanned curriculum was to be an "antidote" to reverence for literature, something of "middle age" that would replace a vital love of learning for its own sake.

At the very end, in a sort of benediction, he tells the boys, "Pass it on." Since meaning depends on what comes before, and what comes after, I suppose what he's saying is, "Nothing has meaning, unless we all pass it on -- so pass it on, and give us all meaning."

No comments: