The History Boys

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The Purpose of Education Theme Analysis

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The Purpose of Education Theme Icon
History and Truth Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The History Boys, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Purpose of Education Theme Icon

One of the play’s major questions is about the general purpose of knowledge and education. Are they meant to be practically useful, to help students pass examinations and be quantifiably successful? Or are they meant to inspire personal growth and wisdom, and to help students through painful experiences? On the furthest end of this question is the grammar school’s Headmaster, who sees education in utilitarian terms. He wants his students to attend prestigious universities, notably Oxford and Cambridge, in order to raise the profile of the school that he runs and thus increase its wealth and prestige. The Headmaster brings in Irwin, a young, recent university graduate, to give the students more “polish” as they prepare to compete for spots at Oxford and Cambridge. Irwin then teaches the boys to take unconventional positions on historical questions—even if they don’t believe in the truth of their argument. Irwin thinks that this will make them more competitive candidates for universities. As Rudge puts it, Irwin encourages them to say that “Stalin was a sweetie,” because this argument will set them apart. The play ultimately shows that Irwin’s version of “thinking for yourself” is shallow. Recognizing the conventional argument and then arguing the opposite side doesn’t ultimately involve much original thought. It’s a way of appearing smart or funny, but not of truly grappling with a text or a historical event. Irwin doesn’t make a career in academia—he moves on to journalism, entertainment, and politics.

On the other side of these issues is Hector, a teacher who represents the “old guard” of British education. Hector sees knowledge as a way to aid personal growth and help soothe emotional pain. Hector teaches the boys to memorize texts by heart, as he wants them to save the lessons of poetry and literature for life’s inevitable hardships. Hector continually reminds the boys that Oxford and Cambridge will not necessarily make them happy—after you achieve a certain marker of success, life still continues on.

With the motorcycle accident that leaves Irwin crippled and Hector dead, the play ultimately comes down on the side that knowledge and education are most important as ways to deal with life’s cruel randomness. Despite this, Mrs. Lintott observes that some of Hector’s students go on to lead unfulfilled lives, guided by a misplaced sense that art can save them. Posner, the character who most fully adopts Hector’s stance, ends up lonely, and with much less material success than his classmates. Hector’s final words at the end of the play, words that come from beyond the grave, are that the boys should “pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it and pass it on.” He knows that the game of success is small and inadequate in the face of our ultimate mortality. The point is to use literature and history as ways to more fully savor life. Like Hector’s lessons, the play aims to leave the audience with more tools to answer their own questions about the purpose of life.

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The Purpose of Education ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The History Boys related to the theme of The Purpose of Education.
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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Hate them because these boys and girls against whom you are to compete have been groomed like thoroughbreds for this one particular race.

Related Characters: Irwin (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

In this interesting passage, Irwin--a history teacher who claims to come from Oxford--gives his students some advice for applying to Oxford and Cambridge. Irwin, recognizing that his students are working or middle class, tells them to despise the upper-class students with whom they're competing for acceptance to elite universities. Upper-class students have a huge advantage in applying to good schools: not only do they have the money to attend; they've attended elite preparatory schools like Eton that prepare them for study at university.

Irwin's comments characterize all of English society as a frantic race for success and respectability. The race is organized along class-lines: poor people are fighting with rich people (who have a huge advantage) for the same things. Education is an enormous part of success in England--in a way that has no true counterpart in the U.S. Thus, Irwin's intense, cold-hearted way of looking at university admission could potentially be justified by the vast importance of where one went to school in English culture.

You give them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it.

Related Characters: Hector (speaker), Mrs. Lintott
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hector the schoolmaster makes a clear distinction between learning and education. "Education," as most of the schoolteachers think of it, is a means to an end--a way for the working-class students of Sheffield to wise up, go to Oxford or Cambridge, and eventually have a successful life. Hector finds such a worldview incredibly naive--going to a good university won't make his students happy, even if their headmaster and other teachers insist that it will. Hector sees his duty to his students in almost Romantic terms: his job is to teach young men how to use poetry, music, and culture to find spiritual satisfaction. In other words, Hector idealizes his role as an educator, hoping that his students will learn to use culture to resist the rat-race of competition and materialistic success.

