The non-reality of a Hogwarts education

Hogwarts ClassroomIn yesterday’s introductory post, I mentioned that the Ravenclaw Reader consisted of paper-and-response pairs. The first such pair looks at Hogwarts as a school. The paper “Learning, Understanding, Experience: Harry Potter and Pedagogy” is by Jessica Tiffin, the response “Hidden in Plain Sight” is by Joel Hunter. Dr Tiffin is a Student Development Officer in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Cape Town; Dr Hunter is a philosopher who’s moved out of traditional university into a community college. (I really do wish they’d provided a page describing contributors to save me time on Google.)

I have to say, Tiffin’s paper doesn’t strike me as the most auspicious start to the book. However, given the centrality of Hogwarts to the story, I can see why the editors started with it. Tiffin discusses the very limited appearances education actually makes in the Potterverse, the technological way in which magic is largely taught as practical skills within the narrative, and the vanishingly small appearances of competent teaching. Hogwarts, we may be sure, would not have passed its OFSTED (the English schools government inspection system).

Teaching is frequently ineffective and alienating to its students, and the knowledge it purports to teach often impenetrable; its function is secondary to the demands of what I choose to identify as the heroic plot, Harry’s destined confrontation with Voldemort. (p.2)

She presents an overview of dysfunctional learning in the school ranging from Professor Binns’ History of Magic class (an object lesson in the worst kind of old-fashioned recital of facts and dates approach) to the outrageous bullying and favouritism exhibited by Snape. Her observations of these details are largely accurate, although one suspects the reason there is no portrayal of a lesson teaching magical theory is that it would be poor narrative. We know there is such a thing (after all Dolores Umbridge will only let theory be taught) but Rowling does not portray it on the page. In drawing attention to the paucity of education on the page, Tiffin delineates something interesting that is often overlooked.

It is, however, the more general conclusions she draws from her observations I have problems with. The fact that the narrative majors in “Magic, Sport and Heroism” is less about “the elitism of a magical curriculum” (p.6) and more about the school as a backdrop for a different kind of adventure story. The fictional antecedents of Hogwarts attended by made-up adventurous children are largely as unlike the schools of the readers as the magical world is unlike the Muggle one. In many ways, Rowling’s story-telling is more of a throwback to earlier forms of children’s fiction where narrative compulsion takes precedence over educational virtue, and is probably all the more educative for it. In comparing her with more recent writers, Tiffin misses something of the point the child readers appreciate reflexively.

Indeed, the largest conclusion she draws (and to which the paper works) seems to me to be the most misplaced:

Important lessons, the series says, are only learned outside the classroom; … formal classroom outcomes are deemed [utterly irrelevant] in their subordination to the heroic narrative. … [The popularity of the stories of this school] demonstrates, I think, that across our education system, something is very wrong. (p.19)

The idea that the Potter books are popular precisely because the awful experience of education therein resonates with children’s awful experience of school strikes me as almost exactly upside-down. While there are recognisable elements of school, often exaggerated for comic effect, the appeal of Hogwarts is in being exactly unlike real school for most of today’s pupils, a place they’d like to belong to as those two orphaned protagonists Voldemort and Harry came to feel they belonged for the first time. The violation of Hogwarts between Umbridge in book five and the Carrows in book seven is meant to be as deeply felt as the loss to death of any of the characters. The analysis of Hogwarts as a school does little to further appreciation for Hogwarts as a narrative character.

In that respect, I find Hunter’s response much more in tune with my reading of the book. He sets the portrayal of Hogwarts against the largely dysfunctional nature of the wizarding world (p.27) which comes increasingly under question. (Dumbledore is one of the few who stands for a different way of doing things, and it is only late in the narrative arc that we find the deeply personal story of human frailty that stands behind his apparently unique stance.)

As the dystopian magnitude of wizarding society unfolds in Order, Prince and Hallows, readers may inevitably look back and ask “How did we ever get here?” only to find indicators of just how horrid Hogwarts schooling is in the first half of the series. (p.29)

Part of the answer is, of course, to be found in the reminder that this is a society that is scarred by a war which has never quite gone away, and part in the implicit racism that has become endemic to the world of magic. In drawing attention to this, Hunter reminds us that having created a wonderful world apparently unlike ours, initially attractive for being a fantasy to escape into, Rowling then turns the mirror back, so that we can see ourselves and our world more clearly.

For the trick to work, however, the nature of Hogwarts as fantasy education has to draw us in first, and after all, which of us wouldn’t like to play Quidditch, or learn Defence against the Dark Arts. The fantasy draws us in precisely as being unlike our world, not because we recognise the poor pedagogy of Potterworld as our own. It seems to me that Tiffin has been so taken with observing the details some very interesting and easily overlooked tress, she’s not realised that she’s wandered into the Forbidden Forest.