Other Muggles' Children: Power and Oppression in Harry Potter

Citation metadata

Date: Winter 2018
From: The Midwest Quarterly(Vol. 59, Issue 2)
Publisher: Pittsburg State University - Midwest Quarterly
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,371 words

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

The wonderful world of Harry Potter and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is filled with various examples of what teaching should and should not be. The plots within the fourth and fifth installments ( Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ) provide the best examples of situations and possible solutions, both magical and not, encountered by educators. In-depth knowledge of this world is not necessary to comprehend the application of teaching methods, but basic background information and excerpts will be provided in order to show the appropriation of critical pedagogy, which is defined as the outcome of critical thinking as a result of engaged dialogue. From an American perspective, the state of education described in the novels appears appalling, even though it is not really much different from what we know, and the best efforts of educators to promote a healthy and effective learning environment are often dismissed by government officials more interested in test scores than in applicable skills. J.K. Rowling may not intentionally advocate such teaching methods, but the situations she writes about are all too familiar to educators and the end result shows how critical pedagogy, used by the good characters, will triumph over any obstacle, especially the evil ones. Rowlings novels, although set in a fictional part of England in the 1990s, represent the dangers of the current American education climate and serve as a warning to both those seeking to assist oppressed communities as well as to those participating in such oppression.

Critical pedagogy, championed by Paulo Freire and Henry A. Giroux, is the "outcome of particular struggles and is always related to the specificity of particular contexts, students, communities, and available resources" and intends to draw "attention to the ways in which knowledge, power, desire, and experience are produced" (Giroux 4). In other words, critical pedagogy is the result of acknowledging how learning is shaped by personal experiences. In relation to the Harry Potter series, several characters show different sides of oppression through the use of critical pedagogy: Hermione Granger and Harry Potter represent the liberation while Dolores Umbridge represents the oppression itself with Albus Dumbledore falling somewhere in between due to his approach to liberation. However, Hermione's efforts, which begin in the fourth installment, concentrate on house-elves who, being elves as opposed to humans or students, do not suffer from the actions of Umbridge when she becomes heavily involved during the fifth book. It is also important to note how the characters are referred to, with one using her first name and the other using her last name, perhaps indicating respect in relation to their positions; Hermione and Harry, supporting liberation of the house-elves, work for the side of good while Umbridge, supporting oppression of the students, works on the side of evil; Dumbledore is the outlier because while he is referred to by his last name, implying a nefarious nature, he also seemingly works towards liberation and represents the murky and muddy waters surrounding what is right and how to achieve it.

Rowling's fictional world, set in the United Kingdom during the 1990s, is one of oppression--Harry's oppression by his family after the death of his parents; the oppression of wizards by Voldemort and his followers (Death Eaters), regardless of his apparent death; the oppression of various members of the wizarding society, including those lacking magical abilities or those not full-blooded wizards, house-elves, giants, and others; and the oppression of students and professors by the wizarding government. Harry's parents were killed by Voldemort during his infancy because they were part of an organization intended to end his domination (the Order of the Phoenix), leaving the young boy in his maternal Aunt's custody. While in her care, Harry was bullied by her husband and son as he grew up while she merely watched, until his acceptance into Hogwarts. Voldemort controlled his minions through promises of power and those against him through fear, using various curses, charms, and spells, including the three Unforgivable Curses (death, torture, and complete mind/body control). Just as in the non-magical realm, problems exist within the wizarding world, such as the segregations of class, and are often perpetuated by the ruling class. Some members are overly concerned with social status and family heritage (especially the Malfoys, a favored family of Voldemort), even referring to others by derogatory names (Mudblood for a wizard with non-magical heritage) and going so far as to discount their reliability. As with the current society in the United States, the students and educators at Hogwarts are also oppressed by the government, but in the form of the Ministry of Magic which sets the rules, monitors magic usage, and conducts judicial hearings as needed. Their use of power plays a prominent role in The Order of the Phoenix , beginning with the trial of Harry for using magic in front of his human cousin, leading to the placement of Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge as professor and, later, headmistress.

