Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why is there no real education in the Harry Potter books?

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I got an energetic response to the Philosophy is Everywhere post pictured above. In it, I suggested that since none of the Hogwarts students get a true liberal-arts education, they won’t grow up to be creative. There were two basic criticisms in response. Some claimed I misrepresented Hogwarts and others argued that I am wrong to suggest that people can’t create art without going to school. The first is a matter of interpretation and less philosophically interesting. My response to that is simply that arthimancy is not math and the history of magic is not world history. Hogwarts students should take all of these subjects, not to mention Composition 101, so they, not the quill, will know how to write. The second criticism however is wonderfully rich and worth exploring. The connection between creativity and education is fascinating.

As with most of the snippets I post, the philosophical issues are simplified and made as stark as possible—public philosophy is often philosophy at a glance. But the substantive questions are still there: what is the purpose of education and what kind of curricula should be prioritized? There are massive debates all over the world about the importance of art, music, theater, and literature in schools. In the U.S. and the UK, they are being pushed aside for STEM courses (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). All of the Hogwarts classes are the wizarding equivalents of STEM, with the possible exception of the history of magic, which everyone but the half-muggle Hermione hates. If we can conceive of a wizarding world in which the arts and humanities are unnecessary, it’s that much easier to justify a real school in which they are unimportant too.

Even more familiar is the debate about the purpose of a college degree. Do students get a higher education to get a job or do they go to school to cultivate their humanity? The answer is both, of course, but I certainly lean towards prioritizing the latter. Education is supposed to teach us to appreciate the world, each other, and to see the greatness in nature and human creation. It should make us useful too, but practicality should be only one part of a larger liberal education, it shouldn’t dominate it.

The traditional way to understand this debate is to think of the distinction between education and training. Education in this context is about the foundational understanding of the world and about creating an outlook; the Germans use the excellent word Bildung to signify this kind of learning. Training, on the other hand, is about learning a specific craft, with particular techniques, and is, for the most part decontextualized. It doesn’t teach how the craft fits into history or culture; it just teaches people how to do something narrow and precise. It also doesn’t teach how one craft relates to another—education, not training, is about connecting the dots. Training is necessary, but it isn’t enough.

Before people get upset, let me be clear about what I’m not saying. I’m not claiming vocational educational is just training, nor am I suggesting that it is lesser than other forms. As Mike Rose and I discussed in the last episode of Why? Radio, and as I mention in an earlier post, vocational education can be rich, deep, complex, and profoundly satisfying. I am also not arguing that the arts don’t have training aspects. One is trained to throw pottery just as one is trained to use Excel. The difference is that training does not appeal to the foundational human experience. It doesn’t cultivate conscientious, self-critical world views. It is thin, to use the language of political philosophy, not thick. Any task including learning Excel can be education. In turn, most any subject can be reduced to mere training, even philosophy. It depends on how the subject is taught and how the students engage with it.

The fact of the matter is that students at Hogwarts know nothing about Picasso, Shakespeare, or Louis Armstrong. They have never encountered Meryl Streep, Caruso, or the Buddha. They do not know Toni Morrison or Bollywood. They have never seen Angels in America. (Can wizards even contract HIV?) The only literature I recall being mentioned is the Tales of Beedle the Bard, which, again, is only appreciated by Hermione (and Dumbldore). The only music is the Weird Sisters, which is a shame, because I suspect Ginny would like the Ramones and Lana Lovegood would be totally into Rush, never mind Beethoven or Phillip Glass

Hogwarts is tremendously flawed and their culture is incomplete in profound ways because they aren’t pluralistic enough, and because they aren’t outward looking. They are xenophobic. (Why do they celebrate Christmas, for goodness sake? Are there no Jewish or Muslim wizards?) Don’t get me wrong. I love the books—love them—and the inadequacies I describe are not J.K. Rowlings’s. She is a tremendous writer who, I believe, will be read alongside J.R.R. Tolkien for years to come. But the world she has created is an ideal that caters to the worst tendencies in contemporary education and we have taken its blindness for granted.

What does all this have to do with creativity? Everything. Raw talent is often pre-institutional. It can come early and it reveals itself through experience. But the ability to refine this talent, to learn to see and appreciate others, to create something from nothing, to answer the challenges of the artists before us, these all comes from communities. They comes from role-models who will introduce new ideas, and from people, cultures, histories, and traditions that most of us will never encounter first hand. Creative excellence comes from being pushed by others, from being critiqued and squeezed, and from facing the demands and expectations of those who came before, those who know more, and those who are not satisfied with their students’ mediocrity. Dumbledore does this for Harry when it comes to magic, morality, and war, but he walks away when it comes to the arts. While there are rare people who have access to some of these without school, they are usually rich, powerful, and have lots of leisure time. This would not describe the Weasleys, nor would it be available to Longbottoms. They are not the aristocracy.

School is the prerequisite for creativity, not because the human mind is incapable of creating without educational institutions, but because all of the things that help us realize our creativity are provided to us by school, by teachers, by books, be performances, and by example. Hogwarts offers little of this, except when it comes to Quidditch, of course. Because even in the wondrous world of Harry Potter, in the end, the true purpose of school appears to be the glorification of sports, not the human capacity to grow.

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  1. This was a great post! As a lifelong fan of Harry Potter it made me look at it with a new eye and I think that this post is right on. I know that the fictional writing I do would not grow or change if I was not exposed to the brilliant thinkers and professors that I am at my university. Great post!

    1. Thank you Danielle! We wish all students felt the way you do.