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.
The Purpose of Education ThemeTracker
The Purpose of Education Quotes in The History Boys
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.
Hate them because these boys and girls against whom you are to compete have been groomed like thoroughbreds for this one particular race.
You give them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it.
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.
Truth is no more at issue in an examination than thirst at a wine-tasting or fashion at a strip-tease.
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.
History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entertainment. And if it isn’t, make it so.
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.
DAKIN: The more you read, though, the more you see that literature is actually about losers.
DAKIN: It’s consolation. All literature is consolation.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
What’s all this learning by heart for, except as some sort of insurance against the boys’ ultimate failure?
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.
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.