The History Boys

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Themes and Colors
The Purpose of Education Theme Icon
History and Truth Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
Hope and Failure Theme Icon
Class and Gender Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The History Boys, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
History and Truth Theme Icon

The History Boys shows that history is ultimately random—both in terms of what happens, and in terms of what we choose to remember. Linked to this theme is the question of whether or not it is important to search for truth in the study of history. Irwin tells the boys that it is not important to be truthful in their arguments—as long as their arguments are unique and interesting. Scripps says at one point that in Irwin’s classes, truth is just “another point of view.” In his scene as a TV journalist, Irwin then demonstrates the random way that we remember history by showing that, when visiting an old abbey, people tend to be most interested in monks’ ancient toilet paper. Yet Irwin’s way of dismissing absolute historical truth sometimes leads to morally questionable results. This becomes most pointed in the boys’ discussion of the Holocaust, when Irwin suggests that the boys should put the event in context or proportion. Posner and Hector object to this, saying that such an argument diminishes the suffering and horror of the event in a way that is unacceptable.

At times, the characters step out to narrate in the midst of the action, and this effectively dramatizes the difference between the way events feel as they are happening in real time, and the way that we remember them historically. As the scenes unfold, they seem to have many possible meanings and interpretations. When a character steps out to narrate, they often add nuance to what we’re seeing, making us feel that we’ve come closer to the “truth” of the matter. But these narrative asides also break up the emotional trajectory of the scene. A story told after the fact cannot fully encompass the emotions and dynamics felt in the present.

In the end, the play most poignantly demonstrates the randomness of history and of life with the motorcycle accident. Different characters narrate this event after the fact, and we don’t see it occur onstage. Scripps notes that we don’t know the factual truth of the story, but that Irwin has taught him to never accept a neat narrative. The play ends with this idea that there is no single historical truth. Life is always more complex, both emotionally and factually, than the historical version of it can be.

History and Truth ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of History and Truth appears in each act of The History Boys. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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History and Truth Quotes in The History Boys

Below you will find the important quotes in The History Boys related to the theme of History and Truth.
Act 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Hector (speaker)
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hector, the beloved "General Studies" teacher for the boys, gives an account of his own education. As a young man, Hector was much like his students--he wanted to go to a famous, old-fashioned school like Oxford or Cambridge; a place that oozed respectability and prestige. But Hector looks back on his ambitions of attending Oxford or Cambridge with a sad amusement. He never managed to go to Oxford--instead, he attended, a newer, less prestigious school. Hector insists that his education at this "second-tier" university was good for him: it's actually more difficult to learn in a stuffy, old-fashioned environment like Oxford, where the "smell of cold stone" (a great symbol for the overall sense of prestige and pretentiousness there) distracts from education.

In short, Hector sees through the "rat race" of applying to Oxford and Cambridge, and tries to convince his students that there are more valuable things in life--not least, a real liberal arts education itself.


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There’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.

Related Characters: Irwin (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Irwin discusses the history of the First World War with his history students. Irwin asks his students for their interpretations of World War I, then becomes irritated when they offer an obvious, "vanilla" theory of history. Irwin tries to stir things up by suggesting that Britain was largely responsible for both world wars, and that the British war poets (such as Wilfred Owen) wrote poetry that seemed to criticize the war in order to soothe their country's guilty conscience.

Irwin's interpretation of World War I is cleverly counterintuitive--and it might not be true at all. As Irwin admits, university applications don't have anything to do with being true--the point is to be clever, counterintuitive, and generally surprising. In short, the passage shows Irwin teaching his students to sacrifice their commitment to truth in favor of "wow factor"--an apt description of the way the students leave behind their moral beliefs and their academic innocence in order to attend elite schools.

With respect, can I stop you? No, with a poem or any work of art we can never say ‘in other words.’ If it is a work of art there are no other words.

Related Characters: Timms (speaker), Irwin
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

Irwin proceeds to teach his history students about World War I by discussing the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, among others. Irwin goes over a poem, then tries to summarize it, beginning, "In other words." His student, Timms, cuts him off, claiming that summarizing poetry is meaningless--poetry has an intrinsic beauty that can never be paraphrased.

