“Believe also in me: forget Oxford and Cambridge”

by Nick

For the third year running, I’m lending a hand to a teacher friend to help his sixth-form with mock Oxbridge interviews. As before, I’ll be doing subject interviews for humanities subjects – history, English, law, politics – and personal interviews for everything else.

If you are an Alan Bennett fan, you’ll know that there are two extremes of approach when it comes to attending an Oxbridge interview. You can be Mr Irwin, or you can be Mr Hector.

For those of you who haven’t seen or read Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, let me explain quickly. Mr Hector is a teacher at the end of his career, who believes in the value of art, and the value of truth. His quest is to prepare the upper sixth for life, not Oxbridge interviews.

Dakin: You should treat us with more respect. We’re scholarship candidates now. We’re all going in for Oxford and Cambridge.

There is a silence and Hector sits down at his table, seemingly stunned.

Hector: ‘Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire’. I thought all that silliness was finished with. I thought that after last year we were settling for the less lustrous institutions… Derby, Leicester, Nottingham. Even my own dear Sheffield. Scripps. You believe in God. Believe also in me: forget Oxford and Cambridge.

Why do you want to go there?

Lockwood: Old, sir. Tried and tested.

Hector: No, it’s because other boys want to go there. It’s the hot ticket, standing room only. So I’ll thank you (hitting him) if nobody mentions Oxford (hit) or Cambridge (hit) in my lessons. There is a world elsewhere.

Mr Irwin is a twenty-something supply teacher brought in by the headmaster, with a different way of getting an offer of a place to Hector’s pursuit after truth:

Irwin: Of course, there is another way.

Crowther: How?

Timms: Cheat?

Irwin: Possibly.

The bell rings and he is going out.

Irwin’s technique is to be combative, and hence interesting. Here’s an example, Irwin on the causes of the First World War:

Irwin: Germany does not want war and if there is an arms race it is Britain who is leading it… these are facts. Why do we not care to acknowledge them? All this mourning has veiled the truth. Its not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember. Because you should realize that so far as the Cenotaph and the Last Post and all that stuff is concerned, theres no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.

In the past two years I have seen both techniques used by those I’ve interviewed – sometimes to great effect, sometimes with less effect. You can get a sense of which way they’re going to go when you read each candidate’s UCAS statement. Sometimes the page is crackling with enthusiasm and a love for their subject. With these ones, the chances are that the interview will go into quite a deep discussion on a small number of subjects. With others, the names of certain historians they drop, or their take on a particular issue, is a signpost is that they are likely to have some combative arguments up their sleeve. With these, the pace of the interview is normally very different – much faster, skating over lots of issues, because if you try to probe a subject in any depth, the discussion reaches a stalemate point fairly quickly.

But what’s easy to forget is that as an interviewer, too, you have a choice about whether to play the role of Irwin or Hector. And you can match either role against either type of candidate. On encountering a Hector, you can be sympathetic and engage in a discussion on the same terms; or you can be Irvin and try to overturn every argument the candidate puts forward just for the sake of it. Because I am under instructions to stretch the candidates – this is a roleplay, not the real thing, so I can choose my role accordingly – I often have to think quite carefully about which role I adopt. Let’s say I’m interviewing a candidate who is obviously sparky, intelligent, and contrarian – their essays and their personal statement have a strong hint of trying to turn the world upside down. Do I try to fight fire with fire – trying to overturn what they think with a thinly but forcefully argued, deliberately opposite point of view? Or do I try to change the focus of the interview onto why they want to do history? The latter technique has floored a couple of past interviewees.

It’s quite fun making a decision on which to choose. But actually the bit I enjoy most is when I slip out of character and get to give them some feedback. What’s also great is that I get to spend a Saturday talking and arguing history with people who are fully engaged in their subject – before I started the MA I had really missed it, but even now it’s nice to bolster the debates I already have in my weekly seminars!

Hector and Irwin are ideal-type characters, of course. They work when confined to the stage but are not simply thinly-veiled or fictionalised versions of real people. But as stereotypes they work because they are familiar – and this familiarity isn’t just confined to the teaching profession. You can play these two roles as a historian too. Alan Bennett is absolutely right to identify a number of Irwin-types amongst the current generation of media dons. Niall Ferguson is the most obvious example – R.W. Johnson’s review of Ferguson’s first properly polemical work, The Pity of War, says it much better than I can:

Both The Pity of War and the reception it has enjoyed illustrate aspects of British culture about which one can only feel ambivalent. Anyone who has been a victim let alone a perpetrator, of the Oxbridge system will recognise Niall Ferguson’s book for what it is: an extended and argumentative tutorial from a self-consciously clever, confrontational young don, determined to stand everything on its head and argue with vehemence against what he sees as the conventional wisdom – or worse still, the fashion – of the time.

Bennett is rather critical of Irvin – confessing in the preface to the play that he himself adopted Irvin’s techniques at both his Oxford entrance exam and in his finals, and that although it won him a first it wasn’t “real scholarship”. But in a milder form, there is an element of Irvin-ism amongst many historians, and it’s an element that has benefited the discipline. Revisionism hasn’t always been driven by the discovery of new sources. Much more often, it’s been driven by looking askew at existing sources; by being willing to overturn the accepted way of looking at things. Sometimes it’s more successful than others; but without the Mr Irwins of the world, we lose a lot of the dialectical process that improves our understanding of the past. But I do side with Bennett in his criticism of Irwin’s wider intellectual approach to history, which is exciting but ultimately unrewarding. The line in the play that resonates most with me comes when Hector discusses the point of it all with a colleague:

Mrs. Lintott: Didn’t you try for Cambridge?

Hector: Oxford. I was brought up in the West Riding. I wanted somewhere new. That is to say old. So long as it was old I didn’t mind where I went.

Mrs. Lintott: Durham was good in that respect.

Hector: Sheffield wasn’t. Cloisters, ancient libraries … I was confusing learning with the smell of cold stone. If I had gone to Oxford I’d probably never have worked out the difference.

Working out the difference is something I only did after I graduated. On the same theme is this exchange between Irwin and his class:

Irwin: So. Our overall conclusion is that the origins of the Second War lie in the unsatisfactory outcome of the First.

Timms (doubtfully): Yes. (with more certainty) Yes.

Others nod.

Irwin: First Class. Bristol welcomes you with open arms. Manchester longs to have you. You can walk into Leeds. But I am a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and I have just read seventy pages all saying the same thing and I am asleep…

Scripps: But it’s all true.

Irwin: What has that got to do with it? What has that got to do with anything?

For interview tactics, perhaps, it doesn’t matter… the structure of the Oxbridge interview rewards those who take Irwin’s route. But for the study of history it matters rather a lot. And that, ultimately, is what will determine the difference between the Irwins and Hectors I interview in a few weeks’ time: the ones who end up thoroughly imbued with a passion for their subject matters, and the ones who are just as if not more clever, but for whom Oxbridge is just another staging post on the route into adult life.