I find Bennett's writing utterly charming, it is always witty and wryly observed and he writes without cruelty. Underlying all is a sentimental poignancy. He is constantly aware that even the most happy of life stories must end in tragedy.
The heart of the plot is a confrontation of two traditional models of education, personified by two teachers, rigorous scholarship and anarchic creativity, with a new one, a cynical view that what matters, and is rewarded, is novelty rather than truth. And it is this model of post-modernist, contrarian history that wins the boys places at Oxford, though the ambiguity of the film is whether they could have achieved this without more solid foundations having been laid first. In many ways it is a lament for a dying tradition.
These days we face another challenge. Never mind the search for difference at any cost, or even cultural relativism, what we have to contend with today is a sense that all that matters is vocational utility and education is now being justified solely in economic terms. This was the subject of a powerful piece by John Holford commenting on the announcement by John Denham of a user consultation group on higher education. Who are the members? No academics are to be included, after all we are 'producers' not 'users', that is to be expected currently, whatever our commitment and expertise. However, there are also no students, nor are there representatives of non-commercial interests. The members are employers, implying that higher education is something that is run for their benefit alone. They are now the 'users'. Holford writes:
No "user" will speak for local communities; none for schools or hospitals; none for the old; none for charities or the voluntary sector; none for social movements; none for ethnic minorities; none for ordinary working people; none even for local authorities.
All this is, I regret, in keeping with recent government approaches to the role of higher education. Universities must not just play a part in "driving up" skills: serving the economy is now their raison d'etre.
Only the bravest university vice-chancellors and university councils with the best endowments try to implement broader, more humane visions. They receive scant support from government.
A recent case in point is the ending of public funding for adult students taking "equivalent or lower-level qualifications" - unless, of course, they enrol on specified (largely vocational) courses.
And now we have a recession, traditionally a time when enrolment in adult education grows as newly unemployed people use the opportunity to reinvent their lives, just as I did in the late 70's and early 80's when The History Boys was set. Only now it is so much more difficult. The erosion of a broad and accessible system of second chance education will really hit home.
We may hope that Denham's user group will take a broader and more humane view than their backgrounds suggest is likely. Perhaps, as the wealthy pocket their City bonuses and ordinary people pay the price, he will consider whether the rich and powerful really have all the best tunes.
Perhaps he will remember that a Labour Government should speak for the poor, the excluded, the weak - workers by hand and by brain - as well as Mandelson's messmates. Perhaps a vision of R. H. Tawney and other earlier educationists will come to him in a dream. Let us hope.
His piece is a lament too.
(Thanks to Mike)