Train Up Your Wizards in the Way They Should Go (Part III)

Photo by  Jack Anstey  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jack Anstey on Unsplash

It’s a memorable moment, but again, Neville—like Hermione—has been prepared for such a time as this; the courage he displays here has been built through earlier decisions and courageous acts. Even if the stakes were smaller then, they were nonetheless challenges to be overcome. A memorable training ground for Neville’s stand against Voldemort, for example, was his earlier stand against his friends stopping them from leaving the common room in order to prevent punishment to the whole house. For this act, he is rewarded with ten points for Gryffindore, as Dumbledore announces, “There are all kinds of courage. . . . It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies, but just as much to stand up to your friends.” Crucially, Neville challenges his friends out of a pure heart, not for selfish reasons. Courage is not to be confused with rash and dangerous action; it is instead principled action in the face of fear. For this reason, C. S. Lewis elevates courage above other virtues: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Neville stands up to his friends because he loves them. Love being the motivating virtue for all the others and the most important of all the virtues practiced by the characters and taught by the series.

I think, in fact, that what most attracts readers, what accounts for the Harry Potter phenomenon is this simple yet profound truth: that love will, in fact, save the world. But, and here’s the kicker, love costs. Love is no insubstantial, sentimental thing; it is tough as nails and powerful—it requires force and a humble, courageous act of will. For, as Plato has argued, the virtues truly are unified—they support and reinforce one another to enable us to become the people we ought to be. The education Harry Potter offers is to recognize the value of humility, courage, and most importantly love and to steel us to embrace the cost and to impress deeply upon us that that cost is worth the reward. This pattern—of a desperate situation, a dramatic self-sacrifice, and a hope affirmed through that sacrifice—runs throughout the book and appears both in the overarching narrative and the smaller stories that make up the whole. Through these depictions, Rowling is training her readers to see beyond the immediate and to recognize the even deeper reality of a world ruled by justice and redeemed by love. Individual enactments of humility, courage, and love are inseparable from justice and love’s ultimate triumph. In the soil of Rowling’s books the reader’s moral imagination can grow alongside those of the central characters. Not only is love what is being taught to these characters (and readers) as they grow up; it’s the catalyst for their learning.

In this summer’s popular documentary, Fred Rogers reminds us that “love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” The arc of Harry’s story highlights this deep truth. As powerful as the series’ climax is—where Harry surrenders himself to Voldemort to save his beloved friends and professors—it could never have happened if it weren’t for his mother’s sacrificial act to protect him from Voldemort as a child. And I don’t mean this in the obvious way—that Harry would not have lived were it not for his mother’s protection. I mean it in the way the book makes clear—Lily Potter denies herself in favor of her son, finds courage to stand up against an implacable enemy despite the overwhelming odds that he will prevail, and plants deep within her son a knowledge of love’s power that cannot be shaken; Harry loves well because his mother first loved him. As Dumbledore explains to Harry: “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign ... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.”

Even still, Harry must grow into that love, step by step and choice by choice. He does so with the encouragement of loving mentors and pseudo-parents. Dumbledore, especially. As a precursor to Harry’s self-sacrifice in Deathly Hollows, Dumbledore allows Snape to kill him. That Dumbledore took this step gave force to the encouragement and support he offers Harry at King’s Cross Station. Pottermore elaborates on this important scene in the following commentary that’s helpful for underscoring how Dumbledore’s character is simultaneously formed and revealed through his actions:

[D]espite the faults, despite Dumbledore perhaps not being the perfect wizard Harry thought he was, never before has Dumbledore seemed more heroic. For men and women are not born great. They learn greatness over time – from experience, from mistakes. Dumbledore looked at his deeds, at his flaws, and he had the wisdom to confront and overcome them; he fought the greatest nemesis there was: himself. . . . Who better to teach the next generation of wizards? Who better to face Lord Voldemort? Who better to send Harry on his way from King’s Cross station, with one last piece of wisdom: “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”

The wisdom Dumbledore offers Harry is wedded to his practice; more importantly, it has grown out of that practice. And Harry has learned well, as he goes out to surrender to Voldemort. It’s a beautiful picture of someone who has embraced and embodied the moral education of these many years. It’s one that resonates with readers, as sales and the popularity of the books and its ancillary products shows. But what readers do with that story matters just as much as the story itself. Have we embraced our own moral education inspired by these books? William James reminds us that without putting what we learned through literature into practice, the experience is the opposite of educative; it is utterly self-indulgent:

The weeping of a Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coach-man is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale. . . . One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up. The remedy would be, never to suffer one's self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way. Let the expression be the least thing in the world -speaking genially to one's aunt, or giving up one's seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers - but let it not fail to take place.

