Attitudes to teaching and learning in The History Boys

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1 Attitudes to teaching and learning in The History Boys The different teaching styles of Mrs Lintott, Hector and Irwin, presented in Alan Bennet s The History Boys, are each effective and flawed in their own ways. Mrs Lintott s approach, the straightford and factual, provides a solid foundation that is essential to one s education, but lacks what the headmaster vaguely describes as something more. Hector s passionate and unconventional approach is both inspiring and somewhat impractical, and Irwin s clever and meretricious approach is very useful in examinations, but lacks the heart and honesty that are perhaps more important to the development of a moral individual. Mrs Lintott is the type of teacher that every student needs. Before confronting abstract ideas, it is important that they understand where they come from. This is what Mrs Lintott provides. Her knowledge is a starting point, and more importantly, a relatively stationary point. It gives structure to the subject from which students can build upon. This sort of foundation is a resource I often find myself feeling quite lost without, and Rudge expresses this same concern in the play; So what s the verdict then, sir? What do I write down? (p. 26) He is confused because Irwin is making points which don t seem to connect, and this shows that he favours being given the facts in a more straightforward manner. Without a basic outline, concepts tend to float with only uncertain and loose relations to each other. It is only with much effort that one can pull the pieces together without help. In most cases it is simply more effective to provide this structure, than to force students to figure it out on their own and risk losing them. One of the biggest problems I have seen in students, is the knowledge gap that is a result of being forced to move on from a topic without first acquiring a solid understanding of it. This is not to say that all facts have to be force-fed, as Rudge describes it. There are, of course, associations and ideas which people benefit from learning on their own. There is also the fact that, where answers may be subjective, people will draw different ideas from s and occurrences, which is something Hector inspires. He lets the material speak for itself, and thus various interpretations naturally arise. Similarly, Irwin encourages students not to simply stick to the truth, but to look at things in different ways. This teaching trait, which Mrs Lintott appears to lack, has the ability to create more interesting individuals who will stand out among others in examinations. However, it should not be forgotten that an individual should also be well rounded and sturdy, and this is where Mrs Lintott s style of teaching is vitally important. Various characters assert that Hector s lessons are a waste of time, but at the same time claim that he is not a bad teacher. It is not that the students do not learn anything in Hector s classes, but rather that what they learn is not directed towards a curriculum, examination, or any other obvious goal. Instead, he immerses them in a diverse range of literature and art. They learn songs, movie scenes and poetry off by heart. When the boys quote Auden, Irwin tells them to use these quotes if they get an essay about the

2 poet. However, the boys reject this notion, claiming that what they learn from Hector is not meant for the examination. Later, Irwin confronts Hector about this: I sympathise with your feelings about examinations, but they are a fact of life. (p.48) Irwin makes a good point. Hector s teaching is broadening and full of heart, but the reality is that the examination will dictate, to a large extent, each boy s future, and, as such, it should be a teacher s duty to prepare them for it. Viewed in this light, Hector s eccentric and unpredictable teaching can appear somewhat irresponsible. The headmaster calls it selfish, less to do with the interests of the boys than some cockeyed notion you have about culture (p.53), and Mrs Lintott notes that because he wants to leave his mark, he impinges on them. However, Hector also has a point, and impinging is the only method he knows to communicate this point with. He argues that there is so much life after examinations that people seem to forget. He is preparing them more for the future. They might not understand now, but one day they will; We re making your deathbeds here, boys. (p.30) The play seems to indicate that the time for Hector s teaching style has passed, a point accentuated by his actual passing. At the end of the play, Irwin says that he does not think there is time for Hector s style anymore, but Scripps disagrees; it is the only education worth having. (p.109) What Hector teaches is important, but perhaps not by itself. Irwin is a young, modern teacher, employed to give the boys polish. His teaches them tricks to impress examiners, rather than deepening or extending their knowledge as Hector does. In his opinion, art, culture and poetry are just impressive extras to be quoted in an argument to the intended persuasive effect. The truth is unimportant; Scripps: But it s all true. Irwin: What has that got to do with it? What has that got to do with anything truth is no more at issue in an examination than thirst at a wine-tasting or fashion at a striptease. (pp.24-26) According to this belief, Irwin teaches the boys to employ a critical distance when writing about history, and to argue not what they believe, but what they can make the most interesting and persuasive to their audience. This is a very practical approach. It is true of the world that people are always, to some extent, influenced by the presentation of facts or arguments. While discussing getting the boys into Oxford and Cambridge, Mrs Lintott suggests that examiners should not be so naive as to be swayed by presentation, to which the headmaster responds Naive, Dorothy? Or human? (p.9) As proof that Irwin s methods worked, all of the boys get accepted into Oxford or Cambridge, and Posner gets a scholarship after displaying a sense of detachment in playing down the Holocaust, as Irwin had suggested. However, despite this seemingly perfect victory, the play makes you wonder whether this sort of victory is really all that important. Irwin is aware of his meretricious nature, and upon being asked whether or not he would return to Oxford, he says that he would not, for being Not clever enough. Not anything enough really. (p.93) Interestingly, though, everyone else in the play considers him to be very clever. It is as if underneath the showy appearance, he feels that he lacks the real substance of character that people really need. What then is Irwin really teaching the boys? Scripps becomes a journalist, supposedly using the tricks Irwin taught him, but we are told that he is always threatening to abandon it in order to 'really write', which, of course, implies that he is not happy the dishonest nature of the job. Thus, although

