Through the analysis of where an education originates, The History Boys and An Education have two vastly contradictory viewpoints. The History Boys demonstrates both academic education and an education on life gained within school grounds. An Education, however, illustrates a young Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) as she gains her education far from her school environment – despite much attempted intervention.
In both The History Boys and An Education the teachers play an integral role in shaping the educational path for our protagonists. Hector (Richard Griffiths) bases his teachings on the principle of educating the boys in regard to life and not purely academic learning. When the viewers are first introduced to Hector, they are made aware of the high regard with which the boys view him. During the scene when the boys celebrate their final marks, they bow down to Hector as if they are not worthy. If the manner in which Hector teaches the boys is considered, it becomes evident that he understands the idea of literature perhaps having an impact on his students later in life – “all knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human purpose”.
He seems to be concerned with how the boys utilise their learning within everyday life; how they apply ideas and philosophies concealed in knowledge at a standard worthy of Oxford and Cambridge. Within Hector’s classroom, there are many literary references present on the walls – more than once the viewer’s eyes are drawn to a photograph of W H Auden – who can be considered similar to Hector in that both had homosexual inclinations. During the boys’ outing to an old monastery, Hector advises the boys on knowledge, and the transfer thereof, with the words, “pass it on”. In this, he is able to teach the boys a lesson more important than any taught in the classroom.
In An Education, Miss Stubbs as well as the Headmistress (Emma Thompson) allude to an education coming from within a school and being purely academically centred. The Headmistress reminds Jenny that neither herself nor Miss Stubbs would be where they are if it were not for their decent school and university education. Miss Stubbs admits to Jenny that she attended Cambridge – only to be offended by Jenny, who could no longer see the benefit of an academic education. Within Miss Stubbs’s classroom, we are able to see that the walls are fairly empty and her desk uncluttered. This stands in contrast with the Hector’s vibrant classroom.
In the opening scene of An Education the camera tracks the movement of the overlays into Miss Stubbs’s classroom and to a group of girls who look stricken with boredom and later on read with that same unenthusiastic demeanour. Continually throughout the movie, we are reminded of the popular 1960s belief that education meant almost everything if one was to attend a prestigious university and find a job that provided a salary, but that was not necessarily fulfilling.
The History Boys proves to the viewers that life lessons can be and are taught within school parameters. Although much of the focus is centred on the Ox-Bridge examinations, Hector and Irwin, specifically, are able to teach the boys life lessons over and above the syllabus. Hector teaches the boys the importance of knowledge, even if it has no obvious use. To Hector, language, literature and music are to be considered in high regard with the intent of creating a cultured being rather than one only able to regurgitate useless ‘gobbets’, as referred to by Irwin. The question, “how does History happen?” is asked more than once throughout the film’s duration.
As the film progresses, the answer emerges – history is merely one thing after another. When the boys are confronted with Hector’s death, they are able to realise how fleeting life is. Death calls for introspection and a deeper consideration of what it is in life that is truly important. Hector is able to teach the boys that education is indispensable in whichever form and from whichever source it comes, which, as well as the idea that one must pass knowledge along, is a most crucial aspect to the film.
In An Education, it is clear that Jenny receives her education outside of school parameters – despite the objections posed by Miss Stubbs and the Headmistress. Although Jenny is a dedicated student, who in the beginning tries to gain her education within school and from her teachers, she inevitably gains it from her relationship with David (Peter Sarsgaard). During the opening scene, the students dancing with books on their head appeals to the formal environment they attended school in. David was able to show Jenny the other side of this spectrum – he introduced her to art, music, wine and lavish restaurants. David travelled to Oxford and Paris with Jenny, where everything was tinted with a blue haze and made to seem flawless.
He provided her with a life where she could speak French and surround herself with art and culture; the life she had so longed for. However, when Jenny discovered that David was a married man, she was also able to learn that a lifestyle such as the one David and his friends led often hid many secrets. He was a dishonest man – and it taught Jenny that trust should not just be given, but rather earned. When she visits Miss Stubbs, her words, “I feel old, but not so wise” prove that when one is young, they can so easily be deceived by materialism and the idea of love – a lesson no school would be able to teach.
Both The History Boys and An Education demonstrate how education has no set definition. It can be defined as learning fact, or as learning about life. Both also prove to us that education does not have to come from an educational institute and its employees. Life can sometimes prove more educational than the classroom.