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.

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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

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    • Keris says:

      08:58am | 28/07/09

      I never really thought about that while I was reading the books but your insights are very true.

      I did always think that the career prospects for wizards and witches detailed in the book were slightly limited. Either you’re an entrepreneur or you work for the Ministry of Magic.

    • Patrick says:

      09:35am | 28/07/09

      Keris, that or you become a teacher at Hogwarts or a quiditch player, i guess the use of magic eliminates most of the mundane jobs that “muggles” have to perform. Maybe they just spend their lives on permanent holiday, or seek out something they enjoy doing in the muggle world.

      Which also makes me wonder, why do they need Gold (money) in the wizarding world? I would have thought magic eliminates the need for that.

    • Liz says:

      09:45am | 28/07/09

      Give away the plot??I think we all know the plot by now!
      Just goes to show the value of life experience is probably as great as that of academia, those ivory towers don’t hold all the knowledge there is to have.
      At the end of the day it’s just a series of books and this is just a film!!!

    • Toddzilla says:

      10:46am | 28/07/09

      I think perhaps the wizarding world has it right. Having tertiary qualifications in two disciplines, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that university is largely useless once you leave it. I have worked as a lawyer (tertiary qualified), a journalist (not qualified) and an economist, I can say that in the case of law and journalism, tertiary qualifications would be a very poor substitute for just working in the industry from the time you left school. Nothing you learn at Uni is of much use in either of those fields and certainly anything you did learn would pail in comparison to what you would’ve learnt in less time as a cadet. Economics is a slightly different matter, however the key importance in this discipline is an understanding of how an economy functions (and also a detailed knowledge of Excel). While they attempt to teach you this at Uni, the Professors are generally so left-leaning (and therefore unworldly) that you only really learn about their very narrow and often ridiculously wrong economic principles. That’s why academics reckon a stimulus package was a good idea, when even the most basic unbiased economic knowledge will lead you to the opposite conclusion.

      Yes, the wizarding world knows more than academics about the relevance of tertiary education in the real world.

    • iansand says:

      11:23am | 28/07/09

      A couple of things you should be aware of.  Harry Potter is fiction.  There are no wizards. 

      I always suspected that economics professors experience a different reality.  Perhaps in their constructed worlds there are wizards.  It would explain much about the last few months.

    • MF says:

      12:47pm | 28/07/09

      As a “professor” (lecturer if you want to be technical) in the physical sciences, I’d like to point out that a tertiary education is critical if you want to work as a scientist.  While your law/politics/journo degrees might be useless in the real world, that’s not the case for a large majority of university degrees.  Do you really want your medical doctors and engineers and biochemists walking around with only a high school level knowledge of their field?  Yeah, I really don’t think so.

    • Dave Sag says:

      01:15pm | 28/07/09

      It makes no sense to impose logic upon stories constructed around superstition and magic.  I was considering this the other day while watchin Twilight, the teen-vampire film.  If vampires were real, especially the Twilight ones where the only effect they suffer from wandering into the sunlight is the glint a bit, who posess supernatural speed and strenght (like ‘proper’ vampires) and who never sleep, wouldn’t they obviously rule the world?  I mean, what’s to stop them?

      Harry Potter is a great story but it’s not a documentary.  Heck it’s not even sci-fi where the stories must conform to their own internal logic.

    • Toddzilla says:

      02:42pm | 28/07/09

      Ah, MF, good to see you defend your… er, profession. Here’s a list of some more useless degrees that anyone with common sense and a library card can do just as well: Maths, IT, Busines, Agriculture, Music, Exercise and Sports Science, Liberal Arts, Visual Arts, Any Bachelor of Arts, Social Work, Science, History, Communications and Media.

    • MF says:

      02:51pm | 28/07/09

      @Toddzilla - ah, the naivety!  You think you can do a science degree or a sports & exercise science degree without stepping foot in a lab?  Do a maths degree without access to the software and supercomputing facilities?  Do an Agriculture degree without access to appropriate fieldwork areas?

    • Toddzilla says:

      03:08pm | 28/07/09

      You’re totally right MF - what would Einstein have ever done without his University degree… oh wait, that’s right!

    • MF says:

      03:34pm | 28/07/09

      Einstein - a theoretical physicist…How many scientists do you know who are theorists?  Who never had to do lab work?  I’m guessing a big, fat, ZERO.  In today’s world, even scientific theorists need access to university infrastructure so they can test their theories using supercomputers.  Furthermore, the only way to make a living as a scientist is to publish, and I’ll guarantee you no reputable scientific journal would publish work from someone who didn’t have a current (or prior) academic affiliation.  Pull your head out of the sand kiddo.

    • Phil says:

      03:45pm | 28/07/09

      Einstein did a lot of his preliminary work at ETH Zurich, on his way to graduating with a diploma in Mathematics and Physics.

      Use Faraday as an example next time, sideburns boy.

    • Toddzilla says:

      04:27pm | 28/07/09

      Thanks for that last post MF, you proved my point. From your reasoning, it is the facilities only that are important and not the teachings from the university. If there were private labs and more open-minded scientists (ie, ones who would publish work because of their scientific merit, rather than their affiliation) the universities would not be required to produce quality scientists. The point is, if someone has an inclination towards something and the capacity is there to do that, they do not need a university degree to be successful. University is, I will admit, a good place to weed out the incompetent before they are put in positions that have an influence on society.

      And Phil - it’s Sideburns man to you.

    • MF says:

      04:44pm | 28/07/09

      @Toddzilla - if you think you can learn to use a mass spec or an electron microscope or learn to run PCR without “teachings”, you’re an idiot.  This may be lab based science, but it’s not stuff you can just learn from a textbook. 

      And how do you judge scientific merit?  In science, it’s judged through peer review.  And the reviewers?  Shock of all horrors, they’re *academics* who’ve become experts in their field through *gasp* rigorous education!

      I have a lecture to teach, I’ll poke my head back in later.

    • Nick says:

      07:07pm | 28/07/09

      MF, but peer review is a failure if they ignore a piece simply because there’s no “Dr.” or degree annotation after their name, as you earlier said they do.

    • MF says:

      02:02am | 29/07/09

      Nick - I never suggested peer review was flawless.  There is incredible amounts of academic politics involved.  But that’s the way it is, and despite all the critics of the peer review process, nobody (yet) has come up with a better suggestion.


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