Thematically, The History Boys is about the purpose and value of education. Bennett presents two characters, Hector and Irwin, as opposing forces with the other educators falling somewhere between them. Hector espouses education for education’s sake, and puts a strong emphasis on the arts. In his class, students enact scenes from films such as Brief Encounter or sing popular songs by the likes of Gracie Fields and Edith Piaf. Hector (and the boys by imitation) is also given to recitations of poetry, often spurred by a key word that comes up in conversation. Hector is vehemently opposed to results-oriented teaching in which ideas are deemed successful if they are cleverly utilized by their students in exams and interviews.
If Hector (who is about sixty years old) represents the old guard, the Irwin is a figure of a new approach to education. At twenty-five, Irwin is not very much older than the boys that he teaches, and his perspective on education and exams is informed by recent experience. He also represents a kind of objectivity, in which historical events can be reexamined from a perspective other than the one commonly accepted. His approach is more empirical, and he places less value on the literature and arts so important to Hector. In his view, those disciplines are ancillary, designed to be called on to support an argument and nothing more.
The wide chasm between the two instructors’ approaches is most vividly realized in the scene in which they and the boys debate the appropriateness of using the Holocaust as an exam topic. Hector, as well as Dakin, is aghast at the thought of it, saying that any attempt would be reductive regardless of how respectful the attempt. For Dakin, the issue is personal as he lost relatives in the Holocaust and cannot see the humanity of trying to look at it with anything other than horror. In contrast, Irwin feels that the issue can be examined objectively without the typical emotional responses that the event evokes. He believes...
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