education · plays

“Sheer, Calculated Silliness” – The Lessons of The History Boys

Irwin’s comment that he doesn’t “think there is time” for Hector’s kind of teaching anymore is a sad one – and applies well outside of the context of Alan Bennet’s The History Boys. Whilst the play does pit Irwin and Hector’s teaching methods against each other :

Dakin- We don’t know who we are sir. Your class or Mr Irwin’s.

Irwin- Does it matter?

Timms- Oh yes, sir. It depends if you want us to be thoughtful, or smart.

It never seeks to suggest that “smart” is superior to “thoughtful” or vice versa, nor that Irwin’s teaching methods hold any more merit than Hector’s. As such neither are defined as being either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways of teaching- neither is better or worse than the other- there is a feeling of it being “unquantifiable”, the very phrase used by the Headmaster to describe Hector’s results. That judgement highlights everything that is wrong with the education system today. There is no general consensus on ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake’, but there is one on knowledge for league table results sake.

You learn in Irwin’s method- to pass the exam and get the results. There are now very few Hectors. There is no “sheer calculated silliness” -there is no antidote. The system doesn’t want to produce kids that know all the words to When I’m Cleaning Windows – Β they would prefer those “who, in later life, had a deep love of literature, or who would talk in middle age of the lure of language and their love of words. Words said in that reverential way that is somehow Welsh”.


Why do we need Hector’s way of teaching? Because without it, the whole educational proces can become disheartening. If you’ve ever felt that education is not the way it appears in literature, that is because it isn’t. Our Lupins have been replaced with Snapes- Our Hectors by Irwins. The regurgitation of facts and statistics holds more merit than the gobbets you can remember, the poems and the stories you have learned by heart, not just because you had to but because you wanted to.

Sometimes, we stumble across that one class where all this is possible. A small number of students in a room crammed with books, with old film posters plastering the walls. Where the set text is abandoned within ten minutes in favour of a discussion about a dream someone had last night- a class where you forget you’re learning. “Love apart, it is the only education worth having”. For those of us who find out Hector, the answer to “What has Gracie Fields got to do with anything?” is this- probably a lot more than we first thought.