Magic in the Classroom: The Controversial Harry Potter
Writer’s comment: I have loved J.K. Rowling’s work since, much to my mom’s delight, I read the first Harry Potter book for John Boe’s Children’s Lit class. Cynthia Bates’ English 104C (Journalism) class gave me the chance to examine the books from a different perspective. I wanted to look at the series’ larger role in public schools. Although I am still in favor of Harry Potter in education, writing the article gave me a better understanding of both sides of the debate.
Instructor’s comment: In her final article for English 104C, Kate Pastoor investigates the controversy surrounding the use of Harry Potter in schools by examining multiple sources—including her own positive experiences—with great care. Kate’s desire to understand and respond to these viewpoints results in a richly detailed discussion, one that demonstrates skillful synthesis of sources, insightful analysis, and graceful prose. By the end of the article we are persuaded not only to accept Kate’s well-reasoned conclusions but also to reflect further on the power of imaginative literature to transform young peoples’ lives.
—Cynthia Bates, English Department
The end of chapter sixteen almost caused a riot in my mom’s thirdgrade classroom. Her students at Murphy Elementary School in El Sobrante, California, were desperate to hear what happened in the next chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. “They didn’t want me to stop reading!” she says. “The bell rang and they wanted to stay after school.” She laughs and demonstrates her students’ reactions to the reading of the day by opening her eyes and mouth wide open, and leaning forward to the point of falling over. Who knew reading could be so engrossing to a room of eight-year-olds at the end of a long day?
Apparently, Scottish author J.K. Rowling had an inkling. She created and planned out the main ideas, plots, and characters of her novels during a train ride one day. The stories about the famous 11-year-old wizard will eventually be a seven-book series, with each installment detailing a year for Harry and his friends (and enemies) at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. So far, four of the seven books have been released to mostly wildly enthusiastic responses like that of my mom’s class, from both children and adults.
With over 100 million copies sold (Harry Potter: Behind the Magic), and the series translated into at least 28 languages (Fraser 28), the sheer numbers demonstrate the books’ overwhelming popularity. The fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, registers over 700 pages, yet became the fastest-selling book of all time, with the largest printing ever (Harry Potter: Behind the Magic). Yet the most impressive statistic might be that two-thirds of American children have read the books (Harry Potter: Behind the Magic). Considering the challenges facing public education, and the more high-tech forms of entertainment available to kids after school hours, getting the vast majority of U.S. children to read a set of books that amounts to over 1,800 pages is quite a feat.
But not everyone thinks Harry’s enormous appeal is such a good thing. Some parents deem the use of magic and witchcraft in the books to be anti-Christian and maintain that witchcraft does not belong in public schools because it can be harmful to children. Curriculum Administrator reported the American Library Association’s findings that the Harry Potter books were the “most challenged books in the country” in the year 2000, with complaints that they “portray witchcraft in a positive light” (“English Group Supports...Potter” 18). According to the same publication, challenges about Harry Potter were reported in 13 states that year. By May 2001, the number rose to 52 challenges in 27 states (Cannon and Cataldo 28). With the release of the first movie adaptation in November 2001, the second movie currently filming, and the expected 2002 release of the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the controversy is clearly not going to magically disappear.
Conservative Christian Parents’ “Defense Against the Dark Arts”
Some of the concerns regarding the books have to do with negative aspects of the plot in general. The basic story line reflects the books’ dark undertone: When Harry is only an infant, the evil Lord Voldemort murders Harry’s wizard parents. Voldemort also tries to kill baby Harry, but mysteriously fails. The orphaned Harry lives with his emotionally abusive aunt, uncle, and cousin (the Dursleys) until he learns he can attend Hogwarts, a sort of boarding school for young wizards and witches. Perhaps because of the harsh treatment Harry receives from the Dursleys, some conservative Christian protesters have labeled the books “anti-family” (Cannon and Cataldo 28).
Harry faces new obstacles once he arrives at school; in fact, Harry’s experiences at Hogwarts especially infuriate the protesters. At Hogwarts, he learns magic through classes such as Charms, Potions, Divination, and Defense Against the Dark Arts. The murderous intentions of Lord Voldemort, and even those of school faculty, are major plot points. All four books have some intense and violent scenes, which are not, however, described in gory or unnecessary detail. The fourth book, Goblet of Fire, is perhaps the darkest of the series to date because of the killing of a Hogwarts student.
