Review: The History Boys by Alan Bennett

Education and knowledge are always interesting points of discussion. Learning the right information just so that you will pass the exams at the end of the year, or knowing for the sake of knowing. It is sad that in the modern day schooling system that knowledge has become a necessity and not an enjoyment, even those who go on to read a subject at university normally only do so to further there career. Fast-track way to get a better job in theory…

This issue seemed to be at the heart of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, with the two different teachers Irwin and Hector. Hector taught his boys things that they enjoyed and that they would remember in their last days, poetry recitals, French plays and gobbets of information that could potentially be useful in an exam, but wouldn’t necessarily enable them to make the cut and pass the Oxford entry exam. Whereas Irwin has been specifically hired by the school to help the boys study what they will need to get into the prestigious university, he is their private tutor.

History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entertainment. And if it isn’t, make it so.

This was one of the problems that was central to the progression of the play, the clash of old and new in the schooling system. Hector is there to teach the boys ‘General Studies’ things that should help them in later life, but in the current climate the boys have no need to waste time memorizing Thomas Hardy’s Drummer Hodge they want to get into Oxford or Cambridge and so they should be studying for those exams.

The play also questioned the extent to which pupils should have a relationship with their teachers – and I mean that in every sense of the word. The sexuality of both the teachers and the students are not only questioned but pushed to the very limits, which I found very interesting to read. In my school experiences I never saw a student openly ask a teacher on a date and yet it didn’t seem too odd that it could happen at this school set in 1980’s Sheffield.

"History is just one fucking thing after another"

“History is just one fucking thing after another”

Although the narrative jumped around and was in no-sense of the word linear, the flash-forwards and flash-backs because of the intertextual references make the setting believable. The play is set in the past, it is also set in the present day, it also talks about the past even further back than the 1980’s. This is a school where students learn, regardless of what they learn, the primary intention is the pursuit of knowledge. For me, it was this that helped the play really connect with me as a reader. Everyone has been in a classroom and it is a place that is safe, ok you may have to sit a horrific exam in there at some point, but nonetheless it is still a place where you can develop as a person. The characters in the play felt like real people. Real people who just want to do the best and the most they can with their lives.

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