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Different Teaching Pedagogies in The History Boys and Hard Times

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“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”- Aristotle. In their works, Alan Bennett and Charles Dickens explore how a narrow purely rational education based upon facts or just passing exams is actually ‘no education at all’. Both writers celebrate the idea of kindling a flame of passion within education by balancing the use of imagination and factual ideas and therefore establishing that ‘All knowledge is good knowledge’.

Both texts raise concerns about the teaching pedagogies in the educational system of the time and question what knowledge should remain important. Bennett’s play provides a satirical attack upon Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s profound influence on education including the introduction of a national curriculum and league tables, which compared examination results across all schools. This led to a crisis in educational ideology and critic Jacobi explains how league tables that assess student performance is what drives the Headmaster to employ Irwin, where everything is reduced to ‘gobbets’ of relevant information. Furthermore, it can also be supported by Bennett’s character Hector who despises the idea of teaching as he ‘count[s] examinations, even for Oxford and Cambridge, as the enemy of education.’ He creates a direct attack on the results-driven attitude to education, and this can be seen through his irreverent and energetic teaching style. Hector’s pedagogy summarised by Timms explains that ‘Mr Hector’s stuff’s not meant for the exam/It’s to make us more rounded human beings’ – establishing the conflict between the different teaching styles that Bennett explores within ‘The History Boys’. Meanwhile, the Headmaster hates that Hector’s approach is ‘unpredictable and unquantifiable’ so employs Irwin specifically to give the boys the ‘polish’ they need to face their Oxbridge entrance exams.

‘Hard Times’ satirical approach criticises serious social, political and economic problems during the Industrial Revolution. Ideas that Dickens ridicules include Coketown as well as Mr Gradgrind’s educational principles and Josiah Bounderby – a man who is cloaked by a ridiculous persona. The juxtapositions of subjugated factory workers with joyful circus performers and oblivious upper classes confronts the issues of education. Through the use of anaphora, Dickens portrays Mr Gradgrind as ‘square’, both in appearance and character. His mechanised, monotone attitude and appearance not only evinces the Industrial Revolution – the time that Dickens wrote this novel – but also the treatment of people as machines that can be reduced to a number of scientific principles. Furthermore, his pedagogies entail teaching facts and ‘facts alone’ when it comes to education and even addresses Sissy Jupe as ‘girl number twenty’. This alludes that Mr Gradgrind gives no individuality to his students and sees them to have no personality and ultimately all the same. Dickens also uses long lists of complicated subjects like ‘Orthography, Etymology, Syntax and Prosody’ to further satirise the educational system and showing that it is ridiculous to teach young children such pedagogies.

Bennett’s character Irwin acts as a foil to Hector and believes education is about mastering exam techniques and in order to succeed the boys must ‘find a proposition, invert it, then look around for proofs.’ From a critics’ standpoint, Jacobi proposed that Irwin’s method is akin to rhetorical figures that Aristotle identified as the enthymeme, which comprises of devising the final premise, then collecting suitable evidence, and finally presenting the evidence and concluding premise to an audience. Throughout, the play, Irwin remains very much as a flat character despite the numerous periods in which we meet him. Bennett includes scenes involving seeing Irwin as a historian and then a politician, which in turn poses the audience to wonder why these detailed future moments are given so much precedence. During his time as a TV historian he repeats the line ‘If you want to learn about Stalin/ Mrs Thatcher/ Hollywood, study Henry VIII. Bennett includes this repetition to not only suggest that Irwin unlike Dakin and Rudge has been unable to escape the past but also the structural device undermines Irwin’s pedagogy. He has not progressed or grown as a character and therefore undermines his approach to education because it doesn’t lead to any personal growth. Furthermore, Hector dies towards the end of the play and potentially should not be taken as an allegory of truth but rather his death possibly suggesting that his approach to education is dying.

The character of Sissy Jupe becomes the representative of ‘fancy’ and the imagination and operates as a foil to Louisa. Sissy provides great imagination and is compassionate, whereas Louisa is nurtured by her father’s pedagogies that ‘proves scientifically as well as morally dubious’ due to his ‘false assumption about human nature’ and thus becomes a strictly rational individual who is unable to express her feelings. Within Chapter Two, Sissy is bearing the brunt of Mr Gradgrind’s full educational prowess. Under his pedagogy she is a complete failure and unable to ‘define’ a horse. She also claims that she would carpet her room with representations of flowers because she is ‘very fond of flowers’ because ‘they would be pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant.’ However, in response to this ‘fancy’, she is informed by teachers that she ‘mustn’t fancy/You are never to fancy’. In spite of this education, it is important to note that Sissy develops into a young woman who is able to maintain her own principles and beliefs, as opposed to Bitzer or Louisa, who become warped as a result of their education. Louisa is the product of her father’s upbringing and education and when she later returns to her father’s house, she recognises that ‘All that I know is, your [her father] philosophy and your teaching will not save me’ but yet as a direct product of her father’s pedagogies, she feels she has no power to supersede that influence. But with the help of Sissy, her heart and her humanity are gradually resuscitated.

Interestingly, Mrs Lintott is the only female teacher in Bennett’s play who offers a feminist critique of the educational system. Her pedagogy and role within the play is not really teacher but as she herself acknowledges is to be ‘confided in by all the parties’ and thus could be seen as a mere construct created by Bennett to draw storylines together. She also claims that ‘History is just women following behind with a bucket’ suggesting that women are often left to clean up the mistakes made by powerful men. Furthermore, she is also referred to as ‘Tot’ or ‘Totty’ by the boys: ‘totty’ being defined as “Girls or women collectively regarded as sexually desirable” which offers a critique of the educational system and its pedagogies from a feminist perspective. She is aware that there is no such thing as objective history or past, and instead subverts her own pedagogies by criticising history from the perspective of gender. Her teaching methods reveals social processes, about how those in power decide what will be remembered and what will be excluded and forgotten. Ultimately the educational system chronicles historical events with no empathy for those that were supressed or excluded.

While Dickens tone towards Gradgrind is initially mocking and ironic, Gradgrind too undergoes a significant change in the course of the novel, thereby earning the readers sympathy. When Louisa confesses that something important is missing in her life and is unhappy with her marriage, Gradgrind realises that his pedagogy may not be perfect. Furthermore, this is confirmed when he discovers that Tom has robbed Bounderby’s bank. Faced with these failures of his system, Gradgrind admits, ‘The ground on which I stand has ceased to be solid under my feet’. His children’s problems teach him that ‘his facts and figures’ are ‘subservient to Faith, Hope and Charity’ and ultimately allows him to feel love and sorrow as well as becoming a wiser and more humble man. Unlike Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby, Stephen Blackpool is not a rich member of Coketown society, but rather one of the ‘hands’ in Bounderby’s factory who strives to remain an honest and compassionate individual despite his poverty and relentless labour. Dickens possibly creates Stephen Blackpool as a character for the reader to sympathise with, and to serve as a wider function to reflect the dismal reality of industrialisation during the Industrial Revolution in Victorian Britain.

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Different Teaching Pedagogies In The History Boys And Hard Times. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from
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