What ‘The History Boys’ teaches us about education

Yesterday afternoon I went to see a wonderful performance of Alan’s Bennett’s The History Boys (now been made into a film). The play, while very comical, also asks some probing questions of the British education system. These same questions and issues are just as prevalent in every school up and down the country today, as they were in ‘80s Sheffield, where the play is set. Most of my friends have a gripe or two about their school, their teachers, etc, etc. We all have someone to blame for not getting an ‘A’ in an exam or piece of coursework. Is the current approach of focusing on exams really the best way to teach and grade our society? I’d like to explore some of the ideas Bennett presents his audience through the teachers, without giving away too much of the plot.

The play is centres around a group of schools boys, who have achieved grades good enough for them to apply to Oxbridge to study history. The headmaster, eager for his school to climb up the league tables, seizes the intelligence of these boys and enrols them in classes to prepare them to apply to Oxbridge. Other than the headmaster, the play has three teachers, each representing a different approach to teaching and education.

Firstly, Mrs Lintott, who taught the boys ‘A’level history. She represents the teaching style which has dominated schools since the introduction of national curriculum. The boys acquired the knowledge of history needed to achieve an ‘A’ grade in their examinations but did not actually engage with the material. This approach doesn’t encourage pupils to think outside of the box. They simply memorize and regurgitate the correct information. I have to admit, I remember little of what I was taught in school, even from my ‘A’ level classes, although I achieved high grades and only left school two years ago. That may have more to do with my bad memory though, the students on University Challenge seem to soak up every little bit of information around them.

Does this process of memorizing and then repeating the material actually improve intelligence? The structure of the examinations means that students can remember the material for a short time, but as soon as they leave the exam room, the knowledge just disappears- we learn just for exams and do not obtain long-term knowledge. This disadvantages pupils who find learning and working in this way difficult, because their minds do not work this way, but it does not mean they have lower intelligence. A prime example are dyslexic students, who are actually usually highly intelligent but find it difficult to express themselves in the way exams demand, and therefore achieve lower grades. Great people such as Van Gogh and Mozart would have been branded as having learning difficulties if they went through schooling today. This begs the question, does the schooling system get the best of pupils? Are intelligent pupils slipping through the cracks because they don’t fit the system, and, therefore, are branded as low-achieving pupils, leaving school with low self-esteem?

Hector very much recognises these flaws in education. He teaches the boys general knowledge, and is infuriated by the boys consistently asking, “will that be on the exam?” For him, knowledge is not repeating facts, events, etc, but “all knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use” (Housman). He teaches the boys French, poetry and hymns among others, but all of this seems pointless when you consider whether this knowledge will ever be of any use. The headmaster scheduled these lessons so that the boys will appear as cultured candidates.

Do you agree with Hector?

Irwin, however, wants the boys to harness this knowledge to present a new view of history. Irwin is hired as a temp to ensure that the boys’interviews and exams will be good enough. Unlike Irwin, none of the teachers went to Oxbridge so they don’t know how they can help the boys get in. Irwin pushes the boys to think outside of the box, and steer them away from the status quo answer. This is very much the approach to education in university. Read, read, and read some more so that you can give an informed and strong argument. The boys strive to reach Irwin’s high standards, but are frustrated when they realize they have to argue for arguing sake, and not because they agree or believe what they are saying. Irwin’s response to this is to tell the boys that they must detach themselves from history. Should students and lecturers be passionate about their subject, or does this emotion only cloud judgement and prevent proper study and argument?

Ultimately, the best system should involve all three- in Europe pupils obtain a baccalaureate, instead of ‘A’levels. Life and key skills are assessed alongside academic subjects. In 2003 the Welsh Assembly introduced a Welsh Bacc. It is not yet compulsory but my school was one of the first to trial it, and, while my former class mates would hate me for saying this, I do think it did help me develop skills, and definitely made me more aware of my strengths and weaknesses. I love learning, and so academia and exams will always have a place for me, least not because it is essential for development, but in economically developed countries, like the UK, where old industry and manufacturing are almost non-existent, the education system must teach skills which are needed in the workforce and assess intelligence in more varied forms than written examinations, rather than waste talent because those pupils don’t fit the mould.

What do you think? Do you prefer one of the teacher’s approach over another, or disagree with all of them? What was your experience of education? And, if you’re one of my international readers, bow does the British education system compare to that of your country?


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