Monday, November 17, 2008

Education matters

The other night I watched the DVD of The History Boys, Alan Bennett's drama set in a Yorkshire boys' grammar school of the 1980's about a group of pupils aiming for entry into Oxford University to read history. The piece captures the petty snobberies of English education beautifully. The uncultivated headmaster, greedy for Oxbridge status, was sniggered at because he went to Hull! And there is the obvious attraction for me of a film in which one of the main characters is a fat, ageing teacher whose methods include "sheer, calculated silliness".

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.

Holford concludes,

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)


Anonymous said...

Peter, did you ever share a macaroon with Alan Bennett and Thora Hird?
A head master who went to Hull? There's a way you can tell if you are dealing with the snob tendency in education. If they pronounce head master with a peculiar nasal intonation on the "a" that makes it sound like headmaaaaster (this doesn't work too well on t'internet) you know you are in trouble.

Anonymous said...

"The heart of the plot is a confrontation of two traditional models of education ..."

You're kidding. The heart of the plot is the casual homosexuality of the teacher, and its acceptance among the boys. The ending is also important -- when the straight boy kisses the gay boy without much thought.

If you watched it on DVD, you can hear Bennett's commentary.

Brigada Flores Magon said...

I don't agree that the HEART of the plot is the 'casual homosexuality' of one teacher. That's a part of it but it's certainly not what the play hinges on. Surely we are looking here at widely different approaches to teaching, including that of the Frances de la Tour character and I wish that the author had given more consideration to the role of the woman teacher in the boys' school, and the ghastly influence of the old Oxbridge entrance system on 'aspiring' schools, mostly not in the 'independent' sector which could then, 25 or more years ago, afford to run a 'seventh term' class. What struck me as an ex-teacher is not the 'casual homosexuality' but the exposure of the atrocious class bias in our education system, something I have seen at first hand.

The Plump said...

There are several themes including homosexuality and death (which is why the macaroon with Thora Hird joke was always funny but never accurate). There is a depiction of the class bias ("you can't polish a turd") and sexism that was inherent in the system too and persists today. And did you notice that the woman whilst a victim of gender stereotyping was guilty of class stereotyping?

I was drawn to the theme of success through dishonesty about history - saying something nice about Hitler - because I am an historian.

AND the heart of this post was not Alan Bennett but the splendid piece I linked to that points out that a government advisory committee is being set up whilst excluding anyone who might know what they are bloody talking about.

BTY it was a rented DVD and has gone back, so no commentary for me.

DorsetDipper said...

New Labour seem to regard "Culture" as something you pay for after you've spenf money stoking the furnaces of the economy.

But a nation's economy is a reflection of its culture. Britain's strong culture of individualism, thought and creativity makes it a magnet for international companies looking to develop new products, new designs, and find new ideas.

Fail to feed the culture, and we won't have a decent economy.


I was at a Yorkshire comprehensive at the time The History Boys is set. I got to Cambridge through A levels and taking a year out. I'm sure Alan Bennett's done a great job of portraying grammar school education, but somehow I can't bring myself to watch it. Silly and chippy I know, but that's how it is.