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The Difference Between Smart and Wise

For the big screen, Alan Bennett presents a less cynical version of his play about what an education is good for.

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The History Boys sss

Directed by Nicholas Hytner | Written by Alan Bennett | With Richard Griffiths, Stephen Campbell Moore, Dominic Cooper, Samuel Barnett, Jamie Parker, Frances de la Tour, and Clive Merrison

In a recent book review for the New York Times Michael Kinsley decried the intellectual dishonesty that's rotting American politics and gave as his closing example a story from the 2000 presidential election. Before election day George Bush's people, afraid their man might win the popular vote but lose the electoral college, began crafting an argument that the college was undemocratic, that electors for Al Gore should switch their allegiance and endorse the popular will. When Bush lost the popular vote but retained a chance to win the electoral college, his team did an about-face and defended the college as an example of the Founding Fathers' genius. "Of all the things Bush did and said during the 2000 election crisis, this having-it-both-ways is the most corrupt," wrote Kinsley. "But no one seems to care, because so much of our politics is like that."

The hypocritical willingness to argue a point either way lies at the heart of The History Boys, an excellent British drama adapted by Alan Bennett (The Madness of King George) from his celebrated play. The movie takes place in 1983 at a boys' boarding school in Yorkshire, where the grasping headmaster (Clive Merrison) is delighted to learn that eight young history scholars in the sixth form (equivalent to high school seniors) have scored exceptionally well on their A-Level exams (equivalent to the SATs) and may distinguish the school by getting into Oxford or Cambridge. Unwilling to leave anything to chance, he hires a young Oxford graduate to drill his prize pupils for their college entrance exams. Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a slick rhetorician, has mastered the sort of intellectual smoke and mirrors that impresses bored university dons. But as the school year progresses he finds himself in conflict with the boys' portly, retirement-age English teacher, Mr. Hector (Richard Griffiths).

Hector has been assigned to teach the boys General Studies, a "waste of time" that he heartily endorses. His unstructured class is less like school than an evening at the pub: when the boys aren't listening to him recite poetry, they're acting out scenes from old movies for him to identify, or singing Rodgers and Hart songs at the piano, or conversing with him in French as they act out a visit to a brothel. Hector endorses A.E. Housman's line that "all knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use." More to the point, Hector understands that knowledge can have uses later in life that we might not anticipate. When one of the boys complains that most poetry is about things that haven't happened to them yet, Hector replies, "It will. And then you will have the antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you're dying. We're making your deathbeds here, boys."

Irwin isn't much interested in preparing the boys for grief, happiness, or their deathbeds. He wants to get them past their college examiners, and for him knowledge is something to be exploited for short-term gain. He teaches the boys how to spice up an essay with fun facts, how to turn a question inside out, how to keep the dons amused by arguing that Great Britain caused World War I or that Stalin wasn't really so bad. He offends Hector by referring to poetry quotations as "gobbets" the boys can deploy in their writing. Above all he urges them not to get caught up in their beliefs. When one student insists that something's the truth Irwin snaps, "What's truth got to do with it? What's truth got to do with anything?" The headmaster, eager to give Irwin more time with his academic stars, arranges to have him teach the General Studies course with Hector, but the two men's styles clash horribly, leaving the students unsure whether to be thoughtful or smart.

The conflict between Hector and Irwin strikes a chord here because it loosely parallels the debate over standardized testing as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. With federal funding contingent on test scores, among other benchmarks, many faculty argue that instead of teaching their subjects, they're spending their class time on test-taking strategies, which are of no long-term value to the students. In a sense the teachers are being tested more than the children, whose educational needs are being sacrificed for institutional needs. In The History Boys the headmaster appreciates what Hector's trying to do and understands that he gets results, but they're "unpredictable and unquantifiable, and in the current educational climate that is of no use." As an administrator he's much better off with someone like Irwin, who can teach to the test.

Eventually the film begins to circle a more abstract question: whether knowledge, whose limits become apparent to anyone pursuing it vigorously, is really superior to belief, which may be impervious to pesky facts. When Irwin asks the boys whether the Holocaust can or should be taught in school, Hector argues that the subject is beyond deliberation, so far removed from human understanding that any glib exercise in addressing it this way or that insults the victims. The sole realm of human experience that embraces the unknowable is spirituality, which may be the reason Bennett opens the movie with a scene of Scripps, the only boy who's openly religious, attending morning mass. Yet no public school teacher in the U.S. can take much comfort from the idea that knowledge has its limits now that spirituality has been wiped from the curriculum.

The movie version of The History Boys closely follows the play, but for some reason Bennett has toned down Irwin's cynicism and deleted a narrative frame, set five years after the main action, that spells out the more sinister implications of his teaching. By then Irwin is confined to a wheelchair, but he's also a TV personality who hosts historical programs. Commenting on the toilet arrangements of a 12th-century monastery and tourists' disproportionate interest in them, he declares, "God is dead. Shit lives." In the play's opening scene he's shown coaching a group of British MPs on how to sell a new crime bill that will limit the right to trial by jury and eliminate the presumption of innocence. Just as he did with the boys, Irwin urges them to turn the popular argument on its head, to redefine freedom as the ability to walk the streets safely: "Paradox works well and mists up the windows, which is handy. 'The loss of liberty is the price we pay for freedom' type thing. School. That's all it is." His lesson has been learned all too well.

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