21 September 2007

The History Boys

It's raining pretty heavily in Bangkok today and I quite like it, even though it's a bit of an ordeal to get back home. The uni hosted a charity concert this evening and the whole hall was quite packed. There was a surprise appearance of two ex-Chaliang members who performed one of their old songs. It reminded me of the old days when the band presented themselves as an optimistic alternative to the rather jaded Thai music industry. That one-time wonder was actually something very extraordinary, especially when we bear in mind the present-day standards of musical production which is sadly trite, confirming what Adorno and Horkheimer define as 'the culture industry', in which 'real' originality and talents are as scarce as people who buy legal CDs or DVDs in Thailand.

Anyway, enough complaining. Last weekend we had a chance to watch The History Boys, an English film directed by Nicholas Hytner based on Alan Bennett's script. It's quite touching and somehow oozes a lot of Britishness. The whole cast is carefully devised with token representatives from all groups of people: the good-looking one, the poor one, the fat one, the sporty one, the Indian one, the Black one, the religious one, and the gay one. But these ones turn out to be male and clever only, as they are all set to be groomed to enter Oxbridge. I think Bennett is aware of sexism this may have caused, so he uses the mouthpiece of Ms Lintott to complain about history being a series of mistakes committed by men and women are clearly excluded from this history-making. I wouldn't say that using Ms Lintott to balance this sexist undertone is right but was wondering whether Bennett himself is perpetrating this patriarchal myth knowingly by choosing to present the HIStory about boys anyway.

Sexism aside, what I think is great about this film is the script -- you get a lot of things to ponder after the film finishes. One of the things that Hector says touches me: it goes like 'one of the most difficult tasks of the teacher is to make his/her students realise that s/he is also human and the good teacher will try to make them realise this'. (I'm not sure this is exactly what they say, but if my memory is not too much like a sift, it should be quite like this.) Hector tries to show his students that he's also human, subject to homosexual desire, and his students are fully aware of that but never uses this to discriminate him. Perhaps in this way he's a better teacher than those who don't practise what they preach but turn out to reinforce the evils of double standard that are prevalent in contemporary society. The reason why he's called Hector is perhaps linked to his bravery in doing what he believes is right, like Hector of Troy, who dares to fight against Achilles even though he knows fully well that he's going to lose. Yet to stand up for what one believes or why justifies one's existence is what distinguishes Hector from other Greek heroes.

The film revolves around the clash of the titans -- Hector and Irwin, each representing different ways of teaching and gaining knowledge. Hector symbolises a traditional (and ideally humanistic) way of teaching, believing that to teach is to inspire. Irwin, however, begs to differ, as, for him, to feel is not as good as to play -- education is nothing but a game that needs good planning and strategies to get you through big universities. For Hector, knowledge should not be quantified as it has the plain purpose of edification of the whole personality, to make one grow up as a 'complete' human, whereas quantification is very important for Irwin as the school (as represented by a larger-than-life schoolmaster that reminds me of Principal Skinner of The Simpsons) needs to set records and students winning scholarships will contribute to the increase in budgets allocated to the school. Perhaps Bennett is satirising the contemporary view on education, in which everything needs to be evaluated on quantitative terms, and those that cannot be quantified (which are definitely more important, like the improvement of morality, maturity, and responsibility) are sadly overlooked.

I think I could catch a nostalgic feeling for traditional education in this film. Nowadays it's very difficult to find someone who likes poetry so much they can recite a full poem. In fact, poetry itself is a subject abhorred by students as they rather get quick fix from reading something that yields instant pleasure and knowledge, such as self-help books that are in clear format and ultra-reader-friendly. One needs time to ponder on poetry and it seems we have so little time to dwell on it nowadays we just discard poetry all together. In its place is a new way of teaching -- to look for gaps, errors, and hidden prejudices related to class, gender, etc. I'm not saying that this is wrong, but it's worth contemplating whether this will end up making students pessimistic.

However, I don't think we can return to Hector's world but we should somehow combine the good bits of Hector and Irwin. Irwin privileges the 'celebral' side of knowledge at the expense of happiness -- he seems like a good strategist, but we all know that a strategist seems to be too busy in thinking to be happy. Perhaps what we learn from this film is to negotiate carefully between to think and to feel. I think the gist of the film is this: the students learn how to steer through their lives through the comparison of these two teachers, rather than from their actual teaching. By seeing how different the ways of life their two teachers are, they realise that life is complex and can be led in more than one way and it's hardly possible to say which one is right. This is perhaps the 'real' education they get from this school. Not just that. The surprise ending also confirms that the actual teaching in classroom is not as effective as what the students can gather for themselves in real life.

I think it's getting too complicated and I won't blame you readers if you find my writing hard to understand. It's well past midnight and I had a long day ...


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