In the first of his lectures in "The School and Society," John Dewey states that "It is our social problem now, even more urgent than in the time of Plato, that method, purpose, understanding, shall exist in the consciousness of the one who does work, that his activity shall have meaning to himself' (18). Dewey emphasizes the necessity for school and society to work together in order to educate the child, meaning that what the child experiences outside of school should be explored further within the classroom and what he learns in the classroom should have practical application outside of it. However, the use of practical application of class studies wavers throughout the novels, depending on both the professor and the situation. In the beginning of the fifth book, Harry is reprimanded for using magic outside of Hogwarts due to a Dementor (wraith creature) attack on himself and his cousin. The spell Harry uses is one that he learned during a previous school year and was used as a defense mechanism while in the presence of his Muggle cousin. While Dewey does not focus on defense and attack (or magic, for that matter), his words still ring true: the purpose of Hogwarts is to train young wizards and witches to use spells safely and effectively in order to function in the world. Even though the governing organization has reasons for limiting the use of magic by underage wizards (untrained wizards shooting off spells and charms without proper training is a bit terrifying), it goes against Dewey's belief that what is learned in school must have practical applications outside of the classroom. Even though the charges against Harry are dropped, the fact remains that the students of Hogwarts can only protect themselves while at school--exactly the opposite of Dewey's belief.

In order to nurture and promote the democratic and interactive classroom setting, special attention must be paid to the language used in said setting to fully understand the impact on the students. The language used in the Harry Potter series contains a lot of derogatory terms intended to oppress certain people, and this language has been passed down throughout the generations. The characters that use the negative terms are generally antagonists rather than the protagonists, supporting the idea that Rowling is an advocate of critical pedagogy. Language is a source of power, regardless of basis in fiction or reality, which means it is a way to control people, and is frequently used when discussing class relations. In present-day America, the word "ghetto" describes a lower-class, uncultured, uneducated person or group of people, and this term has been around for decades. It has grown from a mere adjective to a state of mind, and those described as such often embrace it. While having such pride in oneself should be cause for celebration, the lack of desire to change the status quo negates it. In Rowling's world, terms such as "Muggle" and "Squib" are meant as basic descriptors, just as a color would describe a crayon or a shirt, but the connotations have a certain negativity to them. The way in which people are described in this series is almost like animals bred for show--purebred wizards with magic abilities are, of course, viewed as higher class, but purebred wizards without these abilities are nearly as bad as regular humans, but a human with no magical lineage yet still has magical abilities is deemed unworthy of anything--it lessens the pool of wizard blood, muddying the water, resulting in the term "Mudblood." This hierarchy of breeding, and naming such breeds, creates a sense of oppression but the only way to overcome it is to eliminate the naming system. This solution is not offered throughout the course of the books, but the use of these terms depends on the person--most of the positive characters use only "Muggle" and "Squib" when necessary as a descriptor, but the negative characters often use "Mudblood," regardless of heritage, simply because of the connotation, thus continuing the cycle of oppression.

The best example in this book of language as oppression being passed through the generations lies in the house of the Black family, which was donated by Harry's godfather Sirius Black to use as the headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix. Within this world, there are creatures other than simple humans--there are beings of mythology and legend, including giants, centaurs, and elves. The two former groups have their own sets of rules and generally stay separated from wizards, but the elves are fully indoctrinated into wizarding society. House-elves are viewed as lesser beings, relegated to the duties of housekeeping (similar to slavery, especially in pre-Civil War America). Kreacher, the house elf of the Black family, is not only a member of the oppressed species of elves, but he also perpetuates the oppression of non-purebred wizards, constantly muttering phrases such as, "Nasty little brat of a blood traitor it is" (The Order of the Phoenix 108) towards one of the pure-blood characters. Hermione claims Kreachers age is the cause of his negativity, causing him not to know what he's saying, but another character tells her, "he knows exactly what he's saying" (109), mimicking Freires claim that "the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or 'suboppressors'" (45). Kreacher's oppression by the history of wizarding society has caused him to become a sub-oppressor of wizards through his "attitude of 'adhesion' to the oppressor" (45), resulting in a seemingly endless cycle of oppression.

