Interesting Ideas

Magical Mediocrity: Harry Potter and the Secret of Hogwarts

Thoughts on rereading Harry Potter

Assume for a moment that the wizarding world of Harry Potter is more than a setting for magical adventure. Think of it as a real place, one where actual magical folk live their actual lives. Now think of it as a place to raise a child and imagine how any reasonably caring parent would rate it.

Forget about the anomalous risk-taking of Harry Potter and his circle, put aside the war with Voldemort. Think instead of normal times, and consider the cream of magical education -- Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Not just the cream. In the U.K., anyway, Hogwarts appears to be the only formal education available to wizarding children. It's clear that magical parents never put their youngsters into non-magical schools at any age, so some type of home schooling must be the norm until age 11, albeit home schooling without much rigor. That may help explain some of the resentment that pure-blood wizards feel for the better socialized, more worldly and frankly smarter muggle-borns who arrive at Hogwarts with the benefit of a basic elementary education.


No golden apples: Could these people find a job teaching anywhere but Hogwarts?

How good a school is Hogwarts once those kids arrive? For charm, adventure and good eating, it's a wonderful environment. As an educational institution, though, the idea of a Hogwarts graduate moving on to any kind of challenging university, Oxford or Cambridge say, for deeper intellectual development seems laughable. The young scholars we get to know at Hogwarts would probably not find much of interest in those places, and would certainly find their academic rigors overwhelming.

Hogwarts may be venerable and prestigious, but it is essentially a trade school. The subjects and passions that animate scholars in the rest of the world -- philosophical investigation, political struggle, scientific inquiry -- are pointedly absent. Students spend seven years perfecting the practical skills of magical life without demonstrating any meaningful interest in what the existence of magic means for the whole edifice of physics and science that has unlocked so many secrets of the material world in which even wizards must live.

Could those secrets not matter to wizards? Are they invulnerable to nuclear vaporization? Need they not care about global warming or the well-being of their fellow humans? What about using magical tools to investigate the nature and meaning of life? Of death? Perhaps those are questions best left to a handful of functionaries in the Department of Mysteries. Or worse, perhaps they are topics only muggles care about. But if so, why? Wizards die too, and their view of the afterlife hardly seems clearer than anything the rest of us have come up with.

Culture fares no better as a subject of interest. Yes, we hear about some pop music and a school chorus. Dumbledore makes a reference to chamber music. But it seems mostly just part of the background, much like the antique paintings that line Hogwarts' walls, where it is only the subject, not the art or the making of it, that registers. One wonders where these paintings come from. Perhaps wizards enchant pictures executed by muggle talent or use magical brushes that render the scenes on their own. Either way, if artistic vision is a factor, we don't hear about it.

In the same vein, reading, writing and research are strictly instrumentalist, honing practical skills. The one history course where curious students might expect to find something resembling an academic environment sinks under the dreary recitation of a deadly (literally) dull teacher.

The ghostly Professor Binns hardly represents the most egregious faculty failure. Cronyism rules supreme at Hogwarts, where friends of the headmaster need fear no disqualification for incompetence or worse. Witness Trelawny and Hagrid, both utterly unqualified to run a classroom, and Snape, whose abusiveness would be the subject of an I-team investigation in any American school. The library, far from being a refuge for serious students, is an actively hostile environment and the hallways are worse. They are free-fire zones at night and the scene of vicious harassment by the quasi-criminal Filch all day long. In the harassment department, what school would tolerate the routine use of hate speech? Anything equivalent to a word like "mudblood" would be grounds for expulsion. Even a phrase like "muggle born" would be sanctioned at most educational institutions, doubly so where its targets are so well-represented in the student body.

But perhaps this state of affairs at an elite school should be no surprise in a society where an in-bred bureaucracy sits at the top with a class of outright slaves (in the form of house elves) at the bottom. The Ministry of Magic in the early books is comical with its paperwork and trivial rules. As the book goes on, though, that government becomes more pernicious and ultimately a case study in the evolution from pettiness to evil.

As for house elves, wizards of the better sort seem to frown on their mistreatment. But that embarrassing discomfort is no threat to the slaveholding class and hardly rates as honorable. While enlightened wizards may not indulge in slavery themselves, anything but private disdain appears quixotic and quaint. Grievous injustice faces no meaningful opposition.

Of course, house elves constitute only one group in an oppressed population of lower-caste beings that also includes giants, trolls, garden gnomes and other magical creatures that are clearly sentient but subject to the control, more or less whimsical and generally contemptuous, of the wizardry. Apartheid is what this method of rule deserves be called.

And what exactly makes the wizards so superior to all these beings? Power, which seems to dominate the wizarding lifestyle, followed closely by the pursuit of wealth and leisure. These priorities are not unusual among human beings, or among as ruling class. What's surprising is the apparent lack of dissent about their pre-eminence and worth or curiosity about alternative value systems.

The few magical folk who show any consistent interest in the rest of the world are branded as pathetic. Arthur Weasley, fascinated by muggle artifacts; Hagrid, obsessed with monsters; and the Lovegoods, fixated on how things "really" are -- they all are patronized for their peculiar interests.

But even this group's glimmering of inquisitiveness hardly constitutes a challenge to the established order. In fact, Voldemort and his death eaters seems to offer the only visible alternative to a ubiquitous complacency. He is almost unique in his concern with making the world a better place, albeit perversely better with his radical program of restoring to wizards their rightful place in the greater world. As with most fascistic schemes, the Dark Lord's vision would have to have a certain appeal as the most dynamic alternative to the bureaucratic regime of isolation, deception and smugness. But then his charismatic leadership is poisoned at the outset, like so many other fascists, with an absurd theory of blood superiority.

Far from reaching glittering heights of culture, the wizarding community reproduces the dreariest aspects of muggle society. All the great sins of wealth and power are on display, including narcissism, gluttony, laziness and lassitude. In common with many similar tales, Rowling's story effectively illustrates the corrosive effect that magical power is presumed to have on the human spirit.

Consider Hermione Grainger, one of the few characters who shows a hint of intellectual curiosity, though not without ridicule. (Not coincidentally, she is also not of wizarding parentage.) Yet her inner life too seems hardly richer than her fellow magical folk, being consumed as she is with magical trivia, good grades and being right. Although by the end of the series Harry himself has some fairly profound thoughts about life, death and the soul, these seem less the high road to wisdom and contemplation and more like just another set of weapons for the fight with Voldemort (quite in keeping with Harry's ever-practical Hogwarts training).


The terrible fate of Harry Potter?

Indeed, Harry and Hermione, the greatest wizard and witch of their age, of THE age, show no inclination to rise above much of anything. The epilogue to Deathly Hallows was so disappointing exactly because they seemed to have settled into as routine a life of middle-class convention as the contemptible family that provided so much of the books' comic relief. The payoff of supreme magical ability ought not to be characters who might as well have moved in right next to the Dursleys on Privet Drive.

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