3 Irwin's teaching may get students through examinations, in the long run, it lacks the depth and honesty that gives people fuller and more open perspectives and lives. We have seen that all three approaches have advantages and disadvantages. As all have traits which are essential to a good education, I believe there is no need to pick out one style as the best. In relation to Hector s style of teaching, the play offers two clear opinions. One suggests there is no time for Hector's style of teaching anymore, the other claims it is the only worthwhile education to have. Is it not possible that both are right? We have seen in Posner s tragic future, the consequences of taking all of Hector's teaching to heart. But we also see in Scripps unhappy career and even in Irwin himself, the emptiness without it. And, of course, we cannot forget about the solid ground that Mrs Lintott provided, and without which, we would be lost. The solution I see to balancing these conflicting teaching styles is to either have teachers combine many different approaches, and use them at different times as appropriate, or to take a team approach. The headmaster, though not the most likable of characters, did do one very good thing; he brought the different teachers together. Hector: You give them the education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it. We are that entity beloved of our Headmaster, a team. (p. 23) Once this team is extended to include Irwin, a situation much closer to the ideal is produced. I found that, though awkward at first, the shared lesson with both Irwin and Hector teaching was one of the most interesting lessons in the play. A student needs many influences in order to succeed and flourish. The three teachers, Mrs Lintott, Hector and Irwin, each bring something invaluable to the table. Firm and organised facts, a passion for all sorts of knowledge and the skill to apply it where needed. I would be glad to have all of these treasures. References Bennet, A, 2004, The History Boys, London: Faber and Faber.

4 English T Literary Essay Assessment Feedback Student Unit Literature: Unit 4 Grade A ID Year 12 Line G Teacher DD Mod. Score 94 Criteria Advanced Established Demonstrated Some Evidence Little Evidence Control of the essay form demonstrating an awareness of audience, purpose and question (including word Knowledge of Critical and analytical skills focussed on the question Use of within the essay Citation of (See BSSS publication What s Plagiarism: how you can avoid it) Distinctive voice and originality of thought Command of the technical aspects of language: Clarity and fluency of expression Sophisticated control of the essay form and awareness of audience, purpose and question (including word Demonstrates extensive and comprehensive knowledge of Analyses, interprets and argues with sophistication and a high degree of insight linked to evidence and question Skilful and discerning use of approved citation conventions Demonstrates independence and originality of thought Writes with a distinctive voice Writes with vitality and control of language: word choice, formality of Writes with a high degree of clarity and fluency of expression Well-developed control of the essay form and awareness of audience, purpose and Demonstrates substantial knowledge of Analyses, interprets and argues clearly and effectively with insight linked to evidence and question Effective use of appropriate approved citation conventions Displays some originality of thought and independent voice Writes with a well-developed control of the technical aspects of language: Writes with clarity and fluency of expression Developing control of the essay form and awareness of audience, purpose and Demonstrates knowledge of Developing critical and analytical skills with some insight and justification of viewpoint linked to question Use of appropriate approved citation conventions Evidence of a developing independent voice Developing control of the technical aspects of language: word choice, formality of Writes with some clarity and fluency of expression Partial control of the essay form and awareness of audience, purpose and Demonstrates limited knowledge of Responds to s with occasional insight but limited justification of viewpoint linked to question Limited or ineffective use of Inconsistent application of citation conventions Relies on description or retelling narrative Little evidence of independent thought Partial control of the technical aspects of language: spelling, grammar, sentence Writes with limited clarity and fluency of expression Insufficient evidence of the essay form or awareness of audience, purpose and Demonstrates flawed or superficial knowledge of Understands simple and concrete ideas paraphrases or retells Very limited/no use of Incorrect or no citation of Expresses simple ideas and paraphrases Lacks control of the technical aspects of language: spelling, grammar, sentence Lacks clarity and fluency of expression Comments: A succinct and well-polished introduction: clear and concise! I'm impressed by your ability to analyse and appraise the differing styles of each teacher while at the same time reflecting on your own subjective, personal experiences of teaching and learning. In lesser hands, this could create a essay of two distinct halves, but you integrate them effortlessly (or seemingly so). I really like what you say about the potential hollowness of the "victory" at the play's end. You don't discuss it, but I find that Rudge's reaction when he gets into Oxford ("I wanted to tell them to stuff it") speaks for this hollowness.

5 Hector would probably quote Wordsworth at this point: "We have given our hearts away: a sordid boon". Overall, precise, considered and persuasive., this is an excellent essay - clear,

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