The oppressive environment in which Sirius and the house-elf Kreacher have spent so many years impacted on each of them, but in different ways, likely due to their social standing in the wizarding world. Sirius rebelled against the elite mentality of the pure-blood families, despite being raised by a woman whose personality was captured perfectly in her portrait that screams insults at the rebel organization members (portraits in this realm are also magical, with the ability to move about the frame as well as communicate with beings outside the frame in a way that shows awareness of surroundings). This rebellion was caused by the education provided during his years at Hogwarts, resulting in the removal of Sirius from the family tree after running away, having had enough of his parents' "pure-blood mania, convinced that to be a Black made you practically royal" (The Order of the Phoenix 111) as well as being constantly reminded that his younger brother was a better son. Sirius spent years trying to rectify the wrongs done by his family, but Kreacher has perpetuated the negativity, refusing to allow anyone less than pure-blood to be considered worthy, excluding anyone with sympathies towards the "lower" class of wizards from the elite status.

Freire warns that the oppressed can easily become the oppressors, either while remaining oppressed, during the process of liberation, or after liberation. Kreacher's oppression is something he seemingly welcomes, graciously accepting his role to the noble and most ancient House of Black, feeling that it gives him a sense of power over lesser wizards, despite his own lower-class status based on his species. When Hermione, champion of house-elf liberation, suggests freeing Kreacher, Sinus responds, "the shock would kill him. You suggest that he leaves this house, see how he takes it" (110). Kreacher does not want liberation from his position as servant, but revels in it because of the environment to which he is accustomed--he is ignorant to freedom, and it likely scares him. Kreachers role as both oppressed and oppressor puts him in a complicated position--he feels liberated, yet he is not; he feels oppressed, but he does not want freedom (he also cannot obtain it because he knows too much of the Order of the Phoenix and the members know he cannot be trusted to keep their secrets). Freire explains that "Once a situation of violence and oppression has been established, it engenders an entire way of life and behavior for those caught up in it-oppressors and oppressed alike" (58). Kreacher, viewed as an enemy, enjoys the oppression he imposes upon lower-class wizards, but Sinus, viewed as an ally of the heroes, fights against the oppression he has learned and experienced.

Just as Dewey emphasizes the importance of applicable skills, Freire pioneers for social change through education, which relies on Dewey's belief. Freire best describes the two stages to overcoming oppression by stating that "first, the oppressed unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis commit themselves to its transformation" (54). Acknowledging that oppression exists is the first part, but combining theory and practice (praxis) sets the scene for the second stage, "in which the reality of oppression has already been transformed, this pedagogy ceases to belong to the oppressed and becomes a pedagogy of all people in the process of permanent liberation" (54). In each of these stages, it is important to understand the status quo, why it has been in place, and how to change it all while engaging in dialogue. Both parts require critical thinking, especially once the oppressed are liberated so that they do not, in turn, become oppressors. Harry's close friend Hermiones activism for the liberation of house-elves begins in The Goblet of Fire and continues into the following The Order of the Phoenix , and while she recognizes the oppression of the house-elves, she does not fully understand their enslavement. Unfortunately, her attempts at liberation become a monologue rather than a dialogue. Her understanding of oppression comes from her own experience, allowing for a connection with the house-elves; as a human-born witch with no magical lineage, she becomes one of the oppressed upon being accepted into Hogwarts, and she desires to free the house-elves from oppression while handling her own oppression through striving to be a better educated and more knowledgeable witch than any pure-blood. While her intention is sincere, her liberation fails because many of the house-elves are so engrossed into their positions, accepting the oppression as a way of life, that they do not want any type of help in promoting their quality of life, relegating Hermione's action to activism, which Freire defines as "action for action's sake," thus "negating] the true praxis and mak[ing] dialogue impossible" (88).

