Getting Your Owl

Harry Potter has become a surprisingly obsessive allegorical tool for liberals’ opposition to the Trump Administration:

I already gave my medium-hot take as to why the early Harry Potter books were such crossover hits, breaking out of the Little League of children’s fantasy novels and becoming hugely popular among adults, but I’ll disobey Occam’s Razor and offer another mostly unrelated hypothesis about why Harry Potter stories are such useful allegorical material for contemporary liberals, aside from a general hunger for myth and meaning in a post-religious age.

Harry Potter, especially the movies, is about the legitimacy of authority that comes from schools.

A hint to what’s going on comes from this New York Times op-ed from a few years ago, by a high school girl about to go off to college, about how obsessively colleges trumpet their similarity to the imaginary wizards’ school Hogwarts:

I was surprised when many top colleges delivered the same pitch. It turns out, they’re all a little bit like Hogwarts — the school for witches and wizards in the “Harry Potter” books and movies. Or at least, that’s what the tour guides kept telling me.

During a Harvard information session, the admissions officer compared the intramural sports competitions there to the Hogwarts House Cup. The tour guide told me that I wouldn’t be able to see the university’s huge freshman dining hall as it was closed for the day, but to just imagine Hogwarts’s Great Hall in its place.

At Dartmouth, a tour guide ushered my group past a large, wood-paneled room filled with comfortable chairs and mentioned the Hogwarts feel it was known for. At another liberal arts college, I heard that students had voted to name four buildings on campus after the four houses in Hogwarts: Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin. Several colleges let it be known that Emma Watson, the actress who plays Hermione Granger in the movies, had looked into them. I read, in Cornell’s fall 2009 quarterly magazine, that a college admissions counseling Web site had counted Cornell among the five American colleges that have the most in common with Hogwarts. Both institutions, you see, are conveniently located outside cities. The article ended: “Bring your wand and broomstick, just in case.”

Why, aside from the promise of the magical learning that you’ll acquire if you just arrive at one leafy campus instead of another,  do these campuses want to highlight their similarity to an imaginary high school? Aren’t these kids just finishing high school, eager, as everyone who’s ever watched the Breakfast Club knows, to leave behind in loco parentis along with their parentis themselves?

High school movies of the 80s were obsessed with the illegitimacy of schools’ authority; Matthew Broderick hacks into his high school’s computer in both Ferris Bueller and Wargames, to make a mockery of the so-called permanent record, and John Hughes’s movies in general are always focused on the improvisatory genius of children and adolescents and the dull brutish obsessions of school personnel:

While parents in these films are sometimes kind and sometimes abusive, their bad actions are largely off-stage, to be psychoanalyzed and complained about by the teenage heroes, who are getting on with their real lives. The antagonists are not parents but the unimaginative bullies running schools, eager to ruin young lives out of jealousy for lost youth and beauty or envy of coolness they never had:

This is a remarkable contrast with the Harry Potter films, which (partly due to the superfluity of British acting talent available to the various directors) often make Dumbledore and the various Hogwarts teachers far grander and more impressive than the teenage protagonists:

Snape may be evil, he may be good, but he’s definitely the person you want to learn Potion-making from in that scene- his authority as a teacher is unquestionable. The illegitimate teachers are those who are recently arrived from outside the institution- Umbridge from her government position, Lockhart from his book-writing career, Quirrell from his adventures chasing trolls.

It’s no surprise that the one Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher to teach Harry anything is Lupin, the one with the closest connections to the institution, with his own past as a student at Hogwarts central to the plot of the Prisoner of Azkaban:

Nor is it a surprise that Harry and his friends’ loyalty to Dumbledore is a strange fixation of both the books and the films, as if high schoolers’ loyalty to their principals is more important than their loyalty to their principles.

Nor is it a surprise that the culmination of all the films comes as a direct attack on the school itself, with the various legitimate teachers coming together to form a shield protecting it from the assaults by the outside world:

From an outside perspective, Harry Potter is a funny fantasy for liberals to cohere around. Going off to centuries-old boarding school where your mum and dad were Head Boy and Head Girl, where tolerance and broadmindedness consists of admitting that  lower-class Muggles can occasionally have the same genetically-mediated gifts as the gentry, where the greatest possible action for a woman is to let herself be slain so her son can grow up to revenge himself on her killer, where ignorance of the supernatural is a form of willful self-delusion,a pathetic blindness to the real forces that move the world, where all the kids eat Merry Olde England foods like Roast Beef and Kidney Pie and Yorkshire Pudding all the time, all sounds more reactionary than progressive. But if contemporary liberalism is the ideology of imperial academia, funneled through media and non-profits and governmental agencies but responsible ultimately only to itself, the obsession with Harry Potter makes a lot more sense.

