Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has been flying from the shelves almost as swiftly and magically
as it arrives. Meanwhile the latest Harry
Potter film, based on book number five, is an early summer blockbuster. Without wishing to infringe
on anyone’s fun, the final bout of Potter-mania seems a good moment
to acknowledge that, for all its fictive charm, Hogwarts does not offer
a real education.
What, after all, do the students
learn in their marvellous academy? How to cast spells certainly, but
what about literature, calculus or logic? Optimistic classicists have
pointed out that the neophyte wizards seem to run around muttering mangled
Latin, but they con “Evanesco” only because it is a word of power.
They have no need to learn the third conjugation for a deponent verb
or construe from Book X of Virgil’s Aeneid. Harry and friends
could graduate with honours in wand-waving and yet be fundamentally
ignorant in a deep human sense. Hogwarts does not offer an education
at all, only vocational training. It is a secondary modern in fancy
It may only be a story, but
it seems curious that this flaw in the curriculum of wizardry has not
been noticed. As my colleague at the New Culture Forum, Dominic Hilton,
has pointed out in his recent review of Order of the Phoenix,
all sides of the political battlefield have studied Rowling’s universe
closely, scheduling different parts for praise or demolition. The Left
has quibbled with Hogwarts for glamorising the traditional boarding
school, while the Right has admired how many hours Harry spends on the
And yet who has noticed that
in amongst his adventures, the hero isn’t actually getting the lessons
he deserves? Being sent to Hogwarts may be preferable to the Dursleys’
cupboard under the stairs, but Gryffindor provides a more subtle form
of child neglect—the neglect of the mind.
Yet perhaps our inability to
appreciate Harry’s plight is not so surprising: we miss it in our
own children as well. For all the nonsense that has been talked up and
down on City Academies and grammar schools in recent months, the educational
debate remains lodged in the realm of admissions systems and funding.
When we talk of education in Britain in the twenty-first century, the
conversation is confined to administrative matters, as if the issue
of what is to be taught was merely secondary.
Yet we cannot answer the hard
questions about how to organise our schools without first considering
what we intend them to achieve. To start at the other end is to be reduced,
as now, to a system where the government first legislates to chain teenagers
to their desks for another two years and then adjusts the curriculum
to keep its captives as quiet as possible during their internment. Schooling
without a vision of what education can mean is an empty project.
And that vision of education
cannot be a vocational, Hogwartian one. That is not to say that training
is not useful or necessary; but training is not education precisely
because it is useful and necessary. C. S. Lewis understood the distinction.
In his 1939 essay, ‘Our English Syllabus’ he was candid.
"If education is beaten
by training, civilization dies. That is a thing very likely to happen."
Training turns the person into
a tool. It is indifferent whether the trainee is a slave or a free man,
serving his own conscience or the whim of his masters, only that he
learn to do his job. Education in its true, liberal sense is that induction
to the full possibilities of the thinking mind that the free human person
deserves, whatever their station or future profession – preparation
for self-mastery, together with an induction to the heights of human
possibility. In the unmatchable words of Michael Oakeshott:
"Each of us is born in a
corner of the earth and at a particular moment in historic time, lapped
around with locality. But school and university are places apart where
a declared learner is emancipated from the limitations of his local
circumstances […] and is moved by intimations of what he has never
yet dreamed. […] they are places where a learner is initiated into
what there is to be learned."
Oakeshott would have understood
that a magical vocation should not cut a child off from the wider and
deeper enchantments of a true education. Rowling gave Harry and his
friends a rousing school song, but we have not thought hard enough about
what it really demands.
"So teach us things worth
Bring back what we’ve forgot"
We have forgotten ‘the things
worth knowing’ that mark out a truly liberal education: a curriculum
centred on the humanities; direct engagement with the Western canon;
the preparation of character for self-discipline. Lewis was fond of
magical fantasy, but he too would have recognised a touch of barbarism
in our pretence that Hogwarts Secondary Modern is a real school.