The villainous teacher of The History Boys.

The history behind current events.
July 24 2006 3:32 PM

Class Warfare

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

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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.

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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.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.