In formal complaints to school districts whose teachers use Harry Potter in class, “parents argue that because witchcraft is a religion, books about it do not belong in public schools, and they say Harry’s flirtations with death . . . are troubling . . . in light of recent school shootings” (Wilgoren A1). Krisie Babcock, an avid Harry Potter fan and also a fifth and sixth grade teacher at El Sobrante Elementary School, used the first three Harry Potters in her classroom. Yet she does not read the fourth book aloud, partly because of the length, and partly because of the darker tone. Babcock admits that killing off a student does “bother [her] somewhat,” but notes that even though she does not read it in class, her students still want to read it on their own (Personal Interview). Here, the teacher’s discretion replaces censorship of the entire series.
There is no question that the books have some subversive themes, and that the age and maturity of potential readers should be considered before the books are taught in schools. Yet most of the protesters’ concerns revolve around how the darker themes in all the books relate to their traditional Christian values. Parents concerned with the kinds of moral or religious messages the books send especially worry because of the books’ tremendous popularity. Some think that the books’ large readership is evidence of “satanic strength” and being the “work of the devil” (Wilgoren A1). Protesting parents also view the commercialization of the books (through toys, games, and other types of memorabilia made for the movie’s release) as another way the books become intriguing to children. They see Harry Potter’s appeal as dangerously attracting their children’s attention and do not want more encouragement about the series in school. Harry Potter is a target because it is so well known and therefore becomes a sizable threat to those who oppose it. Judy Blume, author of popular and often controversial books for young adults, more opinionatedly sums up this point of view by saying, “If children are excited about a book, it must be suspect” (Blume, op-ed sec.).
Yet the underlying concern behind the threat of popularity comes down to the ways Harry Potter differs from conservative Christian teachings. Some conservative Christian parents do not want their children exposed to morals or lifestyles (specifically witchcraft) “taught” in the books because these “morals” conflict with the Christian values they are trying to instill in their children. Overlooking the many arguments between Harry and his friend Hermione about breaking school rules, former substitute teacher Ken McCormick told U.S. News and World Report, “There is no message anywhere in [these] books that says lying and cheating are wrong. . . . They conflict] with the values I’m trying to teach my children” (qtd. in Cannon and Cataldo 28). Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization, also delves into the issue of morality in the books on their web site, where they ask if the Harry Potter books are “Harmless Magic or Evil Personified?” (Beam par. 2). The same organization claims “evangelical ministers have begun to preach against Harry Potter” (Wilgoren, back page sec. A) because of witchcraft’s presence in the novels, demonstrating the high level of concern these books have caused for conservative Christians.
Parents who object to the books perceive a positive portrayal of witchcraft to be the most damaging message the books send to kids. Focus on the Family concedes that although J.K. Rowling “has no intention of drawing children into the occult” (Beam, par. 3), and claims her portrayal of witchcraft is not “realistic,” it is still harmful because it is not shown as entirely evil. Focus on the Family members fear a “desensitization to witchcraft” and do not want their children exposed to a positive portrayal of what they consider to be a real, evil world of witchcraft that could potentially attract their own children. Even if the protesting parents admit that Rowling may not actually be trying to write evil literature, many feel that if it “appears evil,” they must treat it as dangerous material (“Potter’s field” 20).
What might be puzzling for some is why so many adults are incensed by the portrayal of witches, wizards, and magic. Isn’t it all just make-believe, anyway? I remember being scared of witches in a movie I saw in the fourth grade, and my parents assured me that it was just a movie, and all just “pretend.” As scary or fun as it was for me to think of witches and magic as being real, I was also comforted by my parents’ assurance that none of it was a problem in the “real world.” I could read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in school and think how fun it would be if there really were a candy magician like Willy Wonka. I could watch reruns of Bewitched on TV, or Mickey Mouse in Fantasia playing the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and pretend I could do magic myself, knowing that it was really just pretending. Just like Elizabeth Montgomery was playing the part of a witch or Mickey Mouse was playing the role of a sorcerer, I was imagining I had special powers.
