I recently saw the film The History Boys after having read about it in several magazines and hearing about it word of mouth. I was fascinated by the film for a variety of reasons, namely because it was set in the realm of education and dealt extensively with notions of the erotic and sexuality. As someone interested in queer theory in education, I found moments in the film where the issues queer theory brings to the forefront in education discourse. Such occurences in educational films seem rare when thinking about other school related films such as Dangerous Minds, The Freedom Writers, To Sir With Love, and many more. These films often deal with issues of “disadvantaged” students and the hero/heroine teacher who transforms their lives - with the audience leaving feeling that the education system is saved and not in shambles…with “no child left behind.”
Yet, The History Boys while ending with the students being accepted to university, leaves the viewer unsettled - unsettled because the queer teachers are still teachers, a threat to the innocence of the male students. Yet, from the perspective of the characters, all is well, as they move onto university and beyond, they are not scarred for life or full of regrets about their experiences in school.
There are several issues during the film that are interesting to examine though, the end itself being one of them. First, when being recommended to “retire early” after Hector’s actions are reported by a traffic guard, Hector states “the transmission of knowledge is itself an erotic art.” Such a statement illustrates the erotic nature of education - the transmission of knowledge through intimate relations, a dance of some sorts. In terms of psychoanalytics, education or the desire to learn emerges from the precocious desires of infancy…as infants we desire confort, love, not knowing the societal rules and regulations…propelling us to desire to learn and find the comfort, the pleasures. Second, Hector never apologizes for his actions. He will not accept the ”shame” that others would place on his actions, for his actions are neither detrimental to him nor his students. Yes, in a world where the psychiatric clinic decides the norms, we might label instances in this film as pedophila (from a US perspective - more on this later), but such notions seek to maintain a system of norms that posits an essential, knowable, natural sexuality…as opposed to an unknowable one that is focused on pleasures and not identity. Hector, as an example, illustrates for the viewer with close examination the problems with the current discourse on sexuality that operates on rigid notions of normality, a binary gender system that negates the notions of pleasures and propels heteronormative and heterosocial relationships. Further more, it is not just sexuality discourse, but educational discourse that operates on the system of norms as the headmasters states “this is a school and it (Hector’s actions) is not normal.” Inevitably seeking to separate the sexual from the educational, the private from the public. Third, the relationships portrayed are in the end consensual and not pedophilic since the film is set in Britain where age of consent is 16, as opposed to 18 in the US. The “boys” are not forced into these genital gropes as Hector simply asks “Who goes home today”…potentially leaving alone if no one “goes home today.” Yes, the boys see Hector as a joke and laugh about his “genital gropes” but are both parties receiving some form of pleasure…should it be less about societal norms and about the local, contextualized situation? Is Hector really perverse or as viewers of film do we have to as Foucault asserts, ask ourselves what it means to understand ourselves (and others) through a form of knowledge (sexuality) that did not exist until the 18th century? Is The History Boys difficult to watch because it upsets the norms of sexuality in education, it illustrates the erotic nature of education, it focuses on pleasure as opposed to identity? It threatens our notions of childhood as a de-sexualized site and perhaps even questions the notion of futurity that is proferred in current discourse in terms of the “child” (i.e. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive: by Lee Edelman).