The History Boys

The History Boys Summary and Analysis of Act One: Scenes 13 – 16

Summary of Act One, Scenes 13 – 16:

[Act One: Scene 13 (pg. 48), Scene 14 (pg. 49), Scene 15 (pg. 50), Scene 16 (pg. 53)]

Hector and Irwin are discussing the boys' level of preparation for the exam. Irwin feels that the boys consider the information they learn in Hector's class to be off-limits for the exams. Hector agrees to speak to the boys about this, but reiterates that he sees such exams as the enemy of education. Irwin, meanwhile, accepts that taking examinations is a fact of life. He then asks Hector what is value of the knowledge he is teaching the boys if it will not help them get into Oxbridge. Hector replies that what the boys learn in his class will serve them later in their lives, as they will continue to live regardless of their exam results.

In the next scene, the Headmaster checks in on Irwin's progress. Though Irwin believes that the boys are progressing, he hesitates to guarantee that any one of them will get into Oxford or Cambridge. This perturbs the Headmaster, who goes on to criticize Hector’s teaching methods because they do not produce results at all. Mrs. Lintott enters moments before the Headmaster leaves. She shares with Irwin her opinion that the Headmaster is the chief enemy of culture in any school. Afterwards, Mrs. Lintott and Irwin discuss the boys. Mrs. Lintott reveals to Irwin that Dakin is romantically involved with the Headmaster’s secretary.

The next scene begins with an aside from Scripps. He informs the audience that it is halfway through the term; Hector has been summoned to the Headmaster’s office and Fiona’s desk has been moved.

In their meeting, the Headmaster asks Hector why he locks the door while teaching, and Hector replies that he does not like his lessons to be interrupted. The Headmaster then reveals to Hector that his wife saw Hector molesting one of his students while taking him for a ride on his motorbike. Hector responds calmly to the accusation with lines of poetry from A.E. Housman’s “On Wenlock Edge.” The Headmaster becomes increasingly angry and Hector denies that anything happened between him and a student. The Headmaster, however, is unconvinced and demands Hector’s resignation.

After his meeting with the Headmaster, Hector is sitting alone in his classroom. Posner comes in and tells Hector that Dakin is studying with Irwin. Posner then recites the poem "Drummer Hodge" by Thomas Hardy, which he has memorized for Hector's class. They discuss the poem briefly, and Hector shares with Posner what he loves about reading and literature. As their conversation ends, Dakin enters and asks if he can take a ride with Hector on his motorbike. Hector declines.

Analysis of Act One, Scenes 13 – 16:

In this section, Bennett returns to the debate about results-driven teaching as Hector declares examinations to be the “enemy of education” (48). The idea that education should be focused on preparing students for exams is still a major source of controversy in the United Kingdom. In the United States, there is a similar debate that specifically questions the ethics of a phenomenon called “teaching to the test” in which curricula are heavily focused on helping students pass required standardized tests.

In the United Kingdom, opponents of the current educational system share Hector's opinion; they feel that designing curricula solely intended to help students excel on their A-Levels and entrance examinations is a disservice to British youth. In 2009, the Archbishop of Canterbury made a public statement condemning the educational climate in England, which he feels prioritizes results over students’ well being and thus, does not help students succeed in their post-academic lives. In the Archbishop's words, a results-driven educational system is “an inspection regime that is experienced by many teachers as undermining, not supportive […] and in general an atmosphere in most institutions of frantic concern to comply with a multitude of directives – all of this gives a clear message about the priority of tightly measurable achievement over against personal or spiritual or emotional concerns.”

The Archbishop's views mirror the ideas that Hector espouses in this section. Hector repeatedly articulates his belief that the purpose of education is to develop students' minds through cultural enrichment. He encourages the boys to discover why particular literature resonates with them and apply that same keen insight to other aspects of their lives. While Mrs. Lintott is more understanding, Hector's conversation with Irwin and Irwin's subsequent discussion with the Headmaster further underline the fact that Hector is alone in his beliefs.

In the conversation between Irwin and the Headmaster, the audience gets a glimpse into the kind of pressure Irwin is under to produce results. Unlike Hector, Irwin cares that the boys perform well, but he also understands that no amount of preparation can guarantee admission. The Headmaster's lack of understanding is representative of the unsupportive environment that the Archbishop mentioned in his critique of modern British education. Like Irwin, many British teachers are constantly "under the gun" to cram as much quantifiable information into their students' minds as possible. In this scenario, education is less about developing the boys' minds; it is reduced to a tool that will help them get into top-tier universities.