‘What’s truth got to do with it?’ On Bennett’s History Boys and contrarianism

‘So,’ asks antagonistic teacher Irwin in The History Boys, ‘our overall conclusion is that the origins of the Second War lie in the unsatisfactory outcome of the First?’ Yes say his students, hearts set on a place at Oxbridge. ‘First class. Bristol welcomes you with open arms. Manchester longs to have you. You can walk into Leeds. But I am a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and I’ve just read seventy papers all saying the same thing – and I’m asleep.’

‘But it’s all true’, Anglican, piano-playing Scripps insists.

‘What’s truth got to do with it? What’s truth got to do with anything?’

Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore in the 2006 film) has been hired by the school’s headmaster to teach strategy and flair. Where Richard Griffiths’ Hector teaches literature and general studies, cultivating cultural know-how, Irwin’s field is scholastic élan – the gameplaying cunning, style and nerve for academic triumph. To this end he prizes the unorthodox, slating the boys’ first essays as competent-but-dull, lauding originality above all else, less fond of lofty truism than contentious pith.

‘Happy to opine the esoteric point of view’, as an English teacher wrote when I was twelve, my natural inclination is to break consensus, dogged sometimes among peers with the repute of always having to be different - I confess I carry something of a torch, then, for Irwin’s style.

For fellow teacher Hector, though – older, tweedier, more humane, for whom the Holocaust can never be discussed in theory, only condemned ‘as an unprecedented horror’ – this is anathema. That Irwin has no forename where Hector has two (his real first name Douglas, his surname never uttered) is not coincidental: Irwin is the coolly rational querdenker, his teaching style distanced and sanuine, Hector the amicable schoolmaster of old, vocationally invested in his students’ lives and passions, as personal as his colleague isn’t. While Irwin’s pedagogy is strategic and goal-oriented, Hector is through and through a humanist, beloved of the Renaissance, deeming knowledge for its own sake precious, aiming for ’rounded individuals’ regardless of Oxbridge success.

Hector’s feelings toward his students are unsurprisingly just as romantic as his view of teaching. ‘The transmission of knowledge is itself an erotic act’, he pleads to the headmaster when it comes to light he touches the boys (18 or 19) sexually while giving motorcycle lifts, and isn’t without a point, at least in Bennett’s universe. Inasmuch as Hector receives no outright consent, his actions are unethical, but nor would it quite be true to call them one-sided, predatory acts of abuse. Earlier scenes show the boys collectively recognise the bike rides’ erotic function, taking turns quite voluntarily on Hector’s saddle in this knowledge, subtly negotiating the touching’s extent, viewing it almost at times as a rite of passage: Posner, 17, is refused a ride because underage, classmates explain to him, and Hector’s offering rides home seems to work less deceptively than as a coded invitation, understood by all involved.

The homoerotic is the default sexual mode in Bennett’s classroom, where Posner wants rakish, charismatic Dakin (communicating this in song form at one point), Dakin wants Irwin, Irwin wants Dakin and Scripps expresses mild enthusiasm for this pair. Beyond Dakin’s rather perfunctory pursuit of secretary Fiona, the only heterosexual moments in the play are simulated, as Posner, Scripps and others roleplay as Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in Now Voyager, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter and the occupants of an imaginary French-speaking brothel. Straightness here if nowhere else is enacted, artificial, false; gay attractions, an unvarnished truth the boys discuss matter-of-factly. Perhaps for this reason, Irwin finds himself ‘scared shitless’ at the play’s end when offered sex explicitly by Dakin – by far more closeted than Hector, by far more diffident in sex and life than in his teaching, Irwin has no aptitude for plain or non-strategic truths.

The two’s mutual attraction on the other hand, formed largely around classroom brinkmanship and Dakin’s urge to please his tutor, reveals Irwin shares privately some of Hector’s romanticism – that cynicism notwithstanding, the scholastic passing on of truth is erotic for him too. His teaching, though savvy, sanguine and unsentimental, does turn out to be about the truth: moments after admonishing Scripps on the First World War’s significance, he gives the following much-quoted speech, which no doubt I’ll reach for again come Remembrance Day:

‘The truth was in 1914, Germany doesn’t want war. Yeah, there’s an arms race, but it’s Britain who’s leading it. So why does no one admit this? [Pointing to a monument] That’s why. The dead – the body count. We don’t like to admit the war even partly our fault, ’cause so many of our people died, and all the mourning’s veiled the truth: it’s not “lest we forget”, it’s “lest we remember”. That’s what all this is about – the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.’

Where Hector deals in subjective abstractions about knowledge, love and the best moments in reading, Bennett’s most convincingly incisive lines belong all to Irwin. ‘Our perspective on the past alters’, he says defending dispassionate dissection of the Holocaust, ‘and looking back immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don’t see it, and because we don’t see it this means there is no period so remote as the recent past.’ ‘While they had no artistic merit’, he says, the Carry On films deserve attention since ‘they achieve some of the permanence of art simply by persisting, and acquire incremental significance if only as social history’. ‘If you want to learn about Mrs. Thatcher’, he says, ‘study Henry VIII.’ His contrarianism isn’t empty or inauthentic, it’s a means of happening on astute deductions.

In my second year at university, producing passable but uninspired papers, I had a tutor very much like Irwin – twentysomething, filled with sarcasm and benign derision, tactical to the point of artistry in essay-writing guidance. Despite his megalomanic tendencies, or perhaps because of them, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t (like Dakin) mildly besotted, and as it turned out he came very close to being my single most effective tutor. Obeying expectation either in choice of text, citation or argument was emphatically discouraged, his entire discursive praxis one of counter-valence. This became, as it is for Bennett’s character, epistemology more than just strategy: find every theory’s flaws, dissent from it however possible and build a new approach inside the cracks. Cracks in established thinking are where progress forms, and no academy could advance without them being scanned for constantly.

Contrarianism isn’t lazy, it’s instructive: no better way exists of finding out an ivory tower’s weak spots than by banging one’s head incessantly against its walls. We crucify facile reactionaries – Melanie Phillips, Katie Hopkins, Brendan O’Neill – and are right to do so, but the c-word is a title they’ve yet to earn, aspiring to it perhaps as Bennett’s head does to move up the league table. The best contrarians (Goldman, Orwell, Huxley, Hitchens) have shone argument in all directions, emerging all the more effective for it. Conceived in the first instance as a villain, I wonder nonetheless if Irwin’s name deserves the same esteem – though, naturally, I would say that.