Alan Bennet (2006). The History Boys: A Play.
Political science bores me to tears. If economics is the 'dismal science', then the English language has probably yet to come up with a phrase pithy enough to capture the small-mindedness of a discipline that can turn the most interesting of events into the dullest of journals articles and conference papers. Revolutions, social movements and ground-breaking ideas are surrendered to methodological fetishism that often makes the method more significant than the issue under study. Most branches of international relations are little better. Bizarrely, large swathes of the discipline are still lodged in the 1950s and carry forth a firm belief in state sovereignty despite ample evidence that the world has moved on.
So to try to understand the world around me, I rarely look towards political science and international relations. Life is simply too short for yet another article on 'the democratic peace' that attempts to link trade statistics with proclivity of a state to go to war. Excuse me while I yawn. Instead, we should be open to multiple sources of insight and inspiration. The danger with loyalty to any particular academic discipline is that it risks narrowing the space for alternative explanations. It can be no accident that academia splits itself into 'disciplines'. And with discipline comes barriers and exclusion. The artifice of 'methodological robustness' can be justified in terms of delivering verifiable resources. But the obsession with methodological perfection can be a barrier to knowledge, keeping it the preserve of some and out of the hands of others. Moreover, political science and international relations, probably like other disciplines, are full of followership perhaps best illustrated through the apparently mandatory citing of 'seminal' texts and authors. 'Please sir, can I not have to reference Morgenthau/Nye/Keohane/Waltz and all the other white north American guys who make up "our field"?'
In an attempt to break away from the smallness of international relations and political science, I have been reflecting on how material I read for pleasure influences my academic work. In the last year I have read the wonderful Wade Davis, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, and the frightening Charles Glass, Deserter: The Last Great Untold Story of the Second World War. Both, in their own ways, have much to tell us about peace, conflict, power and legitimacy, and they do so in a way that is accessible and humane. They are a breath of fresh air compared to the necromancy of rational choice, the harvesting of data, and the all too self-conscious citing of dead French philosophers. This is not an argument in favour of dumbing-down or anti-intellectualism. Instead, it is a call to reappraise our epistemologies and methodologies; to stop pretending that we are machines and to encourage us to inject a little more humanity, colour and life into our studies.
The subject of this review, Alan Bennett's (2004) play, The History Boys, has been chosen simply because it is a work that has had an impact on my thinking and work. Moreover, it is something I have enjoyed reading. I read so much passionless work in journals--it is clear that the authors did not enjoy writing it--and it shows when we try to read it.
The play is set in a high school in England in the 1980s and concentrates on a small class of boys who are being prepared to take the entrance exams to Oxford and Cambridge. Powerful themes run through the play: class, coming of age, sexuality, race, ageism and identity. One of the boy covers a number of these themes with the observation: 'I'm a Jew. I'm small. I'm homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I'm fucked.' Doubtless English literature scholars have investigated these themes and many more in great detail.
The play is incredibly poignant as it deals with young people on the cusp of adulthood; leaving something but not quite sure what they are headed towards. The poignancy extends to the teachers too. In their own way, they are on the edge of transformation--variously beginning a career, edging towards retirement, and dealing with a transforming educational culture. Poignancy is something that we tend not to find in academic works: it is difficult (if not impossible) to measure, compare or capture. To the best of my knowledge, a 'poignancy index' has yet to be invented in a social science laboratory. Nor is there a poignancy dataset waiting to be interrogated by SPSS. But that raises an interesting question: why do social scientists not 'do' poignancy? It cannot be because it is not important or relevant. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that it cannot be captured using standard social science tools and so we choose just to ignore it. Hardly scientific! If much social science is about accessing the low- hanging fruit (things that are easily measured) then what does that say about us?
As the play's title suggests, the key theme running throughout the work is history--its meanings and consequences. The schoolboys must cram history in order to take the entrance examinations. So history becomes instrumentalised, a mere tool that is packaged for a specific audience (examiners) for a specific purpose (to gain entry to a prestigious university). The schoolboys are introduced to a Fordist pedagogy in which great themes and events from history are packaged into bullet points. Their curriculum looks at great, and truly painful events--the Holocaust and the English Protestant reformation. The exigencies of the university entrance exams mean that the colour and drama is drained from these subjects. Instead, history is rendered into bite-sized quotations and 'facts' to be served up in an examination answer.
The play has a particular resonance with me simply because it is packed with great dialogue. Prominent here is the world-weary Mrs Lintott, a history teacher whose wry, and often foul-mouthed, observations seem to sum up in a few words what academics would make a career out of. Although the play is ostensibly about the eponymous 'Boys', it actually has much to say on gender and patriarchy. Few could argue with Mrs Lintott's observation that: 'History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind ... with a bucket.' Nor her: 'Can you, for a moment, imagine how depressing it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude?' Most of all, the play is successful in capturing the humanity that lies at the heart of our species: a humanity that many orthodox methodologies (and quite a few critical ones too) have worked very hard to disguise and deny.
Prof. Roger Mac Ginty
University of Manchester
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|Author:||Mac Ginty, Roger|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2013|
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