History Lesson

Class Warfare

Why the villain of The History Boys is the better teacher.

The opening scene of The History Boys—the Alan Bennett drama that, against the odds, has been enjoying Broadway success—shows a clever but cynical young historian advising British members of Parliament on how to sell a nasty bill that would restrict trial by jury. Irwin (no first name is given) suggests to the MPs that if they reassure their citizens that all crimes will meet with swift punishment, they can portray the bill as bolstering, not diminishing, civil rights. “Paradox works well and mists up the windows, which is handy,” Irwin, drawing on his experience as a television historian, condescendingly explains. ” ‘The loss of liberty is the price we pay for freedom’ type thing.”

Even on this side of Atlantic, the punch line draws a sure laugh from viewers wise to the Bush administration’s war-on-terrorism sophistry. But the scene also stacks the deck against Irwin, who, we learn, was once a schoolteacher hired to help a class of promising young pupils forge beyond potted interpretations of the past to advance original arguments—ones that (on entrance exams) might get them into Oxford or Cambridge. In the story of these students, Bennett makes Irwin into his villain—shallow and facile, a liar, and a repressed or perhaps closeted homosexual, to boot. ButBennett shortchanges Irwin’s view of history by putting it in the mouth of such an amoral cynic—thus making History Boys something less than the rich meditation on teaching and intellectual commitment that it seeks to be.

In the introduction to the book version of History Boys, Bennett describes the play as being “about two sorts of teaching—or two teachers anyway (characters always more important than themes).” One is Irwin, who faults the students for being not wrong but dull and predictable—and therefore unlikely to grab the attention of an Oxford exam-reader sifting the brilliant from the merely bright. “Its sheer competence was staggering,” he playfully scoffs of one schoolboy’s paper. “Interest nil. Oddity nil. Singularity nowhere.”

Irwin’s foil, Hector, is an obese older man and a romantic traditionalist (and a somewhat less-closeted homosexual—in fact an unrepentant molester). He teaches the boys to revere “the truth” (never defined) and to respond to events of the past with hot-blooded feeling—something he accomplishes by making them memorize poetry and quoting them aphoristic snippets of Auden or Hardy.

The opening scene make Bennett’s dislike of Irwin’s methods clear enough. But they become clearer still if you know (as a few, mainly British, journalists have pointed out) that one inspiration for the character was the Oxford, and, as of 2004, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson. A familiar television presence in the United Kingdom, Ferguson has become known to Americans since the invasion of Iraq for his chillingly contrarian contention that empire is a good thing and the United States should embrace it cheerfully. The arguments about World War I that Irwin hails as exemplary against-the-grain creativity—that Britain was as much at fault as Germany; that soldiers took pleasure in the trench-warfare slaughter—actually come from Ferguson’s 1998 book The Pity of War. And Bennett’s introduction to History Boys approvingly quotes an acid review of The Pity of War by the longtime Oxford don R.W. Johnson:

Anyone who has been a victim, let alone a perpetrator, of the Oxbridge system will recognize Niall Ferguson’s book for what it is: an extended and argumentative tutorial from a self-consciously clever, confrontational young don, determined to stand everything on its head and argue with vehemence against what he sees as the conventional wisdom—or worse still, the fashion—of the time. The idea is to teach the young to think and argue, and the real past masters at it … were those who first argued undergraduates out of their received opinions, then turned around after a time and argued them out of their newfound radicalism, leaving them mystified as to what they believed and suspended in a free-floating state of suspended cleverness.

Bennett goes on to disparage this style, particularly as it has characterized the new wave of TV historians in Britain—not just Ferguson but also Andrew Roberts, David Starkey, and Norman Stone. (Bennett rightly exempts from his opprobrium Simon Schama, Britain’s “doyen of TV historians,” who the playwright says lacks the political agenda and “persistently jeering” tone of the others.) And tellingly, in History Boys, when Hector angrily confronts what Irwin has taught the students, he stammers: “It’s … flip. It’s … glib. It’s journalism.” The italics are Bennett’s.

Despite Hector’s fondness for fondling, he’s easy to root for (especially as played by Richard Griffiths). Literate audiences can be counted on to share Bennett’s scorn for the superficial journalist-historians who value cleverness more than depth. (In the United States, however, the popular style tends to be different than in Britain: less the contrarian polemic than the stentorian pose of Olympian authority exemplified by David McCullough or Ken Burns’ documentaries.) But as I’ve argued in Slate, there’s good and bad popular history, and the good kind, far from dumbing down, raises up, making scholarly ideas intelligible and interesting to a general audience. Yet Bennett doesn’t allow for such history. Instead he has Irwin mouth the simplistic proposition that “History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entertainment.”

No historian would defend such views, and none would promulgate them, either—which is why Irwin’s character is ultimately unpersuasive. Had Bennett shown more restraint and empathy in creating Irwin, he could have given us two equally compelling ways of thinking about history—or, better still, two equally compelling lead characters, characters always more important than themes.

One place he might have done so is in the scene where the teachers joust over how to present the Holocaust in the classroom. Hector, whose cathexis in the past we’re meant to admire, is so overwhelmed by the enormity of the Holocaust that he favors silence; his mind reels at the thought of field trips to Dachau, with schoolchildren eating sandwiches at a visitors’ center and snapping pictures. Thinking of his students’ entrance exams, he wonders, “How can the boys scribble down an answer, however well put, that doesn’t demean the suffering involved?”

Irwin, for his part, encourages the boys to “distance yourselves,” to get an analytic purchase on the Holocaust—but then flounders about in trying to guide them through any kind of enlightening discussion. Utterly cynical, he encourages one student to “surprise” his examiners with his outlandish comments about the Holocaust because, “You’re Jewish. You can get away with a lot more than the other candidates.”

Irwin’s efforts lead to an angry letter from the boy’s father, intimating that the teacher had questioned the Holocaust’s actual existence. But he didn’t, and it’s this crippling fear that any effort to think about the Holocaust historically will lead inexorably to denial that represents the real obstacle to understanding the past—not Irwin’s pleas for “perspective,” however shallow or daft they may be.

Contrarian impulses, counterintuitive thinking, dissent from established interpretations—in the wrong hands, these propensities can be offensively slick, but in the right hands they’re the stuff of scholarship. Historians, after all, don’t toil in the archives to adduce more evidence confirming everything we always knew.

One nice example of this comes from a third character in History Boys, a female teacher named Lintott. Impatient with both Hector’s quotation of poetry and Irwin’s intellectual acrobatics, she ventures “that there are no women historians on TV” because “history’s not such a frolic for women as it is for men. … History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. … History is women following behind with the bucket.”

Though Lintott can’t be said to represent all feminist historians, her soliloquy accomplishes something like what feminist scholarship has done: upending received wisdom, resulting in a more expansive view of how things work. Yet her character, though important, is underdeveloped; and in consigning her worthy viewpoint to a cameo role and framing history instead as the black-and-white drama of Hector vs. Irwin, it is Alan Bennett who succumbs to glibness—flashing his cleverness to dazzle his audience.

Does Bennett realize this? Writing about his own days at Oxford, he ascribes his success there to having figured out the “journalistic side to answering an examination question: … in brisk generalities flavored with sufficient facts and quotations to engage the examiner’s interest and disguise my basic ignorance.” After taking his degree, Bennett says, he “did some college teaching,” in which he imparted these techniques of passing exams to his pupils. Niall Ferguson, it turns out, wasn’t the only inspiration for the meretricious Irwin.