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The History Boys by Alan Bennett. Character Analysis of Hector and Mr. Irwin

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In the “History Boys,” Mrs. Lintott is a caring teacher who gives the boys much-needed moral support, but her teaching style is only shown very briefly. The two most important teachers are Hector and Mr. Irwin, who seem to advocate completely opposite ways of viewing and articulating history. Hector has the boys read mountains of literature and poetry, encouraging acting and a fun original way to view history, while teaching them factual knowledge and accepted facts. Mr. Irwin, however, is hired as a tutor to the boys to help them “polish their style.” Instead of teaching the boys history to learn about life in the past, Mr. Irwin teaches history solely to help the boys get into Oxford. He teaches them how to twist history around to get an original point of view, which he seems to value even over the truth. Unless the only purpose was to study for an exam, I would prefer to be taught by Hector rather than Mr. Irwin.

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One of the first scenes of the movie is in Hector’s class. Occasionally during a discussion, a few of the boys will burst in to song, or acting, after reading a passage or making a good point. Instead of condemning this kind of raucous behaviour, Hector encourages it, having realized that this is a great way for the boys to learn and interpret history and culture for themselves, instead of being force-fed. Despite Hector’s infamous motorcycle rides, the boys have a great deal of respect for his teaching, and Hector as a person.

On Mr. Irwin’s first day, the boys act much in the same boisterous way, and he is a little taken aback. Although he does not necessarily reprimand the boys for this, he thinks it is a waste of the precious little time they have before the exam. Mr. Irwin gets straight down to business, attempting to rid the boys of the habits Hector instilled in them, and to study his way. He tries to convince the boys that the applications committee at Oxford does not want to read the same thing about WWII over and over again, but instead wants somebody with an original view, for example, that Hitler was not so bad, and that Stalin was just misunderstood. Mr. Irwin seems to value originality over everything else, almost to the point of blocking the truth.

There is a scene when Hector and Mr. Irwin must combine classes, and they are debating whether the Holocaust should be taught in school. It is a perfect scene to juxtapose the two teachers and teaching styles. Hector argues that it is impossible to be objective towards such a horrifying event, so it can not be taught. After many of Mr. Irwin’s classes, however, some of the boys seem to be hardened, and, in the spirit of Mr. Irwin’s teachings, bring up points that seem trivialize the Holocaust (granted they are original). Hector is horrified by their lack of sensitivity.

While Hector would have the boys study and memorize a passage for cultural value, Irwin points out that the boys’ knowledge of literature could be great for nothing else than to strengthen their college essay. While Hector emphasizes culture, learning, and fun, Mr. Irwin turns history merely into a subject to study for an exam. I would much prefer Hector as a teacher than Mr. Irwin.

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