Rightly read, good literature—the enchanted and non-enchanted varieties alike—habituates our hearts and minds outwardly, to practice humility, bolster our courage, and embrace love. We can—and I think should—lament our current state of affairs, how the worst of times are at present being instantiated: the bitter rivalries, the no-holds barred angry rhetoric, and the general sense of despair. We also can—and dare I say must—fasten our present hopes to the eternal verities that will not disappoint. Good stories can show us the way.

Train Up Your Wizards in the Way They Should Go (Part II)

Humility is an apt starting point in talking about education of any kind—moral or otherwise. Without humility, a student is unteachable, thinking themselves better than another or self-sufficient. The arc of Hermione’s story exemplifies both the challenges a lack of humility poses to real intellectual and moral growth and the possibilities of further moral development that can stem from embracing this important habit of heart and mind. In that way, humility truly is what Edmund Burke calls it: the “firm foundation of all virtues,” making way for the full flowering of a person’s spirit and soul. It’s important, however, to distinguish between humiliation and humility. Humility is not to think terribly of oneself, but to think rightly. It is to know one’s strengths and weaknesses. As Mother Theresa once explained, “If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.” Humiliation, on the other hand, is debasement without respect. Hermione first tasted this humiliation in The Chamber of Secrets, standing out as a Muggle-born among the mostly pure-blood wizards that make up the Hogwarts student body. Draco exploits this vulnerability, angrily dismissing her defense of the Gryffindor Quidditch team with, “[n]o one asked your opinion, you filthy little Mudblood.”

Understandably, as the story progresses, Hermione responds poorly to these slights, by flaunting her strengths (her book learning and firm grasp on class material). Errors come in pairs, as C. S. Lewis has noted, and Hermione swings wildly from the degradation she experienced to an outsized pride, manifested at the expense of Ron. As he struggles in class to cast the prescribed spell, Hermione presumes to lecture him: “You're saying it wrong. . . . It's Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the ‘gar’ nice and long.” Unsurprisingly, Ron doesn’t take kindly to this condescension and later says, within Hermione’s earshot, that “it's no wonder no one can stand her. . . . She's a nightmare, honestly.” While this is admittedly not the best start for their relationship, the education enabled by Hermione’s overcorrection and Ron’s candid admission plays out well for all involved and eventually forms the beginning bonds of a strong and life-giving friendship.

We know the details—Hermione, hurt, isolates herself in the girl’s bathroom. When a troll gets loose in the castle, Ron and Harry take off to find her and, after many missteps, rescue her from the troll’s rampage. Through this experience, Hermione modulates her view of herself and others. Friedrich Nietzsche may have thought humility a vice, a trait unworthy of the “overman” because it keeps one beholden to others, but the Harry Potter series, through scenes like this one, demonstrates humanity’s interdependence and the importance of recognizing and honoring our interconnections. The value of humility is highlighted by Hermione’s acknowledgment of the debt she owes to Harry and Ron:  "I'm not as good as you,” Harry tells her. To which Hermione responds: “Me! . . . Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery.” Hermione has learned well the essential lessons of humility, which Flannery O’Connor has captured in this insight: “To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility. . . .”

And upon the humility Hermione develops in book 1 is built much good work. Her advocacy for the house elves, who have historically been poorly treated and ill-thought-of, stems from her own self-acceptance and humble service. Rather than rejecting her precarious social position as a mud-blood on the margins, Hermione embraces it and finds solidarity with others who find themselves similarly maligned. Out of that solidarity, S.P.E.W. (the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) is born, a gesture reminiscent of the kindly acts of Hagrid toward magical creatures, especially those that were unwanted or thought dangerous. Humility, these stories teach us, breeds compassion and empathy, essential components of a strong community.

Two things are important to keep in mind here: First, humility does not come upon a person unbidden; it is a discipline, instilled and strengthened through one’s choices. In the excruciating spot that Hermione found herself in, smarting from Malfoy’s earlier insult and confronted by her own prideful treatment of Ron and the barrier it put between them, she had to test her true self against these extremes—and to recognize that the reality of who she is lay somewhere in between. She is neither the lowly outcast Draco marks her as nor the all-important bigshot she has presented herself as in class. She is intelligent and clever, book-smart and logical, yet she needs others to keep her weaknesses in check and to complement her strengths.

