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Harry Potter, Popular Culture and Education

When, in the opening pages of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Professor Minerva McGonagall predicts that one day, the orphan boy will ‘be famous – a legend… there will be books written about Harry – every child in our world will know his name,’ I’ll bet neither the character nor her creator, J.K. Rowling could have realised the prophetic nature of those words. From literary marvel to multi-million dollar film franchise with numerous product tie-ins, websites galore, the magic that is Harry Potter continues to make an enormous cultural impact.

Latest to use Rowling’s work is Durham University in the UK, which coincidentally, featured in the first two Potter films. Eager to shape the minds of the future, academic, Dr Martin Richardson, has created an entire course around the phenomenon entitled ‘Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion’ as part of an education degree.

Run over a semester and comprising 22 lectures and 11 seminars, it seeks, according to Richardson, ‘to place the series in its wider social and cultural context,’ as well as consider the texts’ relevance to contemporary education systems. Using all seven books, the film adaptations and web-based material, the course invites students to study the commodification of education, the making of policy, the role of rituals, myth, reason and reality, peer groups, manhood, citizenship, prejudice and intolerance in the classroom and the legacy of the school-based narrative in popular culture among many other topics.

Already, 70 students have enrolled and the university is talking about the innovative nature of the subject and the high-level of interest it’s attracting.

Of course, this also means detractors have come forward, who are mainly responding to the high/low culture divide, believing that anything with such broad mass appeal can’t warrant serious educational attention. Nick Seaton, from the Campaign for Real Education in Britain, hit out stating: ‘It does not merit a course at one of the country’s top universities.’

But to quote another popular culture figure: ‘Au contraire, baby.’

Not only have their been many insightful academic and mainstream studies published on the Potter texts and their contribution to reading, imagination and culture generally, but other institutions have held courses and/or lectures on the multiple meanings in and of Harry Potter. Eastern Michigan University in the United States has been running a successful course for years; I taught one at Sunshine Coast University that featured Harry Potter and was received very enthusiastically.

It makes sense to teach what’s beloved and familiar to students and use these texts to open new doors, worlds and learning opportunities.

Not only do the Potter books harken back to older legends, such as King Arthur, Greek and Roman myths and the works of J.R.R.Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, they also explore the rites of passage associated with burgeoning adulthood in sensitive ways.

Using Joseph Campbell’s notion of the ‘hero’s journey’, Rowling takes Harry on a quest, to not only destroy the great evil of Voldemort and his cabal of Death Eaters, but to vanquish his inner demons and, in doing so, learn how to be a decent man, friend and partner in a complex world.

In this way, Harry shares a great deal with Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins and even Odysseus.

It’s not just the wide literary tradition from which Rowling draws that make the texts worthy of study, nor the other narratives to which she gestures, but the universal themes into which she taps.

Originally an outcast among his family, the abused Harry refuses to be a victim and soon finds his place in the inclusive society of wizards and witches. In this way, he’s akin to so many young people who acutely feel their differences: ethnicity, religion, sexuality, size, appearance – any deviation from a social ‘norm’ which makes a young person feel alienated and lost – and who long to find connection and a sense of belonging.

Hogwarts is no paradise, however. It’s a microcosm of the wider world, where class and wealth distinctions are apparent, where houses are substitute families, where bullying is rife, and where heroes and villains are forged. Initially a safe environment with dangerous areas, the line between the two blurs as Harry matures and more is at stake. Magic, the texts are clear, has real and lasting consequences.

Learning and educational systems are also evaluated. Rote learning may have its place, but it’s through guided experimentation, trial and error, that deep learning occurs. Some of the teachers lead by example, few poorly. But there are lessons in that too.

Even sport is seen to have an intrinsic role in education – it’s a social ‘glue’ that both binds and divides.

The reception and distribution of the texts in the wider world also merits consideration. Some critics believe that it’s as much the mass-marketing machine behind the books and films that makes Potter popular, practically disregarding any literary merit.

With the last two movies hitting global screens over the next months, and the lead actors now being household names, the two notions cannot be separated. And nor should they. It makes studying these types of texts even more interesting.

Certainly, this is something other educationalists have known for years – how bringing adored popular culture texts (films, music, contemporary novels, comics, websites) into the classroom and teaching them alongside classical ones, can engage students, deliver real lessons and be both fulfilling and rewarding – and not just for the Muggle pupils.

Would you do a course on Harry Potter? Why/Why not? What other texts would you like to study?

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