Contemporary on-campus social justice activism is often seemingly directed against the loci of institutional power in the universities themselves, like Princeton students occupying the President’s office to demand that the university change the name of buildings named after Woodrow Wilson.  Often these political actions take the form of “demanding the institution lives up to its creed”- if Princeton currently teaches that racism is wrong, how can it honor an acknowledged racist like Wilson? But, as Dimitri Halikas notes in a smart essay about Yale’s Halloween protests last year, the actual intent is overwhelmingly to increase institutional and bureaucratic power rather than to disable it:

Having all but abandoned their radical skepticism toward the controlling power of mass social judgment and the implicit power of entrenched hierarchical elites, today’s campus activists are quite explicit in their appeal not to demolish the power of administrators, but to expand it. Of course faceless bureaucrats should be allowed to issue behavioral codes of conduct, of course mandatory sensitivity training is needed to instruct students and faculty how to act appropriately, and of course new administrative appendages are indispensable in the moral guidance of university life. Each of the remedies called for at Yale and elsewhere is symptomatic of a new-found faith in university administrators as responsible guardians of social justice and as legitimate moral authorities.

Harry Potter, especially as realized in the films, is a fantasy of institutional legitimacy, that loyalty to the idealized form of the School is equivalent to an individual moral sense. Individual teachers or administrators might fail that grand destiny, but it is matter of bravery and not intelligence to make the school live up to its ideals; there’s a reason that intelligent Ravenclaws are almost absent from the stories, which are almost exclusively about brave Gryffindors facing off against sly Slytherins. Curiously for a story concerned with ancient magic, we are told over and over again that Dumbledore is the greatest Headmaster Hogwarts has ever known; the institution gains authority from its storied past but the present is far greater. (Like the College Gothic buildings that make up most Ivy League campuses, that resemble Oxford and Cambridge but were actually constructed in the 1930s, the appearance of ancient wisdom doesn’t need much to concern itself with anything particularly old, and even a fake Sword of Godric Gryffindor is sometimes just as much use as the real thing.)

There are, of course, lots of things to love about colleges and schools, which are among our few remaining sources of in-person community in an increasingly isolated and atomized world. To a degree, the affection alumni have for their schools and the reverence that the public still often accords professors is understandable, if not always well deserved. As the left-wing 19th century social reformer Arnold Toynbee wrote, college “is where one walks at night, and listens to the wind in the trees, and weaves the stars into the web of one’s thoughts; where one gazes from the pale inhuman moon to the ruddy light of the windows, and hears broken notes of music and laughter and the complaining murmur of the railroad in the distance.” The ideal of college, Toynbee said, is “the ideal of gentle, equable, intellectual intercourse, with something of a prophetic glow about it, glancing brightly into the future, yet always embalming itself in the memory as a resting-place for the soul in a future that may be dark and troubled after all, with little in it but disastrous failure.”

That sounds like the resting place of the soul that Harry finds at Hogwarts, and that his many fans found in the books and films. Perhaps the Harry Potter phenomenon allowed its fans to participate in the dream of an ideal community, even if the real thing remains as elusive as the complaining murmur of the Hogwarts Express vanishing in the distance.

17 thoughts on “Getting Your Owl

  1. I looked at the “America-Lite” book to see what you meant by “Academic Imperialism.” On the first page of chapter 1, the author says “In 1957, Americans were pleased with America and proud of it. They had problems and knew it, but were undismayed.” Does the book ever get beyond Leave it to Beaver fantasies about the 1950s?

    I asked, because I think the general idea that students are asking for more bureaucratic power is largely correct. However, it isn’t the flagrant contradiction you’re suggesting it is. It is easy to say that the 1960s students were fighting against stifling repression and today’s students are fighting *for* it, but we can’t just stay with a broad view like that. What was the *content* the 60s students were against? The Vietnam War draft, stifling sexual mores, and so on. In contrast, what are students asking for today? That there be institutional consequences to yelling “nigger”.

    I do wish the students would work it out amongst themselves and look less to institutional power, but the arguments have to be quite explicit about what the students (of both eras) took to be their actual enemies – and both sets of students saw or see themselves as fighting racism, sexism, and class oppression.

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  2. It’s confirmation of their faith, at its core. Walk the path of those before you who have found success, and you will find success. In the circles I run near, most folks are positively preoccupied with “what is the right thing.”

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  3. If you look back 105 years, Continental Europe had universities, such as Heidelberg, the Sorbonne, and Padua, as storied as Oxford and Cambridge. But none of the Continental powers won both World Wars, and in the leftist reaction afterwards, old elite educational institutions on the Continent were decimated by budget cuts, open enrollment, and general democratization.

    The British elites, however, won their wars. So Oxford and Cambridge, Eton and Harrow are as elite and prestigious as ever.

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    1. Other countries presumably were as fascinated by their elite educational institutions as the English. For example, the Ohio college Heidelberg University calls its football team the “Student Princes” after the Sigmund Romberg operetta “The Student Prince.”

      http://athletics.heidelberg.edu/history/traditions/studentprince

      But the Brits won and the Germans lost WWI and WWII, so we have $250 million movies about magic at a British boarding school instead of about drinking beer and dueling at a German school:

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    2. I know a bit about France and its “democratization”. France bans streaming, so there’s no AP courses and no math class with the smart kids. This year they’re banning Latin. There are few Latin students at secondary school so for scheduling purposes schools put all the Latin students in the same class. These students tend to be motivated and smart with supportive parents (else why would you do that extra subject) and you get one class with a set of smarter kids. So the socialists are stopping Latin because it is defacto class streaming.

