In the war of ideas, join the mavericks' ranks

October 13, 2006

The History Boys.
Cinemas nationwide from Friday

After seeing Alan Bennett's play The History Boys , I argued about its themes for weeks. The subsequent film lacks the richness and depth of the theatrical production, but still inspires discussion. This is a response to one aspect of Bennett's intellectual provocation: how to be noticed.

In the 1980s, eight bright grammar school boys, with excellent A-level results, are "factually tip-top". Their eccentric English teacher, Hector, inspires them to recite poetry with passion. But their ambitious headmaster thinks this will not be enough to make them stand out in Oxbridge entrance exams, and drafts in a slick supply teacher, Irwin, to teach them a few tricks. His advice? "Flee the crowd... be perverse... dissent". Even if what you argue is not true.

As Bennett does, I despise game-playing contrarianism, with its facetious attitude to truth. However, dissenters like myself are often assumed to be such contrarians, indulging in an approach that the pupil Scripps astutely describes: "Find a proposition, invert it." Are today's dissenters merely "finding an angle" to seek attention?

Actually, in Britain 2006, it doesn't take factual inversion to gain the maverick label. Public life is drowning under so much stultifying conformism that it is easy to find oneself labelled a controversialist.

Even something as trivial as criticising a television chef's description of parents as "tossers" resulted in Boris Johnson being forced to recant and issue an apology to St Jamie.

If, in a fictional 1980s, being a controversialist was a recipe for glittering prizes, going against a growing number of political orthodoxies today is more an invitation for slurs and ridicule. For example, it has become fashionable to demonise anyone who argues against the scaremongering consensus on climate change as a "denier" or "flat earther". For those of us who espouse a humanist rather than an environmentalist approach, the cry goes up: "You can't possibly believe that - are you in the pay of big business or arguing just to stir up debate and get publicity?" In these conviction-lite times it seems incomprehensible that non-conformist views might be deeply felt. Irwin's glib and provisional attitude to truth is now assumed to be universal, and sincerity and principles mere postures.JJ Back in school, Irwin's exam tactics would do few favours for today's pupils because unorthodox answers - however dazzling - would fall foul of the prescriptive marking schemes that favour tick-box uniformity.

But this doesn't mean that objective truth has triumphed. Irwin's goal-oriented cynicism about knowledge, his disregard for accuracy, his instrumentalism and relativism are the received wisdoms that now dominate education. Today, you are condemned as an elitist crank if you take Hector's view of education as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. As The History Boys' director Nicholas Hytner remarks: "These days, an off-curriculum, off-piste teacher like Hector within the state school education is no longer conceivable."

Well, never say never. I, for one, will be fighting to bring more Hectors, and more Knowledge with a capital K, back into education. If that gets me labelled a maverick - again - so be it. Bennett has reinspired me to believe that it's a fight worth having. Let battle commence.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas, whose annual Battle of Ideas festival runs from October 28 to 29 at the Royal College of Art, London.

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