Essay Summary of The History Boys

How does Bennet use dramatic comedy to offer criticism of contemporary attitudes to education in The History Boys? In this essay I am going to explain how Alan Bennet uses dramatic comedy to criticise the contemporary attitudes towards education in the History Boys. The contemporary attitudes that are criticised are Utilitarianism, Humanism and Pragmatism. He does this by using a range of satirical devices. Satire is the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.
It is usually used to comment on society by observing their way of thinking and they way they behave. The History Boys is a satire because throughout the book each attitude is being criticised through the characters; The Headmaster, Hector, Irwin and The Boys. All attitudes are shown to be in disagreement with each other as they all have a different view on education. The first attitude towards education Bennet presents us with is the Utilitarian attitude. This is where you only consider what will be best for a group of people and not just the individual.
At the start of the novel Bennet introduces us to the character of the Headmaster who criticises the utilitarian attitude towards education in Thatcher’s Britain. This is shown to us in the opening scene of the play which was set in the staff room and he headmaster was discussing the boy’s A Level results with their history teacher, Mrs Lintott (Dorothy). “Their A Levels are very good”. The fact that ‘very good’ is in italics and is emphasised upon by the headmaster suggests to the readers that he is taking pleasure for himself from what the boys have achieved.

By showing this Bennet has led the audience to acknowledge that the headmaster takes pleasure in others success even though he appears utilitarian. As we continue into the scene with Mrs Lintott and the Headmaster, we are shown that the headmaster praises her for her part in helping the boys to pass however it could be argued that he is patronising her at the same time by talking down to her. This is shown when he says “Thanks to you Dorothy”.
Mrs Lintott suggests that they should continue with the way they are teaching in order to achieve better results however the Headmaster interrupts her by saying “yes yes” and continues to listing what he would like to happen. This is shown when he says “I am thinking league tables, open scholarships and reports to the Governors”. The fact that the headmaster lists what he wants portrays him, to the audience, as being a selfish character, he does not want what’s good for the boys but he wants things that will make him look good. The constant use of “I want” also backs up the idea of him being selfish.
However he also talks about the boys doing themselves justice, this could make us as readers question whether he does genuinely care about the boys future or whether it is an act. This is shown when he says “I want them to do themselves justice I want them to do you justice”. Overall the audience could argue that in this scene, because there are differences between both the headmaster and Mrs Lintott there is a form of juxtaposition between them as the headmaster mocks Mrs Lintott’s attitude towards education which shows us that he does not care about what the boys achieve as individuals, he cares about what they achieve as a group.
This therefore represents how Bennet has shown the Headmaster to criticise the Utilitarian view towards education. The second attitude towards education Bennet presents us with is the Humanism attitude. This is system of thought that centres on humans and their values, capacities, and worth. Bennet introduces us to the character of Hector. Within the very first page, Hector’s impression of education is set, where he refers to his subject as “useless knowledge” and “A waste of time”.
This immediately suggests to the reader Hector’s general apathy towards the subject, and, seeming to mock Houseman goes on to quote, “all knowledge is useful whether or not it serves the slightest human use”. However, as we learn that Hector is a man of “studied eccentricity”, and Bennett later goes on to write in the stage directions, “an elaborate pantomime, all this” it could be assumed that Hector’s views of education differ from those he presents within the first scene.
It is soon revealed that Hector’s idea of education is “the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake” –showing that he is not opposed to teaching; he instead wishes to, as Timms puts it, make the boys “more rounded human beings”. This, then, gives context to Hector’s referring to General studies as “bread eaten in secret”: his teachings are not to help the boys’ progressive school careers (“forget about Oxford and Cambridge”), but to provide the boys with something more personal and lifelong.
For instance, when Timms tells Hector that he doesn’t understand poetry, Hector calms him by saying that he, himself, doesn’t always understand poetry, but to “know it now and understand it whenever”, going on to say, “We’re making your deathbeds here, boys”. Hector’s approach is a clear substitute and “antidote” to Irwin’s direct and driven approach. The third and final attitude towards education Bennet presents us with is the Pragmatism attitude. This is basically where things are dealt with realistically rather than theoretically. Irwin first arrives at the school as the boys are about to start studying for their entrance exams to Oxford and Cambridge University.
He is immediately give the important job of teaching the boys just because he says he went to Oxford University. This is shown when the Headmaster says to Irwin “Well you were at Cambridge” and Irwin replies saying “Oxford, Jesus. ” At this point it could be argued that this is Bennett’s way of demonstrating how where you learn can sometimes be worth more than what you learn, which supports the Pragmatic view towards education it The History Boys. The first time we see Irwin it is in the future when he is acting as a spin doctor for the Government, he is in a wheelchair which acts as a narrative hook to the end of the play.
He is telling the members of government how to act and what their attitude should be like and he is trying to convince them to agree with the idea of getting rid of the system of trial by jury. This leads on to Bennet showing us that Irwin has a different style of teaching to hectors, he does not educate the boys, but he teaches them how to write essays and how to pass their exams. This is how Bennett shows that the education system has change so that young people are not being educated as well as they should be, they’re just being taught how to pass and nothing the might find useful later on in life.
“You can write down, Rudge that I must not write down every word that teacher says. ” This quotation is said by Irwin and it shows us that Irwin is saying to the boys until they don’t write down what they have learnt in their own words then they won’t understand anything and they won’t be able to be independent and do as well when it comes to doing their exams. This clearly shows that Irwin’s method of educating the boys is clearly different to the other teachers.
However other characters such as Hector seem to feel that Irwin is trying to replace his as the boys favourite teacher as they become fonder of Irwin they don’t seem to be as fond of Hector as they were before Irwin arrived. In contradiction to Hector, the Headmaster is fond of Irwin as he seems to think that Irwin will be the best thing for the boys and the school’s position on the League Tables. This is shown when the headmaster says “Get me scholarships, Irwin, pull us up the table. ” The boys as a group show a suitably irrelevant attitude towards education.

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