Alan Bennett's play The History Boys is superbly entertaining but it has a serious core. The new teacher is recruited to show his history class how to cheat the examiner. In a painfully honest programme note, Bennett explains its relevance to his own academic success. He felt a fraud among scholars.
Bennett's experience resonated very much with my own. I had done well enough to get an award to do research without any more idea than he had about what I would do about it. I went to my supervisor and he gave me three possible subjects. The first was the writing of William Prynne, the 17th-century puritan. I don't remember the other two as I settled on the first, although I initially confused my man with Pym (leader of the opposition to Charles I). My doctorate on Prynne was followed by a book, a career and the entry on him in the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography .
I had the chance to compare the experiences of both Bennett and myself with the later generation of research applicants when I served on the panel of the British Academy for Postgraduate Awards. Students were now expected to provide a detailed study plan of their intended research in their final undergraduate year. They were to contact an intended supervisor and explain why that particular one was chosen. He or she was to explain, in turn, why that chosen student would profit from the resources provided by that institution. There were a finite number of awards and we had to discriminate between the firsts.
I don't think that many of us across the subject panels felt that the original classifications had been overgenerous. The subject had grown up: demands had been raised, not lowered. That is a subjective judgement but backed by an exhaustive comparative study of current practice. Were it possible to monitor As at A level across different subject areas in a similar way, I would be surprised if the results were markedly different.
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