Second, humility, compassion, and empathy—to make a positive difference—must be made manifest in one’s actions and interactions with others. Doing so, especially when the stakes are high and there’s a price to pay, requires courage, a virtue that animates much of the plot of the series. Most of the major characters are afforded an opportunity to demonstrate courage. These opportunities come when something or someone they value is in jeopardy and they must act to protect them. Some characters, like Peter Pettigrew, choose cowardice to preserve themselves rather than defy their fear and risk themselves for something or someone more important. Sirius Black acknowledges that Peter was in a difficult spot—caught between Lord Voldemort and a hard place: betray the Potters or die. But the fear Pettigrew felt was no excuse for his infidelity. To borrow a line from Nelson Mandela, courage is not the absence of fear but the “triumph over it.” Sirius puts the lie to Peter’s sniveling excuses: “What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard who has ever existed? . . . Only innocent lives, Peter!” Peter stubbornly clings to his fear to vindicate himself: “You don’t understand! . . . He would have killed me, Sirius!” Black is having none of it; the right choice in such a situation is as chilling as it is clear: “THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED! . . . DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS, AS WE WOULD HAVE DONE FOR YOU!”

That sounds incredible for anyone to have done such a thing, to have faced the Dark Lord with the prospect of certain death. But Professor McGonagall does what Pettigrew fails to. She revolts against the Death Eaters who have taken over Hogwarts, with the final straw being Amycus Carrow’s willingness to allow children to take the brunt of Voldemort’s fury in his invasion of the castle. In a phrase reminiscent of Pettigrew, Carrow asks, “Couple of kids more or less, what’s the difference?” McGonagall, like Sirius, realizes what’s at stake: “Only the difference between truth and lies, courage and cowardice, . . . a difference, in short, which you and your sister seem unable to appreciate. But let me make one thing very clear. You are not going to pass off your many ineptitudes on the students of Hogwarts. I shall not permit it.”

At least one Hogwarts student takes to heart the lesson in courage McGonagall and the other faculty teach, Neville Longbottom. Neville, to put it mildly, is an unlikely foe for Voldemort but one who nonetheless dares to oppose him. Rowling vividly captures Neville’s panic as Voldemort uses him as an example—pinning him down with the sorting hat and setting it on fire. Once Harry breaks him free, Neville moves quickly, and in one of the most dramatic scenes of the books, takes out the children’s greatest enemy: “The slash of the silver blade could not be heard over the roar of the oncoming crowd, or the sounds of the clashing giants, or of the stampeding centaurs, and yet it seemed to draw every eye. With a single stroke, Neville sliced off the great snake’s head, which spun high into the air, gleaming in the light flooding from the Entrance Hall, and Voldemort’s mouth was open in a scream of fury that nobody could hear, and the snake’s body thudded to the ground at his feet.”

Train Up Your Wizards in the Way They Should Go (Part 1)

Photo by  Mervyn Chan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

The opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities are among the most recognizable passages in literature—it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The description is simultaneously timeless and time-bound: written in Victorian England, depicting the eve of the French Revolution, but somehow no matter how much time passes, it seems that they ring perpetually true. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Isn’t it always?

In short compass, Dickens manages to draw from his historical moment a broader truth about the human condition: “[I]t was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” We humans, it seems, are continually caught between two extremes: our promise, creative potential, and idealistic possibilities on the one side and our hubris, destructive capacities, and cynical bent on the other. If you don’t believe me, a quick glimpse at your social media feed will prove my point.

Okay, yes, admittedly—we’re nowhere near French-Revolution-era craziness. No one’s brought out the guillotines. At least not yet. But I daresay that most of us can recognize something of our current cultural moment in this iconic Dickens quote. We rally behind one another in the wake of national disasters, volunteering our time and money to restore communities; meanwhile other communities are languishing in the thrall of opioid abuse. Our technological and artistic ingenuity is at an all-time high, with brilliant new gadgets and imaginative creations released daily, while fraud and corruption, violence and ill-health run rampant across the country.      

How then do we proceed? What might provide some hope in these troubled times? There are a slew of answers on offer, many of them politically focused—protest, lobby, legislate, vote, agitate. While I don’t think those responses are wrong per se, I do think that absent a personal, individual revolution of the wills and characters of those who make up society, these political maneuvers will merely widen the divide between us, and deepen the challenges we face. Dickens, concerned as he was with the state of Victorian culture and its societal tendencies that had ground many of its people down, suggests another avenue for correction. George Orwell—of all writers—found something about this vision compelling, even if he himself preferred the political: “There is no clear sign that [Dickens] wants the existing order to be overthrown,” Orwell reflects, “or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. . . . His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently, the world would be decent.” 

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, I think, follows this same line of thought. She has, in fact, identified Dickens as an important influence on her work. Like Dickens, Rowling is asking about the cause of our woes and what remedies are on offer and, I argue, drawing similar conclusions. In the pages of her seven highly imaginative, fantastical Harry Potter books, we find—surprisingly enough—a realistic world much like ours, filled with characters that mirror the best and worst of us and who experience the very same joy and despair. Like us, Rowling’s wizards and witches long for good to prevail over the evil they see around them and sincerely want to do the right thing. Well, most of them anyway.