The clash between Irwin and TImms illustrates the basic difference between Irwin's model of education and Hector's (it's suggested that Timms is pretty much parroting Hector's ideas here). Irwin sees education as a means to an end: by the same token, information needs to be translated, interpreted, and "packaged" into a lesson or a "takeaway." Hector has taught his students, including Timms, to have more respect for history, art, and literature--the point isn't to reduce everything to a "lesson"; rather, it's to grasp the nuances and emotional truth of the book, poem, or historical event.

Truth is no more at issue in an examination than thirst at a wine-tasting or fashion at a strip-tease.

Related Characters: Irwin (speaker)
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Irwin further complicates the relationship between truth and success in the university application process. He's lecturing his students about the history of World War I, and tries to press the point that it's more important to wow the Oxford admissions panel than it is to be "correct." A creative, sexily counterintuitive argument in a history essay is far more attractive than a safe, predictable, well-written essay.

Irwin is a skilled rhetorician and a smooth arguer. Here, he makes it seem as if the desire for truth is somehow boring or primitive; a mere distraction from what "really counts" (in this case, getting accepted to Oxbridge). His use of a "strip-tease" as an example also furthers his own argument--using a risque subject to make his point seem more appealing and interesting (and to make himself seem "cooler" and more relatable to his students). Irwin's students at school have been taught to use art and literature to explore timeless truth--now, however, Irwin is telling them to ignore truth altogether.

TIMMS: Sir, I don’t always understand poetry.
HECTOR: You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever.
TIMMS: I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.
HECTOR: But it will, Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you’re dying. We’re making your deathbeds here, boys.

Related Characters: Hector (speaker), Timms (speaker)
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Hector's view of education is again at loggerheads with the realities of the scholastic world. Hector teaches his students that it's more important to embrace and memorize poetry in the present, so that somewhere down the line, it will give his students spiritual and intellectual nourishment when they need it more. Hector refuses to think in terms of university applications or materialistic success. He's just the opposite of Irwin, who speaks of using poetry to "add flavor" to one's admissions essay. Hector would never think of "using" poetry for such a narrow, practical purpose--poetry, he believes is something nobler and more powerful than that, useful for things like accepting one's mortality or finding meaning in grief and suffering. In his own way, Hector and Irwin agree that poetry is "useful"--but where Irwin thinks of poetry's use in practical terms, Hector argues that poetry has a spiritual or emotional use.

History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entertainment. And if it isn’t, make it so.

Related Characters: Irwin (speaker)
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

In his classroom, Irwin continues to stress that learning about history has little, if anything, to do with the truth. History, by contrast, is all about performing and entertaining. What does Irwin mean?

In one sense, Irwin's statement could be interpreted in a strictly academic light. When Irwin says, "history nowadays," he means the subject as it's taught in schools: in order to wow Cambridge, in other words, history essays should be dazzling, counterintuitive, and generally "sexy," regardless of whether they're right or not. In a broader sense, though, Irwin's words could be interpreted as a commentary on the very nature of history itself. As the saying goes, history is written by the victors--human memory is unreliable, people exaggerate or bias facts, and important documents and artifacts are defaced or lost. Thus the very idea of being sure of history as perfectly "true" is unrealistic, and perhaps it's better to embrace Irwin's cynical view that history is, and always has been, a kind of fiction.

HECTOR: Codes, spells, runes — call them what you like, but do not call them gobbets.
IRWIN: I just thought it would be useful…
HECTOR: Oh, it would be useful…every answer a Christmas tree hung with the appropriate gobbets. Except that they’re learned by heart. And that is where they belong and like the other components of the heart not to be defiled by being trotted out to order.
IRWIN: So what are they meant to be storing them up for, these boys? Education isn’t something for when they’re old and grey and sitting by the fire. It’s for now. The exam is next month.
HECTOR: And what happens after the exam? Life goes on. Gobbets!

Related Characters: Hector (speaker), Irwin (speaker)
Page Number: 48-49
Explanation and Analysis:

Irwin has just praised Hector for giving his students vast quantities of "gobbets" of information. Hector immediately takes offense at Irwin's use of such a word, instead suggesting that the information Hector has passed to his students is a kind of magical secret--"codes, spells, runes."

A "gobbet," it's important to know, is a lump or morsel of food--Irwin metaphorically implies that Hector is "nourishing" his children with culture during his General Studies lessons. And yet Hector is irritated with Irwin's use of the word. Art and culture, he insists, aren't just objects to be gobbled up and digested by his students--rather, culture must be stored over time, so that years from now, the students will be able to turn to poetry and music for their spiritual satisfaction.

