06 December 2011

Learning history; preparing for life

The History Boys was a film directed by Nicholas Hytner that I first saw in 2006.

Set in 1980s Britain, Cutlers' Grammar School in Sheffield was trying to get its students into the university and college of their choice. It was a process that everybody I have ever met in my entire life has gone through, so members of the audience were all nodding their heads in recognition. Even better, the two senior teachers, played splendidly by Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths, were characters I knew very well from my own Matriculation experience in 1965. Clive Merrison, the principal, was less successful, but I suppose that was the very point the director was trying to make.

The language used by the boys and by the staff was brilliantly written, and remained a key part of the film, regardless of the scenes. I presume that was because the film had been adapted by Alan Bennett from his play of the same name; the script had not originally been written for a book or for the screen. In plays, there can be sets, costumes and actions, but the language remains central. Perhaps the language was, if anything, too sophisticated. As with anyone who has raised or taught boys at that stage of their development, I know they grunt a lot. And hit each other, instead of using words. And they talk about sex a lot, often in poorly constructed English.

The history students and their three teachers, Sheffield, 1980s

Still... these were clever boys, and motivated to do well academically. The conflict only appeared when a very young man named Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) was invited into the school to assist the more traditional teachers in preparing the boys for the university entrance exams. I am not sure what Irwin's exact duty statement contained, but the boys were asked to prepare slick and polished historical presentations, regardless of content. The search for documented facts and historical truths became secondary.

Since I am a lecturer in history and art history, there was something compelling and personal about this film. I now realise why first year history students at university these days are more assertive in their historical perspectives than I had been in the 1960s, but less well equipped for seeking solid evidence.

I would have liked to end the film after these talented young lads went to Oxford or Cambridge for their interviews, filled with awe at the endless grounds, the stunning buildings and the serious college staff. It was wonderful seeing the day when the universities’ letters arrived, received by excited and anxious families in their kitchens.

In real life, there is normally no way of knowing what will happen to boys in their future lives; the last day of school is normally the end of one (perhaps beloved) era and the start of a totally unknown new era. But the director decided to let the viewer know who became successful in their careers, who became ordinary workers and who died tragically in the army. Although this annoyed me, I suppose from a teacher’s perspective it would be very satisfying to find out what happened to their once-young charges.


Hermes said...

Never seen this film and I've never been a teacher so hard to comment. Big debate about patriotic versus unbiased history teaching going on over here.

Intelliblog said...

This sounds like a film that I would enjoy immensely, as I am interested in history and of course, I have taught at tertiary level also. I'll look for it and watch it with interest. Thanks for the suggestion, Hels!

You may like to link your blog post to my Movie Monday meme! :-)


Andrew said...

It was a good movie. Matriculation, haha :-P

the foto fanatic said...

Loved the film. Probably the best thing I've seen Richard Griffiths in.

It did seem to capture the milieu of post-pubescent schoolboys quite well.

Although I loved school, I was very pleased to finish it. My first few years in employment (in the second half of the sixties) are the years that I look back on with most fondness. That was as a result of becoming more self-assured - I felt that the world was my oyster.

Hels said...

I know exactly what you mean by patriotic Vs unbiased history, although I don't think any historian can be _totally_ uninfluenced by his/her politics etc.

Even after all these years of lecturing in history and art history, I still become frustrated with Received Truths. One example comes to mind immediately - the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary. I don't know that it was a revolution and I am sure it wasn't glorious.

Hels said...


I saw the film again this year, five years after I saw it the first time. And was much more thoughtful and reflective, the second time around.

I will have a look at the Movie Monday meme asap. Many thanks.

Hels said...

Andrew and foto fanatic,

ahhh the 1960s :) and the final year of high schooling. I loved it too, but for two different reasons:
1. my history and maths teachers were inspirational. I look back on them very fondly, even today.
2. boys changed from smelly and irritating to.... very interesting :)

student of history said...

I did history as a Year 12 student. Even though the teacher was very good, I found it didn't prepare me very well for history at university.

Hels said...


that is probably so because in Year 12 and even in first year university, students may rely on secondary sources.

By second year university, students should be turning more to contemporary primary sources for their information, be they:
1. chronicles eg court reports, legislation, military documents
2. paintings
3. architecture
4. weapons, textiles, decorative arts etc

The Clever Pup said...

I bought this for a stocking stuffer last Christmas and I enjoyed it a lot. The boys were a little too mature and well-spoken. But so what. The world needs a little more wit. My son is exactly this age now. I can not see any of his buddies being able to seduce the secretary. I don't think this movie did well over here. Because of the gay teacher aspect it ended up in art houses cinemas. My son's applications to Uni go off in just a month. Then we'll be anticipating the large brown envelopes, but in our case, it will probably be an email.

Hels said...

Clever Pup

what a shame that the film was marginalised to the more fringe theates in Canada. The History Boys should be seen by every parent, teacher, student and film lover in the country.

But you are sooooo right about the tension of the last year of school and the selection process for university. Tension for the student AND for the rest of the family.

When my boys were at that stage, I used to find myself saying *blush* that I didn't mind what they did for the rest of their lives, as long as they worked hard for one year to get into the university course of their choice. One of my sons did succeed; the other had to accept a less attractive spot and could only change to his real choice in third year.

P. M. Doolan said...

One thing that I like about The History Boys is: it is based on Alan Bennet's brilliant play which premiered in the West End in 204 and then moved to Broadway and the actors in the movie are the actors of the stage play. for most of them it was their first movie, but they had perfromed the play together over 200 times in front of the world's most critical audiences, to great acclaim. I can't think of another film in the history of film where the actors had first performed the piece over 200 times. The actors had spent over two years together by the time they made the movie, and I think you can feel that in the movie. That is what makes it so convincing. I love the scene in which they are discussing Auschwitz and one teacher is appalled by the idea of organising a tour to Auschwitz.

Hels said...

Dr Doolan

I didn't realise that Alan Bennet's play had moved to Broadway. There is something so deeply British about Cutlers' Grammar School and the matriculation year that I would be surprised if other societies understood and enjoyed the play or the film.

All my colleagues from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa etc thought it was wonderful. And true.