      They’re also stopping the special classes in extra English or Spanish or German for the same reason.

      Of course there’s an election this year and who knows what’s going to happen afterwards.

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  4. I think one has to return to Orwell’s discussion of the pre-war Gem and Magnet comics, with their idealised public schools (in the English sense). The setting for those worlds was Edwardian and out of date, just in the same way that Hogwarts is a set in a sort of platonic 1950s, with teachers in gowns, slaps round the ear for bad behaviour, teachers free to do as they like (or drink sherry): the only thing missing is a bit of amiable pederasty!

    The other crucial thing that Orwell points out is that they were read, not by people at those schools, but by petit-bourgeois shopkeepers’s sons. Similarly, I doubt if 1 person in 10,000 who reads Harry Potter has ever visited an English public school, let alone attended one.

    The genius of Rowling was to take an institution which was unsexy from about 1963 onwards and repackage it for a more liberal generation. Thus Hogwarts has both sexes, is multi-ethnic, the Headmaster is gay, corporal punishment is banned &c. The presence of girls helps avoid questions about mutual masturbation, prefects buggering the younger boys and all those stock-in-trade sniggers. But no successful 50s boarding school could really run on these principles: surely the 17 year old boys and girls graduate from snogging at some point!

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    1. I read the 1857 novel “Tom Brown’s School Days” about Rugby School under headmaster Thomas Arnold in the Classic Comics version when I was about eight. It sounded pretty awesome.

      As an antidote, I recommend Winston Churchill’s description of his public school experiences in “A Roving Commission.”

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  5. Interesting thoughts.
    I confess that my alma mater is one of the few places/institutions in this world that inspires warm fuzzy feelings of love and devotion. This is in part, I think, because college is a time when we have a lot of the nice parts of adulthood (no curfew, no one looking over your shoulder, you can eat CAKE FOR DINNER just because you want to, etc.,) and few of the unpleasant parts (how many college students file their own taxes?) On top of that, student bodies are largely selected for similar traits, especially once you’re taking classes in your major, so most people are surrounded by folks with similar interests and personalities to themselves, pursuing topics they chose themselves. The net effect is very pleasant.

    Similarly in HP, the students are sorted by personality on Day 1. The Gryffindors end up friends with other Gryffindors, which is to say, people who are similar to themselves. Those annoying parents are blissfully absent (Harry’s aunt and uncle are abusive, but not so abusive that he ever shows any long-term negative effects from it,) but no one has to endure the annoying drudgery of going to work each day.

    The world-building outside of Hogwarts is almost non-existent. We don’t really know how the magical world of grown-ups functions at all, and what we do see doesn’t explain much. For example, Ron’s family is poor, despite the fact that they… have magic powers. Housing is at a premium in their house, despite the fact that society produces “tents” with entire houses inside of them. Seriously, they could just buy a tent, pitch it in their back yard, and solve all of their housing problems.

    The biggest symbol of the world not actually existing outside of Hogwarts is (spoiler) Harry marrying Ginny and Ron and Hermione marrying. Okay, hands up: how many people here married the first friend they made in middle school, and never formed significant relationships with people outside of the two other kids–and one of their families–you met on your first day of middle school?

    Note: I am not saying the books are bad. They’re fiction aimed at middle schoolers, and fiction for young people always has to simplify and cut parts of the world in order to prevent the book from running on to War and Peace lengths. For what they are, the books are fine.

    I’ve never really understood why people are *so* into the books, but if they feel about HP the way I feel about my alma matter, well, that I can understand. It’d be really sad, though, to have your most significant such experience be completely fictional, instead of among real people. 😦

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  6. It’s vicarious nostalgia for something you never experienced, but feel that you should have had. Brideshead Revisited has a similar sort of appeal.

    I’m reminded of Houellebecq’s comment about how people leave university, get a job and then stop meeting new people, which flings them into a depression. I think, particularly if you go to a good university or school, that those experiences are often the most vivid that some people have. There’s a good discussion of this in Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, about how for some boys Eton was the peak of their life and everything after a rather brutal decline. The prole version of this is that character in Napoleon Dynamite who can’t stop talking about playing football in the 80s. I’m 6 years out of leaving school and I already notice some people floundering about, having failed to launch. For them, 18 was as good as it got.

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    1. Somewhere, possibly in Waugh or possibly in John Derbyshire writing on Waugh, there is a comment about that subset of youngish upper class English men who flowered most as boys and were ruined quickly by adult life, “those who knew them then knew them at their best…” because later in life they were hollow shells.

      The American equivalent, save perhaps a few ruined prep school boys, is more like the working class guy whose high school football days were the best of his life, and being a cheerleader the best of his wife’s.

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