Yet for people who do believe in the existence of black magic and evil witches and wizards who try to harm others, Harry Potter poses a real danger and does not have a place in a classroom. In an article for The Horn Book Magazine, Kimbra Wilder Gish quotes a passage from the King James Bible that demonstrates some specific threats these parents fear are being presented in Harry Potter and in their children’s education:
Literally, in Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry and Hermione “pass through fire” with the assistance of a potion; “Divination” is a much-dreaded class they are required to take in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; and “Charms” is another required class. The goal of all these classes is the education of witches and wizards. Taken literally, the subjects Harry and readers learn about at Hogwarts directly defy this passage of the Bible, while also making these “abominations” quite intriguing.
The mixture of the popularity of the Harry Potter books, and the debates about censorship in schools, religion’s place in or out of schools, and morality makes the controversy even more heated. Although Christians might fear these books especially because of their worldwide appeal that rivals that of the Bible itself, they are mostly acting out of what they feel is best for children. Ironically, supporters of Harry Potter have exactly the same goal.
The Enchanting Harry Potter
Even though the literal actions of the characters in the novels have to do with magic and sorcery, children and educators who value Harry Potter appreciate the stories on practical, literal, and symbolic levels. On a practical level, the books are useful in a classroom because they encourage children to read. The stories are highly entertaining, and the series as a whole is cohesive and engaging. Krisie Babcock told me about a student who was already struggling with reading, but checked out the fourth (and longest) book anyway, after hearing her read the other books in class. She told me how proud she was of him for taking the initiative to read it, but she didn’t really need to. Her enthusiasm clearly showed she was pleased that Harry Potter encouraged her student to push his reading ability. El Sobrante Elementary School principal Gary Pastoor summed up his thoughts on the value of Harry Potter by saying, “Anything that gets kids to read is okay by me.”
Once students are interested in the stories, reading them not only inspires their creativity, but also teaches kids how to go about reading a book. The books are filled with invented words to describe people, places, and spells: Draco Malfoy (Harry’s nemesis at school), Hogwarts, and Azkaban (the school and a prison, respectively) are examples of words that kids have most certainly not encountered before, but come across so frequently that they learn not to be afraid of or intimidated by them. Because so many words are invented, young readers also learn to discern meanings of words from the context they appear in, a valuable reading comprehension skill useful for the rest of their lives.
Through read-alouds from their teachers, or reading on their own, students also learn to listen to the sound of words on a page, rather than just plodding through text skimming for information. Rowling excels at creating words whose sound connotes meaning. Scholastic Books, the American publisher of Harry Potter, details some of the spells’ names in its classroom discussion guides and on its web site: Wingardium Leviosa is a charm for levitating objects (Sorcerer’s Stone 171); Riddikulus transforms frightening creatures into funny ones (Prisoner of Azkaban 237). The skill of listening to the sounds of words on a page is essential for developing reading skills and creating a love of language. It even could help interest students in other languages: When Harry Potter is soon translated into Latin and Ancient Greek (Dowd, op-ed), students may be interested in these scholarly languages because they will have a modern cultural context in which to learn them.
Considering plot on a literal level, supporters of the books feel that even though the events are sometimes sad or intense, how Harry and his friends react to these events is more important than simply the events themselves (a good life lesson in the world of Hogwarts and our own). The positive actions of Harry, his best friends, supportive professors, and even, magically, his parents all reveal extremely uplifting and moral points of the series. Harry frequently turns to Headmaster Dumbledore for advice and comfort and relies on his parents’ lasting love for support during some of the most moving and dramatic points in the novels. Harry, Ron, and Hermione stick together in order to fight obstacles ranging from Draco and his pals picking on others, to a rampaging mountain troll, to saving the wizarding world (Sorcerer’s Stone). Children and adults alike value the positive examples Harry and his friends set for young readers about responsibility, loyalty, morality, love, friendship, and acceptance because they demonstrate independent, but still moral, thinking about right and wrong. This kind of thoughtful decision-making is applicable not only in a magical world, but also in a young reader’s own life.
Read on a symbolic level, the events that happen in the books can be interpreted as an analog to our own lives. The “abominable” classes the students take at Hogwarts become likened to class work every student is familiar with. The universal appeal of the setting (a school) is one that everyone can understand. Therefore, Harry’s trials in a class such as Potions might remind readers of the difficulties they had in their own Chemistry class in high school. The fact that Harry goes away to live at school might reflect a boarding school tradition less common in the U.S. than in other countries, but even kids in public schools can see how Harry’s experiences at Hogwarts relate to their own education. Older students might appreciate Harry’s quest for independence at school as analogous to their own experiences living away from home at college.
