THE HISTORY BOYS at Keswick’s wonderful Theatre By The Lake makes for a night for sore eyes. Showcasing some fabulous new talent making first professional appearances, the passionate yearning of a schoolmaster to “pass the parcel, pass it on boys” is a positively soul-prising encounter.
Alan Bennett asks through schoolmaster Hector, and through a class of boys rising to the joys and challenges of their own (Oxbridge?) springtime, “what is history and how should it be taught? What is the true purpose of education?”
It’s a question not dissimilar to that asked by Theodore Zeldin introducing his method and aim in An Intimate History of Humanity
The fact that the world has become fuller than ever of complexity of every kind may suggest at first that it is harder to find a way out of dilemmas, but in reality the more complexities, the more crevices there are through which we can crawl. I’m searching for the gaps people have not spotted, for the clues they may have missed.
I start with the present and work backwards, just as I start with the personal and move to the universal. Whenever I have come across an impasse in present-day ambitions, as revealed in the case studies of people I have met, I have sought a way out by placing them against the background of all human experience in all centuries, asking how they might have behaved if, instead of relying only on their own memories, they had been able to use those of the whole of humanity.
This comes very close to the question I’m constantly asking about the life and teaching of the Church: who, what, where, why, when? Is the (hugely complex and far from unified) “memory” of the Christian Church the only thing worth having in this world? Or will the future life of humankind – Church included – benefit immeasurably from a continued “testing”, a pushing out of boundaries? “The school gives them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it” says Hector.
By education most have been misled;
So they believe, because so they were bred.
The priest continues where the nurse began,
And thus the child imposes on the man –
mused John Dryden in The Hind and The Panther (1687)
“What if we were able to use the memory of the whole of humanity?” asks Zeldin. “Lift up your eyes” said Jesus. Remember, forgive, be prepared to lose your life – adapt and build upon all you’ve learned thus far – and thereby gain vast oceans of redeeming possibility. The more complexities, the more crevices there are through which we can crawl.