Lessons from The History Boys


I recently rewatched The History Boys, a movie based on the Alan Bennett play, which I saw during its Broadway run a few years ago. Watching the movie adaptation, which stays close to the original script and employs the stage cast, I was once again struck by Bennett’s nuanced representation of good teaching, and the way it is so often thwarted by the “system.” Not that the playwright makes things easy for us. Hector, the master teacher of the story, is a self-pitying, obese pedophile. We have to think outside conventional norms in order to enter the spirit of things. Many of the students in my class just couldn’t do it, though some of them—and I was surprised at which ones—could (there’s a separate essay to be written on the surprising nature of this breakdown).

I don’t know whether the representation of Hector in The History Boys is Bennett-esque, British, or simply literary, in a grand if problematic sense, but putting his fatal flaws aside, Hector’s teaching represents everything I revere, try to practice, and see rapidly disappearing.

Hector stands for both truth and serendipity in the art of teaching. He despises the platitudinous praise of “words” or “literature,” as though these things exist in some sacred place, apart from life. And yet he also opposes anyone who tries to find a practical purpose for a literary education. Take Irwin, the young teacher brought in to prepare the boys for their Oxbridge exams. He teaches them how to play the game of scholarship, turning established views on their head, not in the pursuit of wisdom but so they can stand out in the crowded field of exam-takers. He refers to the poetry that the boys have memorized under Hector’s tutelage as “gobits,” which can add weight and impressiveness to their answers. Watching the movie, I was again taken, as I was during the stage production, with Hector’s diatribe against gobits. His disgust with the word reflects my own with the ugly rhetoric that bespatters both education-speak and literary criticism nowadays.

Through Hector, Bennett presents an idea of teaching that encompasses the full tragic sense of life.  Hector’s admonition that the boys “pass on the package” that is literary appreciation begs a connection to his appreciative fondling of their genitals—a crude but oddly moving connection. It evokes both the eros of learning and the pathetic reality of the man. But to try to partition one from the other is to do violence to what is gloriously if also seamily human.

I was most moved by one scene in which Hector reviews the Thomas Hardy poem, “Drummer Hodge,” with Posner, the most gifted and sensitive of his students. It captures that ineffable process of great teaching that defies easy definition. Hector movingly explicates why it is so important that the soldier in the poem has a name—a crucial aspect of acknowledging his individual humanity. The insight helps student and teacher fleetingly acknowledge their mutual loneliness and, from this, their human connectedness.

The ideas in The History Boys are amplified—or, perhaps, the better term is miniaturized—in another Bennett work, The Uncommon Reader, a slim, dryly comic novel. In it the Queen of England, as she approaches her 80th year, becomes, unaccountably, an avid reader. The novel maps her evolution from a befuddled reader of Ivy Compton-Burnett to an informed connoisseur of Proust.

The queen’s reading eventually leads to a change in her relationship to her duties, to other people, and to herself—a change not entirely for the better. She performs her duties with less enthusiasm and becomes less energetic and more distracted.  Her situation encapsulates the problem that faces us as literature teachers. We can’t quite make a case for ourselves. Literature opens its readers—but to what exactly? It doesn’t necessarily make them better people and may, indeed, make them more inefficient and annoying to those around them.  One can only say that, like the queen in Bennett’s novel, once one has become a reader, there is no turning back.  As teachers, we take our charges to that place, both bothersome and sublime, and then let them loose on life.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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