What a wizard idea

Study of the social and moral issues raised in the Harry Potter series has great relevance to today’s society, argues Martin Richardson

July 13, 2010

Credit: Alamy
Durham Castle

As Durham University’s student newspaper Palatinate recently announced, Harry Potter will return to Durham next term in Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion.

For those who know the city, the Durham/Potter link should come as no surprise. The view of the peninsula from the railway station, showing the juxtaposition of Durham Castle (which is part of University College) and the Cathedral, is quintessentially Hogwartian. The connection goes back to the first two films in the series, with several scenes shot in and around the Cathedral and children from local schools appearing as pupils at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

However, Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion is not the title of J.K. Rowling’s eighth book in the series, but rather a new second-year undergraduate module in the university’s School of Education.

The module has aroused a great deal of interest from the student population, which is hardly surprising since they are the Harry Potter generation. However, is it fit for academic study?

There are those who argue that the books are shallow and derivative, mere escapism and the product of media hype; whereas others accuse the former of intellectual snobbery and of succumbing to the British temptation to deride anything that is successful.

The Potter proponents see it at the very least as an exciting, readable, morality tale that has led children living in a computer-obsessed world to queue outside bookstores waiting for the next literary release.

Whichever side of the fence one stands, and even for the habitual fencesitters, one thing is certain – Harry Potter is hard to ignore. Two years ago, worldwide book sales were reported to have passed the 400 million mark; add to this the films and other spin-offs, and there can be few areas of the globe that have not been touched by the boy wizard.

Furthermore, considering the first book was published in 1997, it has spawned an impressive number of commentaries in a comparatively short time. These range from what is little more than fan literature rushed out to ride the wave of Pottermania, to academic writings that are insightful, thought provoking and well researched.

Durham will not be the first to offer a Harry Potter-based module: in 2007, there was a summer course at the University of Edinburgh; and tuition in Christian Theology and Harry Potter at Yale was pre-dated by Kansas State University, where Harry continues to have a place in the children’s literature graduate programme.

While acknowledging that literature forms part of a nation’s DNA, the module Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion is innovative, serious and will set the series in its wider social and cultural context. Thus it will eschew textual analysis; instead it will use the text and films to shed light on contemporary society and look at the wider moral universe of the school environment, considering such issues as prejudice, intolerance, courage and friendship. The series has also led to a nostalgic rebranding of Britain with its castles, lochs, forests and the rural idyll of the Burrow (the Weasley family home); there is even an emphasis on elusive core British values.

The government’s current obsession with formal citizenship education, targeting young people seemingly cast adrift without a moral compass, is one of the links that will be explored in depth. There are a number of recurring themes that find a ready home here – not least the notion of choice. As the seemingly omnipotent headmaster Albus Dumbledore tells Harry at the end of the second book: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Homespun philosophy it may be, but it is none the worse for that, and certainly it is central to a citizenship education that focuses on rights, duties, active participation, making informed choices and tolerance.

Harry Potter fit for academic study? This optional module has had to meet the same rigorous academic standards as any other, and has the approval of the external examiner. It is only fitting that a university such as Durham responds to new developments in our academic and wider social and cultural environment to develop new modules such as this.

Surely, higher education must explore issues relevant to today’s society. Some of the universal themes covered in the works of J.K. Rowling certainly bear analysis, whether in English departments or outside.

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