Positive parallels even relate to religion. In the National Catholic Reporter, Jeannette Batz recounts the “uncanny resemblance between Hogwarts . . . and [her] own Catholic high school” (Batz 16). She notes the sense of wonder at the unfamiliar words memorized for religious services (much like words learned for spells at Hogwarts), and an understanding of history gained through school traditions. Although readers can connect to the text on many personal levels, Batz’ religious connotation shows that different types of students can relate with Harry’s own experiences at school.
The analogy between the magical world of Hogwarts and the “real world” of school does not just allow readers to reflect and laugh at their own experiences as students. It also sends a very positive message to students, that is especially relevant when the book is read in a school environment. The real underlying message in the Harry Potter books is that education is an imaginative, magical experience. Harry and his friends are literally being instructed on how to create magic, and the school itself is filled with charms and enchantments. More than that, Harry loves being at school, and even likes doing homework when he’s at the Dursleys’ because it connects him with the magical and creative world of his school. Book three, Prisoner of Azkaban, opens by describing his study habits while staying at their house: “Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways. . . . He really wanted to do his homework but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of night” because the Dursleys object to his learning magic (1). Although Harry’s paper topic (“Witch Burning in the Fourteenth Century Was Completely Pointless—discuss”) may not be typical for an average student, his desire to overcome the adverse conditions at home by succeeding in school is an entirely positive message to young readers who may be in similar situations.
Banning Harry Potter from schools harms young readers who might not otherwise have opportunities to find this sort of inspiration in literature they can identify with. My mom recently lent her copy of the second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, to one of her students, who did not have access to the book at home. Escapist children’s literature is not high on the priority list for many parents, who need money for more basic necessities. She said his face lit up when she handed it to him, and it was like she had given him gold. Reading Harry Potter in schools gives children a chance to become turned on to the fun of reading a story, when they might not have that opportunity at home.
Harry’s story is even more relevant to students from disadvantaged homes because the obstacles he faces are so like their own. True, they might not ever be quizzed in Transfiguration on turning a mouse into a snuffbox, with points “taken away if it had whiskers.” (Sorcerer’s Stone 262). Ordinary students will not have to take a Charms final where they must “make a pineapple tap-dance across a desk” (Sorcerer’s Stone 262). Yet students can still understand the parallels between Harry’s unique challenges and their own difficulties. And they can see that Harry studies, practices his favorite sport (Quidditch—like soccer, only on broomsticks), and trusts his friends and his conscience to rise above his unsupportive environment at home. Even for kids who come from families that take an active interest in their lives, these are morals that hold up outside Rowling’s world.
Deciding on the Value of Harry Potter in Schools
In the world of Harry Potter, parents do not always agree with Hogwarts’ staff, and the Headmaster must sort out the varying controversies to act in the best interests of his students. In the real world, teachers and principals are faced with similar challenges regarding Harry Potter in school libraries, in classrooms, and in lessons. Although they might not face exactly the same kinds of decisions as those who work at Hogwarts, the issues of religion, intellectual freedom, and the inevitable challenges that come from mixing the two are just as important.
Perhaps there could be a middle ground where parents who feel the books are not appropriate for their own children will not begrudge the school or the teachers for thinking the books have value for the majority of students. It is unfair for the beliefs of some to rob other children of a joyous reading experience they might not have outside of school. Regarding the banning of her books, Rowling herself has said, “I am consistently shocked by the impulse to censor. Of course, everyone has a right to decide what they want to expose their children to. But it would never occur to me to try and ban a book” (Carey C1). If individual parents do not want their children to read the books, other reading could be assigned with alternate projects. It is unfair, however, for a few to prevent others from experiencing a book simply because they dislike the material.
While acknowledging the genuine concern and goodwill of the conservative Christian parents, I feel that they should respect the intelligence of each individual parent, teacher, and principal who feels these books have merit in a classroom. This means not banning Harry Potter from schools. Donald Kaul says in his column, “Expecting children to read Harry Potter and become witches is like expecting them to read Moby Dick and become whale hunters. It could happen, but it’s not bloody likely” (Kaul, ed.). Protesting on behalf of other people’s children is disrespectful to the parental authority of others and disrupts the learning environment and children’s trust in their teachers.
