In the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, there’s an interesting moment when educational rights are discussed in the wizarding world. In the final book of the series Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows the three main characters Harry, Ron, and Hermione, are in hiding while the dark wizard Voldemort takes over the magical world. Their friend and former professor, Remus Lupin, visits them to share an update on the current happenings of Voldemort’s quiet takeover.
As he shares the laundry list of Voldemort’s evil doings Lupin mentions that the dark wizard has outlawed homeschooling. While most children in Great Britain attended Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a few families opted to educate their children at home. But under Voldemort’s regime, they no longer have that choice. It’s easy to miss this brief conversation about homeschooling rights in the magical world, but I think it’s significant and if we examine Rowling’s critique of certain educational systems in the series we’ll find it’s relevant to us muggles, too.
While the entire series revolves around education (it takes place at a wizarding school, after all), the fifth book in particular highlights educational methods. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Dolores Umbridge, a Ministry of Magic (wizard government) employee, enters the scene and is runner-up to Voldemort for the most despicable character in the series. Umbridge is appointed the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor and she seeks to control education at Hogwarts in order to serve ministry interests.
Children in her class are not taught to reason, explore, or create. They are taught to memorize and take standardized tests. They are taught to turn off their brains in order to accept whatever the ministry wants to feed them.
Umbridge uses the weapons of boredom and rote memorization to indoctrinate her students. Questions of any kind are not tolerated. The subject of Defense Against the Dark Arts that once contributed to students’ ability to fight dark magic is now a class devoted to ministry propaganda. Students are to memorize the information required to pass the standardized tests (Ordinary Wizarding Levels) at the year’s end. Anything not on the test is considered unnecessary and to be avoided.
Umbridge’s power grows when she is given the title of High Inquisitor and the authority to review the performance of other teachers and their curriculum. While curiosity, creativity, and resourcefulness are virtues that have always been highly encouraged by Hogwarts staff, Umbridge critiques such methods as too dangerous for students. Her main goal is for her students to memorize the information required to pass standardized tests which she claims, “is what school is all about.”
Rowling is severely critical of Umbridge and her method of so-called education. And it’s the legislation Umbridge puts in place that leads the way for more government control over Hogwarts and the eventual educational decree that outlaws homeschooling.
Why would the Ministry of Magic want to limit choices for education? Because controlling the minds of children is crucial to the concerns of the state. When anti-clerical socialist President Calles of Mexico waged the Cristero War against religion (executing or expelling 4,000 priests between 1926 and 1934) one of his primary methods of attacking Christianity was to close the parochial school system. He knew that to maintain power, his political party must have a monopoly on education. “We must enter and take possession of the mind of childhood,” he claimed.
The Cristero War isn’t fantasy literature, of course. It’s history. But let’s get back to the wizards. Why did Voldemort want to criminalize homeschooling? He wanted to indoctrinate children with the sort of “education” that would make them controllable members of his society. If he can dictate the curriculum in schools and force families into one method of education, the minds of the youth are under his control.
In the series, we don’t meet any characters who are educated at home. From what Lupin says, the number of homeschooled students is negligible. So why even bother outlawing homeschooling? It prevents families who have their children in school from making the decision to remove them if necessary. Because now as parents wake up to the slow shift of ministry control over Hogwarts, they don’t have the right to pull their kids out. They are required to be there and truancy is punishable by law.
Now I’m not saying that our current political administration is run by Death Eaters. I also don’t think homeschooling is the only way to get a good education and clearly, neither does Rowling. The plot of all her novels revolves around an excellent school run by dedicated teachers who are devoted to their subjects and their students. The school is beloved by it’s students and as readers, we come to love it, too. It’s almost as if Hogwarts itself is a main character in the story.
So obviously Rowling doesn’t wish to vilify education outside the sphere of homeschooling. Not at all. But she is incredibly perceptive as to the dangers of certain educational ideologies and any attempt to discourage parents from educating their own children if they so desire.
Educational methods that discourage thinking for oneself, understanding logic, questioning assumptions, and nurturing creativity should make us incredibly wary. Education should offer us the resources to become humans being who thrive, rather than churning out future contributors to an economy. And legislation that seeks to diminish parents’ rights to choose the best kind of education for their family should alarm not only homeschoolers but families using traditional schooling as well. It should be something we all care about whether homeschooling or using traditional brick and mortar schools, wizard or muggle.
Fortunately for families of Hogwarts, their children already had a foundation in both virtue and critical thinking. Due to strong, connected families (after all, wizard children don’t begin school until age 11) and after being influenced by wonderful teachers like Professor Lupin, many students were able to resist the oppressive system Voldemort put in place. In fact, it’s the efforts of Ron, Harry, and Hermione and the student resistance movement at Hogwarts (as well as some courageous teachers) that end up saving the magical world.
This is the kind of strong foundation I want my children to have–whether we continue to homeschool or send them to a classroom–so that they have the ability to recognize the dark wizards of their time and have the courage to fight for what’s good, true, and beautiful.