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Marc Sidwell: No child of mine will go to Hogwarts

Marc Marc Sidwell is a Research Fellow of the New Culture Forum and a member of the Organising Committee for the Henry Jackson Society.

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 dress.

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 quidditch pitch.

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 knowing, 
    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.


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