Winky, recently released from her duties by her previous master, accepts work from Dumbledore, but as "Wink)' is a disgraced elf, [she] is not yet getting paid" because she "is properly ashamed of being freed" as her family has served the same family of wizards for generations (Goblet 379). While enslaved by wizards, house-elves are required to keep the secrets of their masters, uphold family honor, and never speak ill of them, but Dumbledore s mindset that he is not the master of his house-elf employees relieves the elves of these rules. In contrast to Winky, Dobby, another house-elf that enjoys his freedom and paid employment, continues to follow these rules because he wants to do so, not because he is required to. Hermione wants liberation for all house-elves, stating of Dobby's happiness that "The other elves will see how happy he is, being free, and slowly it'll dawn on them that they want that too" (383), further imposing her own desires onto another culture. Rowling shows the danger of liberating the reluctant oppressed because of the performance strike that can result from it--Hermione tries to force conscientizacao (raised consciousness) upon the elves, but it only makes them refuse the revolution. Winky, unlike Dobby, is more concerned with maintaining the status quo that house-elves are unpaid servants rather than promoting elfish welfare, and thinking about such a promotion makes it impossible for her to do her duties, paid or not. Hermione shows her own application of critical thinking and liberation from oppression, even if it is not entirely successful, solidifying her classification as an ally. It is important to note that Hermione lacks dialogue with the elves--she wants to promote their social standing, but she ignores their desires, creating a monologue. Her lack of success is important because educators sometimes experience failure regardless of intent and attempts at liberation through critical thinking because it is easy to be so involved in the liberation that one ignores the pleas of remaining oppressed. Despite her failure, Hermione is still viewed as ultimately good because of her interest in promoting the oppressed and because of her attempt at critical pedagogy at such a young age. As Freire states, "not even the best-intentioned leadership can bestow independence as a gift" because liberation is achieved by treating women and men as such, not as things (66). Hermione's good intentions still dehumanize the elves, making their liberation impossible until they accept their oppression and seek to become treated as more than semihumans.

Dumbledores Army (DA), created in Harry's fifth year, is the perfect example of people engaging in social activist projects and the reason why anyone would join, based on education scholar James Paul Gee's reasoning. While interest in projects is expected to be taught in schools, students "rarely learn any such thing in school. Some people-not enough--learn how to engage in this social activist project when they join interest driven groups ... to explore civic engagement and social transformation with a diverse set of other people" (163). Gee's argument is directed at online interactions, but the setting of this book in particular is the mid-1990s, a time before the Internet was ubiquitous, and, regardless of the initial intent, the argument remains relevant. The young witches and wizards are not learning anything in their Defense Against the Dark Arts class, going against Dewey's belief, but they learn how to be engaged with others in the setting of the DA meetings, which were created as a means to invoke social change as described by Freire. This engagement leads to various applications of their new-found knowledge, whether battling oppressors in a government establishment or defending their school against those same oppressors.

Harry Potter is almost the perfect example of Lisa Delpit's statement that a student "who may be gifted in real-life settings are often at a loss when asked to exhibit knowledge solely through decontextualized paper-and-pencil exercises" (173). He is only an average student throughout most of the novels, but he somehow has more mastery over real-life applications of spells than many of his peers, likely due to his frequent encounters with Voldemort and other dangerous scenarios (usually, but not always, caused by Voldemort). On the opposite side, Neville Longbottom has less luck than Harry in classes, reiving on class-genius Hermione to guide him through assignments, and his applicable experience until the end of their fifth year is nonexistent. Through the lessons provided in the DA meetings under Harry's instruction, Neville proves to be just as competent as any other student, earning him the recognition as most improved, despite the advanced level of magic taught in the lessons, and enabling him to become a major leader in the final Battle of Hogwarts (when Voldemort becomes fully corporeal and attacks the school). These improvements and accomplishments can be credited to critical pedagogy, both by the professors and by the students acting as teachers.