But those others are just as instructive in the moral arc of Rowling’s story and especially in the lessons it provides for readers. Because, let’s face it, Rowling—like most great storytellers—is a master teacher. Harry Potter is not simply set at a school; the series itself is a school, training readers to recognize, prefer, and enact what is good and right. The venerable Roman poet Horace famously said that literature should teach and delight, and Rowling executes his charge well, as readers watch her characters navigate situations that challenge their heart and mind, identify and hone their values and beliefs, and ultimately shape their very selves in their moral choices—for good or ill.

At the center of this education, of course, is the enchanted Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Each year, young wizards throughout Britain await their acceptance letters with bated breath (or for muggle-borns like Hermione, are taken by surprise by them). These spirited scholars head off each fall to the fabled Scottish castle, to take up exotic subjects like transfiguration, potions, herbology, and the daunting defense against the dark arts. Here they get initiated into the world their older siblings and parents have already been a part of—learning to fly, caring for magical creatures, and finally trying their hand at apparition. It’s a fanciful world, and I know we’d all welcome our own Hogwarts invite. But as whimsically as it’s described, we can’t forget that the curriculum is not merely fun and games for these students. It’s real, hard work. They train, practice, fail, try again. They sometimes face disagreeable and downright cruel professors yet have to learn the material despite those challenges. Those O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s won’t pass themselves.

These magical skills are crucial to living in Harry, Hermione, and Ron’s world, and the three friends have varying degrees of success mastering them. Arguably these wondrous features are what make Harry Potter the phenomenon it is. Readers thrill at the games of Quidditch, imagining the students aloft on their broomsticks. They cheer for Harry as he participates in the Triwizard Tournament, putting his magical training to the test. Without the children’s initiation to magic, they’d have no access to Platform nine and three quarters or Diagon Alley, no Patronus charm to fend off the dreaded Dementors. The spells and charms and magical properties of myriad objects in Harry Potter enlarge the story’s possibilities to be sure. Pictures move and talk, invisibility and shape-shifting are live options, as are mind reading and talking with snakes. But, even though magic is at the crux of the Hogwarts curriculum, these magical techniques do not constitute the real education the books offer—neither to the characters nor to the readers. These, in fact, are mere machinery, available to the good and bad characters alike. In fact, someone as wicked as Voldemort has magical abilities at least as strong as those of the virtuous Dumbledore, if not more so. On a smaller scale, we see this contrast play out between Harry and his friends and Draco Malfoy and his.

In The Sorcerer’s Stone these children arrive at Hogwarts full of promise, and in many ways, both sets of friends follow the same path: taking classes, learning their spells, and growing in magical acumen. But that similarity is of little concern to the story; what matters more—what is in fact crucial—is that their paths diverge, as they learn (or reject) the deeper lessons and inculcate in themselves (or don’t) the virtues of friendship and love. They—and we—learn well what Dumbledore notes in The Chamber of Secrets, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” What the contrasts between Harry’s and Draco’s friends show is that an education caught up in teaching only technique—encouraging children’s hands and minds but not guiding their heart—is not one worthy of its name. I think we all know this, but that often doesn’t translate to the dominant view of education in our own world. We don’t have magic, of course, but technology seems to function similarly for us. Who hasn’t, at least once, been wowed by the newest gadget? Every year we hear about new medical advances, feats of modern engineering, and manufacturing capabilities that would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. Arthur C. Clark captures the connection well with his proverbial quip, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

As with those in Harry Potter, we can easily confuse (or prefer) technical expertise and training with humane education. In many higher education circles, this shift toward the technical and practical—this emphasis on vocational training over the liberal arts—is just about complete. The number of humanities majors are shrinking, and fewer state dollars are going to support the liberal arts overall, deemed too impractical to add value to communities. On one hand, this shift is understandable. People need jobs. The market is changing, and demand for technical skill is on the rise. However, the danger, as I see it, in getting so fixated on these technological pursuits, we might become mindless technophiles, subordinating all else to what Neil Postman has identified as “the sovereignty of technique and technology.” 

In other words, we might mistake the means of education for the end of education. But, as Postman notes, “Any education that is mainly about economic utility is far too limited to be useful, and, in any case, so diminishes the world that it mocks one’s humanity.” The Harry Potter series knows (and shows) that, although the magic it depicts (and the technology of our world that it mimics) may mesmerize us, it is neither the cause of nor the solution to our deepest human problems. Instead, the story directs our attention to other, more fundamental concerns—the virtues that make the real differences in the characters’ lives and well-being, chief among them are humility, courage, and love. These virtues are the bedrock of a good life and our full development as human beings; they nurture and grow our spirit and soul. These are the lessons taught by Rowling, learned by Harry and his friends, and inculcated in the readers’ imaginations.