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.

One of the hardest things for boys to learn is that a teacher is human. One of the hardest things for a teacher to learn is not to try and tell them.

Related Characters: Mrs. Lintott (speaker)
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

In this touching scene, Irwin reports to Mrs. Lintott that Posner has come to him, worried that he might be gay. Irwin confesses that he wasn't sure what to tell his student--he was even tempted to admit that he's "in the same boat." Irwin doesn't explain to Mrs. Lintott exactly what he means by "the same boat" (Irwin is also gay? He's also lonely? He's also used to falling in love with people who don't love him back?).

The passage is important because it shows Irwin--previously, a cocky, intimidatingly smooth, figure--is actually sad, lonely man; hardly the "image of success" that an Oxbridge graduate should be. Irwin's loneliness is especially poignant because he was hired to inspire the boys to successfully apply to Oxford and Cambridge--and yet Irwin's entire life is proof that going to a great school doesn't buy happiness. Mrs. Lintott illustrates Irwin's problem by noting that teachers always face the temptation to confess their humanity to their own students. The true burden of a good teacher, it's suggested, is to remain professional, confident, and generally authoritative, in order to inspire one's students--even if it's easier to be imperfectly human with them.

DAKIN: The more you read, though, the more you see that literature is actually about losers.
DAKIN: It’s consolation. All literature is consolation.

Related Characters: Dakin (speaker), Scripps (speaker)
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, two students, Dakin and Scripps, give their interpretations of the arts, suggesting the diverging paths their intellectual development has taken. Dakin sees literature as a kind of medicine, designed to make people feel better when they're sad or lonely. Scrips seems to think of the arts as more universal and nuanced.

Dakin and Scripps's diverging interpretations of the arts says a lot about their personalities. Dakin is popular and charismatic--by suggesting that literature is about losers, he suggests that he himself doesn't need literature as much as the other "history boys"; he's so popular and well-liked that Eliot and Yeats don't apply to him. Scripps, a more lonely, introspective boy, thinks of art as something that helps everyone--whether you're charismatic or not, art can make your life better.

I count examinations, even for Oxford and Cambridge, as the enemy of education. Which is not to say that I don’t regard education as the enemy of education, too.

Related Characters: Hector (speaker)
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Irwin clashes with Hector over the true meaning of education. Irwin is trying to convince Hector to allow his students to use their vast knowledge of poetry, film, and art to write better admissions essays for Oxford and Cambridge. Hector then distinguishes between true education and the kinds of shallow essays that (presumably) guarantee acceptance to Oxford and Cambridge. Hector doesn't see any value in using poetry for material, literal success--poetry should exist on a purely spiritual level, providing comfort and solace for students.

Although Hector makes a persuasive argument for keeping admissions essays and art separate, his words are tinged with sadness. He suggests that education may itself be the enemy of education. One possible interpretation of these lines is that any kind of "teaching" is by nature enforcing conformity and stifling creativity. Another is that Hector questions whether his own love for poetry has made him any happier after all. Hector loves to teach his students to use the arts to improve their own lives, and yet Hector himself seems lonely and isolated, in spite of his vast knowledge of culture. Education is his enemy, not his friend--it's merely reminded him of his own sadness.

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.

HECTOR: The transmission of knowledge is in itself an erotic act. In the Renaissance…
HEADMASTER: Fuck the Renaissance. And fuck literature and Plato and Michaelangelo and Oscar Wilde and all the other shrunken violets you people line up. This is a school and it isn’t normal.

Related Characters: Hector (speaker), Headmaster (speaker)
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the Headmaster of the school speaks to Hector about his alleged sexual misconduct with his students. The Headmaster has learned that Hector rides on a motorcycle with his students, and sometimes gropes them. Furthermore, he now also believes that Hector molests his students during his classes--hence the locked door.