Even though their article focuses on the composition classroom, observations about these classrooms by Nathaniel A. Rivers and Ryan P Weber can be applied to any classroom situation because within society, whether fictional or not, different ecological systems exist, and the students at Hogwarts live within a world (albeit a fictional one) "of dynamic, interrelated, socially constituted systems that are in constant flux" (192). Having had five different teachers for one subject in as many years, these students are no strangers to the constant flux of the world and are shaped by the changes as they themselves are creating their own changes. The DA itself is a smaller ecological system within the larger one of the school, which is part of the wizarding world as a whole. The interactions between the members shape the organization itself as well as the dynamics of the school and, later, the entire wizarding community, supporting Rivers and Weber's statement that "most changes proposed by advocates occur through concrete modifications to the institutional structures of government offices ... [and] schools" (188). The ways in which the members work together to practice spells and charms have the potential to raise test scores for the students (Ordinary Wizard Levels and Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Testing, more commonly referred to as OWLs and NEWTs), thus raising acclaim for the school. If students are able to pass the wizarding tests with ease, then they will be better prepared for the wizard work-force, meeting Dewey's insistence of applicable skills, further raising prestige for the school as well as bringing their expertise to their work and reducing the amount of training required, further impacting the wizard society.

Headmaster Albus Dumbledore recognizes the importance of addressing issues of interest to students and understands that knowledge of a student's non-school life is essential for learning their strengths but his methods place him somewhere between Hermione's quest for liberation and Umbridge's oppression. Throughout the series, he makes executive decisions that may seem questionable, such as sending students into the Forbidden Forest for detention, but his hidden agenda is for the betterment of the students. Because he knows of all the encounters, Dumbledore can breathe Harry's heritage into the lessons and make him into a much stronger wizard through a variety of means, which thus impacts Harry's leadership in Dumbledore s Army. The charm used by Harry in the beginning of the fifth novel is not one commonly taught and Harry's use of it causes the initial judiciary hearing, but the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement states how impressive it is for a wizard of his age to produce a fully-developed spell; this feat helped Harry become the instructor (and leader) of Dumbledore's Army during Umbridge's time at Hogwarts ( Order 141). Dumbledore is the example of the sentiment that "In order to teach you, I must know you"--their relationship only deepens Harry's knowledge and abilities, enabling him to be an effective instructor of his peers--and further supports Mike Rose's notion that "Honoring the histories of the people in the class brings into focus another set of, not unrelated, questions, questions about the politics and sociology of what gets selected" (Delpit 183, Rose 130). In The Order of the Phoenix , Dumbledore assigns private lessons for Harry with Professor Snape, whose allegiance to the good or the bad is unknown at this point as he was a known Death Eater in the past but has the headmaster's trust. Dumbledore has allowed various instructors to teach Harry certain advanced spells for his own protection throughout the years, including the one that landed him a trial at the beginning of the book. These private lessons embody the ideas presented by Ira Shor because Dumbledore uses the lessons as a means to get Harry to express himself "as soon as possible and as much as possible" through his invention of "teaching strategies from the actual activity observed" in the classroom setting (Shor 173). By giving Harry specific tasks targeted towards his concerns, Dumbledore not only empowers Harry to protect himself from Voldemort and his followers, but he also enacts democratic education by allowing Harry to help develop his own curriculum, even if he does not have the terminology to say that he wants to learn about specific spells. The private lessons also provide the professors a type of research, learning how to best approach various students and catering lessons towards them based on interests and abilities, although this benefit is never directly addressed in the series, and this research is evident in the relationship between Dumbledore and Harry. However, these lessons are intended to be private, meaning Harry cannot use the spells learned on his peers, so his experience is limited to practicing with the instructor. In this case, the instructor is one that has a tense relationship with Harry because of Snapes relationship with Harry's parents during their school years. Dumbledore's hidden agenda here could be to make the oppressor and oppressed work together in order to meet the greater goal, even if it is not explicitly stated, which is what Freire says is required for liberation.

