Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 811

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...

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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 the Holocaust can be historically contextualized as long as it is done tactfully. During this battle, the boys split and argue the issue based on the instructor with whom they agree.

Sexuality is also an important theme in the play as both Irwin and Hector have inappropriate relationships with their students. Hector has developed a regular pattern of giving students rides on his motorcycle and fondling them during the trips. Irwin tries to mask and suppress his attraction to Dakin, but when Dakin makes a pass at him at the play’s climax, he agrees. Posner likewise struggles with his sexuality over the course of the play. While his homosexuality is common knowledge, he harbors an unrequited attraction to Dakin. Posner is also the first to recognize Irwin’s attraction to Dakin. When he comes to Irwin to tell him that he believes he is gay, he does so in the hopes that Irwin will likewise acknowledge his own sexuality.

Bennett’s deft handling of the issue is seen in the difference between the way the younger and older characters handle the revelation about Hector’s behavior. The adults all express varying forms of disapproval, even those who sympathize with Hector. Conversely, the boys treat it cavalierly, and rarely make an issue of it. Although they at times express reluctance to go on the motorcycle rides, they treat Hector’s behavior more as annoying than frightening. Bennett imbues the boys with an acumen some of the adult figures lack. Although neither the playwright nor the young characters endorse the behavior, they both see Hector as a kind of pathetic figure. Bennett uses the issue to explore the generational gap between the students and the teachers. The teachers all operate under the assumption that the students do not see them as people, complete with weaknesses and faults; however, as the play progresses, the students reveal an all too keen understanding of the limitations of the adults who are supposed to educate them.

The notion of status is a constant undercurrent in the preparations for the boys’ exams. Oxford and Cambridge are held far above the other schools even as all involved acknowledge the difficulty in getting into both institutions. The Headmaster pushes Irwin into Hector’s classes in the hopes that more students will attend more prestigious schools and raise the reputation of his own school. The teachers all acknowledge the irony that they are furiously preparing their students in the hopes that they will attend schools with greater reputations than their own alma maters. In this environment, Bennett presents (and criticizes) the idea that the truth is relative. Moreover, the students’ own ideas and perceptions are less important than those interviewing them and making decisions about admissions. Bennett links the themes of education and status by presenting them as a kind of socio-economic currency.

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