Hector begins to justify his sexual behavior to the Headmaster by citing the supposed proximity between education and eroticism. But the Headmaster will have no part of it: he dismisses Hector along with the long tradition of homoerotic intellectual figures (including Plato, who in his dialogue the Symposium claimed that true enlightenment is only possible with homosexual sex), claiming that Hector's attachment to his students isn't "normal."

Who's right here? It's possible to sympathize with Hector even as we recognize that he's abused his power and molested minors. Hector, presumably a closeted homosexual, has no outlets for his sexual desires--thus, he satisfies his urges by groping his students on the motorcycle. Hector genuinely cares about his children, yet he also uses them for his own pleasure. (There's a long tradition of gay English schoolteachers, including Auden and Ruskin.) At the same time, the boys are still boys, and so they can't really consent to this, even if they seem to go along with it, and the molestation could (and will) affect them for the rest of their lives. Hector's behavior is thus both extremely immoral and deeply sympathetic.

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.)

Shall I tell you what is wrong with Hector as a teacher? It isn’t that he doesn’t produce results. He does. But they are unpredictable and unquantifiable and in the current educational climate that is no use.

Related Characters: Headmaster (speaker), Hector, Mrs. Lintott
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

In this surprising scene, the Headmaster reveals that his "problem" with Hector doesn't really have anything to do with Hector's acts of molestation--supposedly, the reason the Headmaster wanted Hector to resign. On the contrary, the Headmaster has long been unsatisfied with Hector's approach to education. Hector educates his students in poetry and art, but doesn't prepare them to succeed in tests or university applications. In the current education environment--where everything is about numbers and concrete results--there's no place for an old-fashioned liberal arts teacher like Hector. He's got to go; and the Headmaster is happy that he had a specific reason (the molestations) to ask Hector to resign. The Headmaster, one could say, is a barometer for the educational environment in England at the time--he understands that the times are changing, and students need to be better-prepared for tests, even if they have to sacrifice some of their love for the arts in the process.

What’s all this learning by heart for, except as some sort of insurance against the boys’ ultimate failure?

Related Characters: Mrs. Lintott (speaker), Hector
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mrs. Lintott reveals that she doesn't really admire Hector's approach to education any more than she admires Irwin's. Hector teaches his students to embrace art and poetry as "medicines" against suffering and loneliness. In doing so, Hector confirms his own loneliness and suffering--he's spent his entire adult life feeling lonely and sorry for himself, so it's only natural that he should pass on his pessimistic philosophy of poetry to his students.

Another way of interpreting Hector's educational philosophy is that Hector teaches his students how to accept and make light of their sadness, but doesn't actually teach them how to escape sadness. Irwin thinks that education is a tool with which students can "rise" in life, while Hector thinks it's a way for students to accept their fate (assuming that they never rise at all). Neither view of education is entirely satisfactory, Bennet suggests--the truth, as with everything in life, lies somewhere in the middle.

I didn’t teach you and Wittgenstein didn’t screw it out of his very guts in order for you to turn it into a dinky formula.

Related Characters: Hector (speaker), Dakin
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Hector has a moving conversation with his student, Dakin. In the past, Hector taught his students a famous quote from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (like Hector, a lonely schoolteacher, probably homosexual): "whereof we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence." Dakin repeats the Wittgenstein quote here, and tells Hector that he'll use it on his university admissions exams. Hector is furious that Dakin is using Hector's lessons for such practical, materialistic aims. Hector accuses Dakin of reducing the complexity and majesty of Wittgenstein to a mere sound-bite--in applying to university, Dakin has lost all respect for philosophy.

In short, the passage shows that Dakin is beginning to gravitate toward Irwin's philosophy of education--the philosophy that sees art and culture as ways of "flavoring" a university essay to win some extra points. Hector is disgusted with such a reductive way of thinking about culture--and doubly disgusted that his own pupils are "betraying" him by agreeing with Irwin.

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.