The Surprising Trouble with Harry
Perry Glanzer on Harry Potter & Public-School Moral Education
Everyone seems to love Harry Potter, except a few suspicious Christians. While many public school educators applaud how the Potter series motivates kids to read, they—not conservative Christians nervous about the witchcraft and wizardry—are the ones who should be scared of the Harry Potter series. For the books attractively challenge the moral vacuum within public schools. Those concerned with moral education in public schools—traditionalists, progressives, believers in Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, and fans of character education—should beware the revolutionary challenge of Harry Potter’s moral world.
J. K. Rowling makes her moral message prominent. She recognizes that moral qualities are more important than intellectual ones. As Harry’s friend Hermione tells him, “Books! And Cleverness! There are more important things—friendship and bravery.” In Rowling’s story, moral outlook takes precedence over the wizardry and witchcraft, a point many Christian detractors overlook.
What her Christian critics tend to notice, however, is that Harry seems continually to be breaking school rules. That Harry and his friends also demonstrate certain virtues comes as no consolation. As one traditionalist critic, Berit Kjos, maintains, “Harry and his friends may show loyalty to each other and courage in the face of danger. But they also lie and steal. Would you call that a moral world?” What such critics fail to realize about Harry’s moral world is that school rules are not tightly linked to the ultimate moral order, and obeying them can, at times, be pharisaical and even disobedient to the moral order. Staying out past curfew and breaking into a restricted book section are hardly the stuff of major rebellion, although they do cause problems for school bureaucrats.
Harry and his friends usually do not break school rules for fun. They reason that, in light of the larger battle between good and evil in the world, obeying school rules cannot be their ultimate end. Thus, in the first book, defeating evil becomes more important to Harry than following rules to ensure that he stays at the elite magical academy of Hogwarts—even when his best friends oppose him:
Though when Harry does indulge in a little rule-breaking for his own pleasure, other voices challenge him. For example, in The Prisoner of Azkaban, a professor provides a stinging critique at one point when Harry’s rule-breaking stems less from reasons related to the overall battle between good and evil and more from his selfishness:
Thus, voices in defense of reasonable moral rules clearly exist in the Potter world. But when issues of ultimate good and evil are at stake, one may excuse Harry and his friends for breaking curfew by staying out past twelve.
Autonomy & Choice
Of course, teaching kids to obey moral rules has long been out of style in many public schools. Since the 1960s, much “moral education” has downplayed the content of morality and emphasized the importance of children learning how to make moral choices. Thus, values clarification texts discourage teachers from “moralizing,” which one group of authors defines as “the direct, although sometimes subtle, inculcation of the adult’s values upon the young.” Values clarification “does not aim to instill any particular set of values.” Instead, it merely (says the theory) helps students choose and clarify their own values.
Some Potter fans mistakenly believe Rowling subtly advocates this moral world. James Morone glowingly wrote in The American Prospect of the children: “They make their own choices whether or not the adults approve.” He then quoted a well-known conversation at the end of book two where the headmaster of the school, Professor Dumbledore, tells Harry, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Morone claims that this leads Harry to a particular existential moral truth: “Goodness lies not in who you are but in what you decide, in what you do. Such existential truths never play well on the hard right, where truths come down on graven tablets and saving grace flashes from on high.” A similar perspective was offered by Edmund Kern, who, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, claimed that Harry is governed by “rules of his own making.”
Both Morone and Kern muddled a key distinction. Rowling’s characters do not find goodness through the act of choosing, but in choosing to do the good and battle evil, and by not confusing what is good or evil with things or persons that are merely different (e.g., human beings and wizards).
Throughout her works, Rowling clearly depicts a moral universe where such distinctions matter. For example, the villains tend to speak in a relativistic fashion. The villain in the first book claims that the evil wizard Voldemort provided a bit of postmodern values clarification for him: “A foolish young man I was then, full of ridiculous ideas about good and evil. Lord Voldemort showed me how wrong I was.” Harry’s opposing moral perspective appears quite compatible with both graven tablets and saving grace.
But graven tablets and saving grace are not what guide sophisticated advocates of moral education today. They usually rely upon a famous theory of moral education propagated by a former Harvard University professor named Lawrence Kohlberg. His theory of moral reasoning lists five (or six, depending on the interpreter) stages through which the individual who develops morally is considered to advance.
Some authors in the Journal of Moral Education have claimed to identify all the different stages of moral reasoning in the Potter series. Not surprisingly, they reason that Harry is the most mature moral reasoner in the story, “because of his focus on fair procedures and social and individual rights.” This “rights” language is foreign to the book, and its use in relation to Harry Potter is merely an example of academics trying to force Harry into their neat categories of cognitive moral reasoning.
What is apparent from their analysis, however, is that they separate the moral reasoning contained in the story from its overarching narrative context. They fail to realize that Harry’s moral reasoning only makes sense in light of a larger story that involves a cosmic struggle between good and evil and not merely a concern for “fair procedures and social and individual rights.”
Harry & the Cosmic Struggle
The defenders of civic virtue also find a great deal to praise about the Harry Potter books. It depends on who is writing as to what virtues are praised. One writer on the right claimed that “the Potter books promote—through their characters—friendship, love, bravery, self-reliance, the importance of family and tolerance toward those different from us.” A writer on the left claimed that the characters’ motives are “the good liberal qualities of compassion, empathy and tolerance.”
What both writers failed to see is that the characters’ actions are only virtuous in light of grand narratives with a particular end. Both Harry and his nemesis Draco have loyal friends. Yet Harry’s friends exhibit loyalty in the midst of a larger battle for good. Draco’s friends exhibit loyalty while doing evil. In other words, virtues are only virtues because they are demonstrated within a larger narrative structure that contains a grand moral battle.
Thus, Harry and his friends aim to do more than obey school rules. Getting good grades also pales in comparison to showing virtue, and even the virtues only prove important for something else—the cosmic tournament between good and evil. The attraction of the Potter series is that it catches students up in something for which we all long—to be part of a grand story with an ultimate cause.
This may explain why some conservative Christians see the Harry Potter books as a threat. Rowling packages the cosmic struggle using characters and means that the Bible indicates are on the other side. The problem with these critics is that they miss the larger message contained in the books.
Nonetheless, these Christians appear to understand something more than the two authors from the Chronicle of Higher Education who claim:
J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis understood true fantasy literature as pointing to truths that we often miss in reality. Tolkien wrote, “The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. . . . It may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.”
Kids are not escaping into fantasy with Harry. They are merely satisfying a desire that springs from our created nature. Thus, Rowling teaches us what the Lord of the Rings also illumines. As George Marsden wrote on The Lord of the Rings:
Christians who take the idea of a cosmic struggle between good and evil seriously should see the Potter series as an ally because it reinforces a core Christian belief currently under attack. In Harry’s world, good and evil are not just “socially constructed” rules made up by those in power to keep themselves in power. An actual cosmic struggle between good and evil exists.
Most importantly, this struggle gives meaning and drama to our world. Rowling provides something for students that American public schools do not. She illuminates why character education, values clarification, Kohlberg’s moral reasoning, or getting stricter about rules will never do what we wish. Moral education within the public schools of a liberal democracy will never capture children’s moral vision and imagination.
Children need more than a set of virtues to emulate, values to choose, rules to obey, or even some higher form of reasoning to attain. They long to be part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. And that’s why children want to read Harry Potter.
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“The Surprising Trouble with Harry” first appeared in the November 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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