Harry Potter’s uneasy relationship with academia
Last weekend marked the launch of the sixth in the now eight-part movie saga that is Harry Potter. As is surely apparent by now, the movies sit not as a substitute for the books but a complement to them. They succeed where they can visualise magic that cannot be done in words - the creatures, the castle and a large part of the action. But they fail where the books have their most significant: in the complex characters and the deeper moral issues.
But in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince one of those deeper but unstated moral issues arose neatly and somewhat humorously in the movie: the role of academia. It came in the form of Professor Slughorn, a marvelously imagined character who is a teacher who cares only about the best in the class and seeks them out to the exclusion of all others. He, in turn, is a character that is perhaps the most instrumentalist of at least the “good” guys in the saga. Slughorn, at various points, commits self-interested acts claiming “academic purposes”. For instance, he is caught removing valuable leaves from a plant, claiming their scientific merit but we know being motivated by the black market value.
That, however, is not where this issue comes to the fore. It is hard to describe it without giving away too much of the plot but Slughorn cites the very same “academic” disclaimer when handing over clearly dangerous knowledge to a young Voldemort. Slughorn later clearly realises his error and attempts to cover his tracks but the message is clear: there is a danger to the academic shield.
Now I am not going to opine about that dilemma - although being an economist who routinely puts research into the public domain, I have faced Slughorn’s choice and have worried about it. But what is more interesting is the entire subtheme in Harry Potter of an anti-academic bias. This might seem funny with so many respected characters being affectionately and authoritatively titled “Professor” but let’s look at the evidence.
First, why is a High School education considered enough in the wizarding world? It would seem to me that having to learn magic as well as standard fare would put a greater premium on a longer period of education. Where is the secret college at Oxford that surely must come next for the academically-gifted Hermione? Can a secondary education really be enough for the career paths the students started choosing early on?
Second, dropping out of high school is something not treated with concern. Fred and George fly away on brooms out of school and into a flourishing retail business. But by the seventh book, and I am not giving too much away here, all three main characters have dropped out of school - yes, to pursue the greater good - but what other childrens’ novels would have ever contemplated such a message?
And then finally, there is an underlying current of what all that magical knowledge is good for. Wizards know how to cure the ill, repair efficiently, and also a variety of psychological enhancements we need not go in to. But somehow, all that knowledge remains tightly held apparently to protect the Muggles from greater disruption but surely some leakage could do a world of good.
Standing back, there is an uneasiness with academia and knowledge throughout the series. But unlike other issues they remain unstated as an undercurrent. One wonders whether the apparatus of the saga could actually have been put to good use opening them up to debate.
Joshua Gans is an economics professor at Melbourne Business School. He blogs on parenting issues at gametheorist.blogspot.com.
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