Learning to Get Into Oxford


The students of History Boys pose for the most casual class photo ever.
Teach for the test, or reach for the truth? A conflict between two versions of education provides the dramatic premise of The History Boys, which is set at a Yorkshire school in 1983. Hector (Griffiths), a rumpled tub of a teacher who believes that “The transmission of knowledge is itself an erotic art,” is a passionate dispenser of poetry, drama, song, French subjunctive verbs, and a palpable joie d’apprendre — joy of learning. But, insists Irwin (Moore), brought in to displace the capacious old polymath, “I don’t think there’s time for his kind of teaching anymore.”

The upstart cynic Irwin (“He’s only five minutes older than we are,” notes a student) is hired to prepare eight carefully chosen young plebeians to compete for admission to the academic Elysium called Oxford and Cambridge. Asked whether he wants Hector or Irwin to lead their history class, one member of the group replies: “Depends if you want us thoughtful or smart.” The smart money is on Irwin, who, disparaging Hector’s thoughtful approach to knowledge as gloriously impractical, begins winning over students with useful strategies for overcoming entrance exams and wowing interviewers.

Like Hollywood’s version of World War II platoons, the Oxbridge preparatory class in drab Sheffield is a demographic microcosm — one devout Christian, one jock, one heartthrob, one clod, one Muslim, one Jew. All come from working-class families, and acceptance into either of Britain’s two premier universities would mean elevation in social status. Their own teachers, graduates of less prestigious institutions such as Bristol and Hull, cannot quite conceal a wistful envy.

The History Boys deploys the same cast that sustained its extended run at London’s National Theatre. Written with wit and spit by Alan Bennett, it is a very theatrical work, especially in its trenchant dialogue. Aside from pruning the script, director Nicholas Hytner has done little with lighting or camera to make his work much more than the celluloid record of a stage play. But scintillating lines, tossed off with grand panache, compensate for lack of cinematic values. For pungent example, the school’s resident feminist, a melancholic teacher named Dorothy, offers this gnomic pronouncement on the academic subject of greatest interest to the boys: “History is a commentary on the various and continuing capabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with a bucket.”    

A buxom school secretary makes herself available to one of the boys, but otherwise, women are an alien species within the all-male bastion of Cutlers Grammar School. Though overwhelmed by hormonal surges, the adolescent scholars manage to analyze their erotic urges as clinically as if discussing Wellington’s military campaigns. Bemoaning the fact that he is “far gone in age and decrepitude,” sixty-year-old Hector holds on to youth by clutching the crotches of the boys he tools around on his motorcycle. In a plot that is driven — gratuitously — by polymorphous sexuality, the glands that this film stimulates are mostly lacrimal. The History Boys is a stirring elegy for a dying culture that valued education over training, enlightenment over instruction. “Pass it on, boys,” says Hector about the rich intellectual tradition he makes them heir to. “That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.” Twenty years on, The History Boys mourns the triumph of a world that is content to pass on it.

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