The History Boys

The History Boys Quotes and Analysis

"I am your teacher. Whatever I do in this room is a token of my trust. I am in your hands. It is a pact. Bread eaten in secret. ‘I have put before your life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live’."

- Hector, pg. 6

In this moment, Hector is reinforcing the trust between his students and himself. However, this quote has a double meaning because Hector is also alluding to his secret "motorcycle rides" with the boys (during which he fondles them). The sexual undertones of this quote are further reinforced by the first of the two Bible quotations Hector uses here. The phrase “bread eaten in secret” comes from Proverbs 9:17, which reads, “Stolen water is sweet; and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (KJV, 2000). The second Biblical quote, which Bennett chooses to identify with single quotation marks, is from Deuteronomy 30:19. By directly quoting the Bible, Hector demonstrates his belief that memorizing quotations gives students a way of understanding the world. Furthermore, the quotation marks suggest that Hector is directly addressing Scripps here; Scripps is the most religious of the boys and he is, after all, the boy Hector is caught fondling.

"Mr. Hector’s stuff’s not meant for the exam, sir. It’s to make us more rounded human beings."

- Timms, pg. 38

In this quotation, Timms speaks to the conflict between teaching styles that Alan Bennett explores in The History Boys. Hector doesn't believe in results-based education; he teaches for the sake of teaching. Meanwhile, the Headmaster brings in Irwin specifically to give the boys the "polish" they need to face their Oxbridge entrance exams. Hector is not at all open to collaborating with Irwin; he even keeps his classroom door closed. Irwin is surprised to discover that the boys believe that whatever they have learned in Hector's class is off-limits for use on their exams. This is because Hector thinks that using revered literature for the practical purpose of answering in exam question is disrespectful to the hallowed tradition.

"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, pg. 48

The main conflict in The History Boys comes from differing beliefs about the purpose of education. Hector turns his nose up at the idea of teaching for the sole purpose of passing an examination. In fact, he believes that such instruction is the antithesis of what the boys need. However, the effects of Hector's methods are not really tangible; the Headmaster complains that he does not produce quantifiable results. This quotation is evidence of Hector's stubborn yet vague beliefs. Understandably, it is difficult for the boys to side with Hector when they don't yet know how his teachings will benefit them - and neither does Hector know how to articulate this. All he does know is that he doesn't agree with the Headmaster and Irwin's way of doing things.

"… 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."

- Hector, pg. 48

The idea of learning quotations by heart is a recurring theme in Hector’s lessons. While Irwin tries to teach the boys how to take information they have learned and frame it in a way that will grab their examiner's attention, Hector believes that learning the quotations themselves is enough. He reveres all the literature he teaches the boys and considers it to be a "[component] of the heart." Hector believes that Irwin's methods are disrespectful, though, in that they reduce the benefits of memorization. However, unlike Irwin, Hector's teaching style is scattered. He also cannot articulate the specific use of these quotations - he just wants the students to respect them and to pass their knowledge on.

"Mr. Hector has an old-fashioned faith in the redemptive power of words. In my experience, Oxbridge examiners are on the lookout for something altogether snappier. After all, it’s not how much they know about literature. Chant the stuff till they’re blue in the face, what good does it do?"

- Irwin, pg. 49

In this scene, the Headmaster is criticizing Hector’s teaching style. The Headmaster‘s main goal is to prepare the boys for their Oxbridge entrance exams, and he views any lessons that do not contribute to that specific pursuit as a waste of the students' time. Per the Headmaster's edict, Irwin spends his lessons preparing the boys for their entrance examinations and interviews. Irwin, unlike Hector, is willing to play the game, so to speak, and do what he can to help the boys get into Oxford and Cambridge. That Irwin is revealed a fraud (his claim of attending Cambridge as an undergrad turns out to be false) shows that like Hector, Bennett also denounces the method of "teaching to the test."

"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."

- Hector, pg. 56

Forming a personal connection with literature is one of the main tenets of Hector’s teaching philosophy. He puts a lot of emphasis on learning excerpts from different texts by heart so that his students will remember what they have learned long after they finish school. The purpose of this is, perhaps, to make their education a more significant part of their lives instead of just being a means to an end. This quote (especially the use of the word "hand") also alludes to Hector's inappropriate physical relationship with the boys, as his approach to teaching is emotional to the point of being erotic.

"’The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You that way, we this way.’"

- Hector, pg. 57

This is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, a comedy about men who swear off women for three years. The play draws on themes of masculine love and desire and reality versus fantasy. Said in the context of Hector refusing to take another ride with one of his students, this quotation touches upon the idea of sexual desire and swearing off of something that once gave him pleasure.

"All the effort went into getting there and then I had nothing left. I thought I’d got somewhere, then I found I had to go on."

- Posner, pg. 60

Posner, here identified as “Man,” speaks to Irwin about why he did not make it through Cambridge. As he puts it, after working so hard to get in, he felt that he could not go on. Alan Bennett clarifies Posner's position in the introduction to the play. He describes the ‘pains of the scholarship boy’ that he felt while he was at Oxford. Like the boys in the play, Bennett attended a public school, but most of his classmates at Oxford came from private schools and wealthy families. This resulted in him feeling a lot more pressure to excel.

"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."

- the Headmaster, pg. 67

In this quotation, the Headmaster is speaking to Mrs. Lintott about Hector, but he is really speaking more to the state of the educational system in Britain than he is about any one teacher in particular. There are tangible rewards for students who follow a results-based curriculum, like what Irwin is following, while Hector's methods are not directly applicable to the boys' needs. The Headmaster is therefore in a difficult position - in order for his institution to be seen as successful, he needs to provide results. It's not that he doesn't understand the benefits of Hector's teaching style, but he knows that there is no longer a place for Hector's methods in the current educational climate.

"Remember also, our puny efforts notwithstanding, you will be up against boys and girls who will have been taught better than you."

- Irwin, pg. 87

Irwin says this so that the boys are aware of the students they will be competing against for places at Oxbridge. He refers to the inherent inequalities of the British educational system - mainly the existence of both public and private schools - that give wealthier students an automatic advantage over students from public schools. Alan Bennett has been vocal with his criticism of this divide and expresses his beliefs through Irwin. He thinks that the system as a whole is unjust and should be updated to put all students are on equal footing.