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A Fistful Of Knowledge

October 22, 2008

The History Boys is intelligent and clever (but not dumb).

Like the famous spaghetti Western starring Clint Eastwood, the world is divided into three kinds of people: the dumb, the clever, and the intelligent. Knowing how to tell the difference can tell you a lot about the rules by which society operates. But because the frequently conflated terms "intelligence" and "cleverness" are in fact distinct things, and dumbness often goes hand-in-hand with success-begetting gumption, the differences aren't necessarily all that easy to discern.

The British dramatist Alan Bennett (Talking Heads, The Madness of King George) explores this problem with sublime intelligence in his Tony Award–winning 2004 play, The History Boys, currently enjoying an extended run at San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center. Director Ed Decker's rhythmically directed, thoughtfully cast, and energetically performed production faithfully captures the complex ideas about what constitutes a meaningful education at the play's heart.

Set in the northern English town of Sheffield in the 1980s, The History Boys tells the story of a group of eight high school seniors and their quest to win coveted places at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Unlike most students who made it into these prestigious palaces of higher learning at that time, the lads in Bennett's play, though intelligent, don't come from especially privileged backgrounds. They attend a state-funded school whose pupils rarely, if ever, take the Oxbridge entrance exams. But when their ambitious headmaster notices he has a batch of particularly bright young men on his hands, he pushes them toward the "dreaming spires" in the hopes of improving his institution's standing on the academic league tables.

What follows from this premise is essentially a profound interrogation of three different educational systems that could be said to epitomize dumb, clever, and intelligent approaches to pedagogy. But while Bennett clearly favors one approach, he's as clear-eyed about its shortcomings as he is open-minded about the advantages of the other two styles. Thus the playwright demonstrates how easy it is to mistake phony scholarship for the real thing.

First, there's the solid "rote" method, personified by the history teacher and only female character in the play, Mrs. Lintott. Vividly brought to life by a spiky yet sympathetic Michaela Greeley, she is a feisty feminist who holds her own in a male-dominated environment. She takes a no-nonsense approach to education and sees her task as one of grounding the boys in the basic facts, an uninspiring but necessary job. To call Lintott's methodology dumb might be harsh, but its focus on textbook learning is geared toward slavish competence rather than inspiration.

Second is Mr. Irwin, a new teacher and history specialist hired by the headmaster specifically to prep the boys for the grueling Oxbridge vetting process. Brash and confident — at least on the surface — the twentysomething teacher, played with smug-sensitive effeteness by Jeff Cohlman, begins his tenure by berating the teens for their boring essays. Tutoring the boys in the art of scholarship-as-showmanship, Irwin advocates style over substance and technique over truth. His formula for academic success boils down to arguing a contrarian viewpoint and garnishing essays with many impressive-looking tangential facts and quotes from history and culture to make the exam board take notice. Irwin is undeniably clever: From a purely strategic perspective, his approach to learning makes sense. But in advocating the illusion of intelligence over intelligence itself, he turns himself into a con man and the educational system into a fraud.

Thirdly, and finally, we come to Mr. Hector, the most lovable teacher of the pack, and — alongside Robin Williams' John Keating in Dead Poets' Society and Julie Andrews' Mary Poppins — one of the most memorable instructors ever to have graced Anglo-American drama. In many ways, Hector (a genial, jowly Richard Ryan) represents an idealized schoolmaster. He is a teacher who believes in learning for the sheer joy of it, and for whom national curricula, league tables, and university entrance exams are irrelevant nuisances. His "general studies" lessons are freeform intellectual rummage sales riddled with quotations from films, musicals, poems, and novels. He encourages singing, role-playing, and a healthy dose of the ridiculous, imparting in his students an exuberant inquisitiveness, love of language, and passion for culture both high and low. The students adore him so much that they even put up with his foibles, taking it in turns to ride pillion on his motorcycle after school while the mild old pederast reaches back to cop a feel. But his intelligent approach to learning has its downsides, as Bennett suggests. If left completely to Hector's care, few, if any, of the students would pass the Oxbridge test.

Neither the play nor the production deserves completely clean reports. Bennett stretches the bounds of credulity with his classroom full of spontaneously Shakespeare-quoting schoolboys. Director Decker overplays the drama's homosexual undertow, a theme that seems secondary to the more stimulating education debate. Furthermore, the cast's wobbly northern English accents wander the entire U.K. and even make the occasional flight across the Atlantic and back. But these small faults are easy to forgive because the play's ideas, like the most memorable lessons from our schooldays, are so stimulating.

Like a teacher presenting his students with multiple answers to a question where previously there seemed to be only one, The History Boys offers revelations about the way society habitually confuses dumbness, cleverness, and intelligence. If every citizen in this country had the presence of mind to distinguish true intelligence from mere cleverness and recognize dumbness masquerading as mere hubris, the power structure would certainly be very different. Astute at synthesizing facts and harnessing knowledge to suit their own agendas rather than connecting with causes and issues in any really deep way, the Arianna Huffingtons of this world would rarely rise to such prominence. And as for the George Bushes, well, they wouldn't stand a chance.



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