The differences between Irwin and Hector couldn't be plainer. Irwin thinks in short-term, highly practical terms: he wants his students to pass their exams this year. Hector, by contrast, seems to respect his students on a deeper level--he wants them to be happy in life, not just successful with their university applications. And yet he also doesn't accept that for many of them, life really could be better if they got into an elite college.

The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.

Related Characters: Hector (speaker), Posner
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

At the finale of Act I, Hector puts into action his theory that education is an erotic act. He discusses poetry with his student, Posner. As the conversation goes on, Hector makes a complicated analogy that shows his deep knowledge of the experience of reading. He argues that reading is most pleasurable when the reader feels an intense spiritual connection with the author--when the reader realizes that the author feels the same subtle, nuanced emotion that he (the reader) has secretly felt before.

It's important to note that Hector's description of reading is also sensual and even romantic--to read a great book, he suggests, is to love its author (the metaphor of the "hand" is particularly revealing). Hector seems to be on the verge of touching Posner with his own hand (though nothing happens). In all, the scene is tragic in that it shows Hector to be a sincere yet deeply frustrated man--someone who genuinely respects the spiritual aspect of education and yet also abuses his power to satisfy his own closeted sexual needs.

Act 2 Quotes

It is a sad fact that whatever the sublimity and splendour of the ruins of our great abbeys to the droves of often apathetic visitors the monastic life only comes alive when contemplating its toilet arrangements.

Related Characters: Irwin (speaker)
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

In this "flash forward," we learn that Irwin, years after teaching the students in Sheffield, finds work as a TV educator: he guides viewers through the medieval abbeys of England, sensationalizing their history. Irwin has a natural intuition for the aspects of history that prove most entertaining and amusing--for instance, when touring the abbeys, he focuses on the buildings' bizarre toilet facilities.

Irwin's approach to touring the abbeys is an apt metaphor for the way he views culture in general. He's more concerned with providing a novel or counterintuitive interpretation of a familiar cultural artifact than he is in building genuine respect or interest in the object. Thus, he's more interested in a witty essay on World War I than he is in the facts of the war; more interested in interpreting Kipling than he is in the beauty of Kipling's poetry; more interested in the abbey's toilets than the abbey in all its medieval majesty. (Or if he's not necessarily more interested in these things, he at least realizes that others are, and so gives them what they want.)

What has truth got to do with it? I thought that we’d already decided that for the purposes of this examination truth is, if not an irrelevant, then so relative as just to amount to another point of view.

Related Characters: Scripps (speaker), Irwin
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Irwin talks about the Holocaust with his students, and finds himself questioning his own relativist view of history and truth. Irwin is a little surprised to find his students arguing--cleverly and counterintuitively, just as he's taught them--that the Holocaust must be analyzed within the framework of German foreign policy; in other words, that the evil of the Holocaust was not by any means absolute.

When Irwin tries to correct his students' view of the Holocaust, his pupil Scripps interrupts him and spitefully throws Irwin's words back in his face. Irwin's sexy, counterintuitive view of history and truth, we begin to see, has its limits--there appear to be some historical events, and some truths, that are beyond relativism and counterintuitive thinking. The Holocaust really was as horrific and evil as it's generally regarded to be--no amount of augmentative pyrotechnics can change that fact. Irwin's ideas about essay-writing and history have their limits, and can even be callous and cruel when they hit home to someone's personal experience.

How do I define history? It’s just one fucking thing after another.

Related Characters: Rudge (speaker)
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, a student named Rudge has been called before his teachers, including Irwin and Mrs. Lintott, to go through a mock admissions interview. Rudge is asked how he defines history--in response he characterizes it as "one fucking thing after another."

The irony of the scene is that Rudge's answer, while blunt and inappropriate for an Oxford admissions interview, is rather accurate. Bennett seems to think of history as a collection of random, meaningless, and basically unpredictable facts, which have to be twisted and distorted into an essay or a "story." In another sense, the passage suggests the way Bennett sees success and performance. Just as a clever historian (like Irwin) knows how to twist the meaningless of the universe into an entertaining story, an ambitious young student knows how to add polish and smoothness to his character, guaranteeing his admission to Oxford and his success in life. Rudge's response in the passage is refreshing precisely because he doesn't play along with the "game" of university admissions--he calls it like he sees it.