Sunday, November 18, 2007

Ah, Those “History Boys”

Yesterday afternoon we went to see the acclaimed pay "History Boys" at the Ahmanson Theatre. It was outstanding although I was not always clear on just where the play was headed.The entire cast was excellent and I must say that my knowledge of dialect is not sufficient for me to be critical as was the review in the Los Angeles Times about how this almost all American cast handled lines spoken in the idiom of northern England.

Technically, it was a beautiful show; outstanding set light and sound. But, as much as I enjoyed the performance, the more I think about the production, the less satisfied I am.

For me, the most significant aspect of this story set in northern England was some of the similarity to issues in present day American education. As a retired college professor, I have long been unsettled by the conflict between "teaching" and "teaching to the test." When I was in the classroom, I often said that I could not teach anybody anything. If I were a successful teacher it was to the degree that I could encourage students to want to learn; I saw the role of the teacher to be a catalyst who raised the questions that would lead students to go and find their own answers, sometimes related to facts and sometimes to their personal values. Hector (played wonderfully by Dakin Matthews) very much fit this model albeit in a somewhat eccentric and quirky way. In counterpoint was Irwin (Peter Paige) who was hired by the Headmaster (H. Richard Greene) specifically to prepare The History Boys to succeed at doing well on admission tests. In coaching them, he even suggested that lying in interviews was okay if it meant getting into the more prestigious universities.

It seemed that much of the raciness built into the script was there to provide titillating humor, to keep people laughing and not paying too match attention to the tension between teaching philosophies. Of all the cast members, I found myself most drawn to Dakin Matthews, as much for his portrayal of Hector, whose style and approach I admired, as for the fact that he is a Professor Emeritus from California State University, East Bay (formerly Hayward), one of the sister institutions to California State University, Dominguez Hills, where I received my emeritus designation when I retired.

Dakin Matthews

All in all, it was a pleasant afternoon at the theatre but I suspect it could have been more fulfilling than it was.


Josie Two Shoes said...

I so agree with you on teaching, Leon. Most teachers I know nowdays are (and have to be) focused on teaching to test because that is what their performance is being based on. Test scores, they don't tell us everything about learning, do they? If you teach a student to question and seek answers, a love of learning will follow... for a lifetime!

PipeTobacco said...


An excellent post about the role of a teacher. "Teaching to the test" at its best simply encourages students to memorize detail. At its worst, it encourages students to memorize detail.

Memorization is such a limited form of learning. It is essential in many disciplines, but there is so much more to thinking and examining life criticallly. In my own classes (biology, neuroscience) because the K-12 method of teaching science is focused so on memorization, that my students cry and grumble if I have them climb only 2-3 steps higher on Bloom's Taxonomy of thinking.

Thank you for your comments on my blog. I greatly appreciate your time and efforts.


Leon said...

Thank you Josie and Pipe. It's comments like yours that keep me writing what I hope is more than a personal journal. Occasionally, I do let my thoughts and values sneak in. ;-D