A misunderstanding is at the root of the problem. There is an implication in many anti-Harry Potter, Christian writings that people who do like the books perceive the magic in them as their own kind of “religion” opposed to Christianity. In her article for The Horn Book Magazine, Wilder Gish insinuates that Satan is evil in her Christian world as Voldemort is evil in the eyes of fans of Harry Potter.
This is a dangerous comparison; it implies that readers believe in Harry Potter’s fictional characters on the same level people believe in religion. Simply because conservative Christians view the books through a religious filter does not mean all readers do the same; if this could be communicated to the concerned parties, it might go a long way toward settling the heated dispute. While Harry Potter’s intention is not to replace a person’s spiritual life, it is still important to millions of readers on other levels. Harry Potter teaches kids how to read on a higher level and fosters a love of reading that will extend into other books. It portrays girls and boys as equals and friends with strengths and weaknesses alike. The incredibly detailed, interconnected story lines encourage readers to consider consequences of characters’ decisions. The symbolic and enjoyable relation to our own lives allows clever readers of all ages and experiences to connect with the books. Harry Potter introduces young readers to the joys of literature, and reminds older readers why they liked reading in the first place, when we read for discovery and for fun. The magic in these books is truly found in the imagination of their creator and of the reader, and in the connection between intellectual creativity and school. For all of these reasons, the books deserve a place in the classroom.
Back in my mom’s own classroom, the roomful of students who clamored for more demonstrates the most basic element that makes Harry Potter great: they’re really good stories. I’m not going to spoil the surprise her class begged to hear about at the beginning of chapter seventeen, but I’m betting they aren’t the only ones who wanted to keep going after getting “Through the Trapdoor.” The legion of children and adults who share their appreciation of Rowling’s work understands. And just maybe, even the loudest protesters of the books might be surprised at the thoroughly enjoyable experience of reading Harry Potter, or any work of literature, with an open mind.
Babcock, Krisie. Personal interview. 26 Nov. 2001.
Batz, Jeannette. “Catholic world was full of magic too.” National Catholic Reporter. 7 Sept. 2001: 16.
Beam, Lindy. “What Shall We Do With Harry?” Focus on the Family. 27 Nov. 2001.http://www.focusonthefamily.org/pplace/pl/harrypotter/A0018569.cfm
Blume, Judy. “Is Harry Potter Evil?” New York Times 22 Oct. 1999. Op-Ed Page.
Cannon, Angie, and Cataldo, Adam L. “Muggles vs. the Wizards.” U.S. News & World Report 21 May 2001: 28.
Carey, Lynn. “There’s Something About Harry.” Contra Costa Times 1 Nov. 1999. Sec. C: C1-C2.
“English Group Supports Anti-Censorship of Harry Potter.” Curriculum Administrator. Sept. 2000: 18+.
Fraser, Lindsey. Conversations with J.K. Rowling. New York: Scholastic. 2001.
Harry Potter: Behind the Magic. Narr. Katie Couric. NBC. 11 Nov. 2001.
“Harry Potter: Discussion Guide for Books 1-IV.” Scholastic. 5 Dec. 2001. http://www.scholastic.com/harrypotter/books/guides/index.htm
Kaul, Donald. “Harry Potter Evil?” Lake County Record Bee. 5 Nov. 1999.
Pastoor, Gary. Personal interview. 10 Dec. 2001.
Pastoor, Karen. Personal interview. 7 Dec. 2001.
“Potter’s field: Harry doesn’t always make money magically appear.” Christianity Today. 12 Nov 2001: 20+.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. 1998. New York: Scholastic. 1999.
---. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic. 2000.
---. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic. 1999.
---. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. 1997. New York: Scholastic. 1998.
Wilder Gish, Kimbra. “Hunting Down Harry Potter: An Exploration of Religious Concerns about Children’s Literature.” The Horn Book Magazine. May 2000: 262.
Wilgoren, Jodie. “Some call Harry Potter’s magic black.” Contra Costa Times 1 Nov. 1999. Sec. A: A1.