Since they first appeared on these shores in 1997, the Harry Potter books have been lightning rods for criticism and praise for a variety of reasons. But since they are set in a school, what do they say about education? A mother and daughter share their insights.
THE UNITED States has been swept up in the Harry Potter phenomenon, with film adaptations, companion readers, and literary critique and analysis following in the wake of J. K. Rowling's series of books chronicling the adolescent wizard's adventures. In addition to sparking a resurgence in fiction pertaining to wizardry and the fantasy world, the series has introduced new words into the English language (e.g., "muggle" and "quidditch"). It has also touched off a reaction from conservative Christian institutions, which have called for banning the books in school libraries on the grounds that they glorify "wizardry" and are therefore anti-Christian. However, in spite of all the attention given to the literary worth of the novels, there has been very little analysis of the primary locus of the action, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, as an educational institution.
As my daughter Grace devoured each volume, finally prompting me to read the books out of parental self-defense, we began to discuss Hogwarts and the education that was being imparted to Harry Potter and his friends, Hermione and Ron. This discussion occurred naturally for us because Grace, as the daughter of two itinerant academic researchers, has become familiar with British educational institutions both in England and in various African nations. Notably, she has attended schools in Swaziland, a small kingdom in southern Africa that had been a British colony from the early to mid-20th century. Thus her school there was based on virtually the same structure and principles as those of Hogwarts.
Consequently, as we read the Harry Potter books we found ourselves analyzing the quality of the education that Harry was receiving at Hogwarts, at first somewhat episodically but then at a deeper level. Our discussions formed the basis of this analysis, which is presented from two educational perspectives -- that of a 40-something and that of an 11-something. First, we compare and contrast the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with the British model of education and then with the culture and structure of schools in the United States. Second, we look at Hogwarts from the perspective of an educational psychologist by analyzing the characteristics and quality of the teaching there in relation to contemporary theory and practice. Grace gives her views on the education at Hogwarts while I comment on her observations from an educator's perspective.
A SOMEWHAT BRITISH SETTING
Grace: I like the idea that there are different ages all together in one school. That way, the older ones can help take care of the younger ones, and the younger ones will learn things from the older kids.
In other words, Grace seems to like the idea that Harry does not attend a junior high school where all the students are grouped by age. Unlike the U.S. system, which often requires students to make two major transitions -- from elementary to junior high and then to high school - - the Hogwarts (British) model mandates only one institutional change. The fact that J. K. Rowling begins her series with Harry's 11th birthday is entirely appropriate for a series that takes place within a British-type school system. That is the year when English pupils make the transition from primary to secondary education. For Harry, this move is especially symbolic, as he not only moves from one educational level to the next but also passes from the world of muggles to the world of wizards. Once Harry enters the second level, he stays there until he is finished with secondary school. Hogwarts is based on the British model, which includes six forms, with the final one (a two-year course) preparing students for higher education. …