Stranger than fiction: Harry Potter and the Order of the Entitled

Widening-participation pieties that ignore class are as much a fantasy as J. K. Rowling's magical-mirror Oxbridge, says Mary Evans

July 31, 2008

The relationship between Harry Potter, Oxbridge and educational mobility may not at first seem apparent or relevant. But there are important connections.

The films of the Harry Potter books included shots of Oxbridge colleges, and of course the great dining hall at Hogwarts school invoked the majesty of those real places. Harry himself was struggling to abandon the wilful idiocy of his adopted family, the Dursleys, for what appeared to be the open-minded generosity of Hogwarts.

This reading of the Harry Potter series suggests that J. K. Rowling's emancipatory saga is more socially conservative than is sometimes suggested, in that she makes the world that Harry is trying to leave miserable and resistant to any idea of education. In doing so she follows the tacit assumption that education will somehow "correct" social deficiencies. When New Labour gave voice to its mantra of "Education, education, education", there was an element of this same feeling about the value of education, that it would take people away from a narrow world to those proverbial Elysian fields of understanding. When John Prescott remarked that the "worst thing you could do to a child was to not educate it", he revealed that reliance on the institutional "fix" that bedevils all forms of social engineering. But the Government turned away from the language and politics of class in ways that arguably limited the political space that might have encouraged the disadvantaged to demand greater access to higher education and particularly its more elite aspects.

Since 1997, there has been considerable state effort to open up the green pastures of higher education to the children of manual workers and ethnic minorities. But still those sections of the population remain under-represented and much effort has been directed towards trying to persuade them that higher education is for them. The resistance to a particular view of higher education has been illuminated by my research student, Sarah Evans, in a study of working-class girls in southeast London.

The young women studied were all academically able sixth-formers, hoping to go on to higher education; precisely the kind of people that any sane government would want to encourage. But what the Government could not do - or so far did not do - was to recognise the cultural and social values and assumptions that these young women had. These values included a strong sense of family loyalty and family ties, a determination to use any skills acquired to further not just their individual situation but also that of their family, together with a perception of the distance between their worlds and those of prestigious universities. For example, when some of the young women were taken on a trip to the University of Cambridge, several of them spoke of its absolute strangeness. Unlike Harry Potter, they did not view the august dining rooms as places to aspire to; on the contrary, these very places were actually the places of fiction ... this was the world of Harry Potter.

This reaction to the material forms of privilege suggests both a healthy degree of scepticism about automatic veneration for the material spaces of high culture and the absence of that sense of entitlement that transparently informs the choices of many privileged students. To wish to improve the lot of one's family through education is part of a vital thread of socially essential altruism, but when unconnected to any other agenda - for example about reordering privilege and wealth - it remains exactly that, a refusal of the recognition of the circumstances that make that assistance necessary. The pupils who move seamlessly from public schools to Oxbridge do so because the two worlds both look, and in many respects actually are, the same. These worlds have many of the same points of cultural reference, including the assumption that higher education is about the furtherance of the individual agenda.

When higher education is not seen in these terms (and of course when it involves costs that are huge to those who have not been paying school fees), that sense of separation between the world of home and school and the world of university becomes acute. The refusal in the past ten years of a public discussion of class as a part of individual as well as general politics is most detrimental to those most disadvantaged by class: young women from working-class families are left without a politics through which to develop a sense of both public anger about social inequality and that individual sense of entitlement common to the more privileged.

Abolishing class naturalises social difference and social agency; Harry Potter's magical arrival at Hogwarts exactly reflects our current understanding of social transformation.

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