Dumbledore takes the idea of the teacher knowing the students and their personal lives to another level. He believes in mutual understanding, taking Delpit's statement to the next level, implying that students require an understanding, to a certain extent, of their instructors and their backgrounds. In The Goblet of Fire , Dumbledore allows Harry to stay in his office while he escorts a visitor out, intentionally leaving Harry alone with the Pensieve in which memories are saved for viewing at a later date. Dumbledore knows of Harry's curiosity and leaves an important memory easily accessible for the inquisitive student. The purpose of this magical apparatus is to make it "easier to spot patterns and links," and Dumbledore, master of the hidden agenda and subversive teaching, planted the bait for Harry in order to pique his curiosity so that he could casually teach his student without formally teaching him (Goblet 597). The lesson taught here is very informal--a dialogue is established through curiosity, a trait highly valued by Freire because without it, learning and liberation cannot come to fruition. The first memory Harry witnesses provides insight to the relationship between Dumbledore and Snape, a double-agent for the good wizards because of his status as trusted Death Eater prior to Voldemorts fall during Harry's infancy. While the memory centers around the trial of another wizard, the brief mention of Snape provides Harry with the necessary insight into Snapes past, which is further explored in The Order of the Phoenix . This lesson, h owever informal, provides Harry some insight to Snape as a person with the intention to create a basis of understanding between Harry and Snape to help their educational relationship. Harry, however, is a special case when it comes to mutual understanding between teacher and student; his life is high-profile within the wizarding world because of his intimate connection to Voldemort so his experiences are known by not only his close friends, but also his instructors and other wizards. The mutual understanding between Harry and his instructors and friends is already biased because everyone already knows him, or at least think they do, but Harry is relatively new to this magical world. Regardless of his situation, Harry uses Dumbledores teaching techniques to further understand his peers, their backgrounds, and their learning styles, using that knowledge in the DA meetings to teach them how to successfully use the necessary skills for the impending danger; however, Harry's intentions are clear and set him apart from Dumbledore despite their similar teaching styles.

Dolores Umbridge, introduced as a major player in The Order of the Phoenix , presumably grew up in the society oppressed by Voldemort and was affected by his reign prior to his disappearance, but rather than revolting against it she chose to become one of the oppressors and embodies everything that is the opposite of critical pedagogy. Her appointment to the Defense Against the Dark Arts post is not entirely unexpected (there is a new instructor assigned every year), but her approach to the class is extremely elementary. During the first class meeting, she automatically dismisses attempts at dialogue and relies on the flawed system of banking, going on to state that the unstable environment in which the students had previously learned this subject resulted in the students being "far below the standard we would expect to see" for the year, especially as very specific standardized tests are given at certain points in the wizarding school system, similar to the American education system (Order 239). These fifth-year wizards are insultingly assigned a basic beginner book for the class, despite having had four years of instruction (the quality, however, is up for debate), bringing them back to the lessons for younger children as outlined by Dewey, a scholar who believes that the older students are the ones that have the ability to "see the complex and various social industries on which life depends" (55). The education earned at Hogwarts requires seven years, each with advancing difficulties of lessons, but starting from the beginning more than halfway through seems counterproductive, especially with the impending standardized test for fifth-year students. The students are well past the age, mentally and physically, of basic knowledge, having experienced magic for several years prior, making it difficult to reverse the knowledge, going from the evolution to the origins rather than learning the origins and then the progress. Umbridge, a former employee of the government-run Ministry of Magic, chooses to follow "a carefully structured, theory-centered, Ministry-approved course of defensive magic," stating that students will only be learning the spells, not actually using them because the application of defensive spells would be unnecessary in the class (239). The students in Umbridge's class are merely learning what is done rather than the application of the lessons, and without learning the practical application of the material in complex and various situations, the students have no experience using the spells and during the entire interrogation by the students regarding the course aims, in which they attempt to establish dialogue, Umbridge perpetuates the status quo of oppression by government officials by requiring students to raise their hands before speaking and stating that "it is the view of the Ministry that a theoretical knowledge will be more than sufficient to get [the students] through [their] examination, which, after all, is what school is all about" and shutting down any of their observations before they finish their sentences (243). Her approach goes against ideas set forth by education scholar Ira Shor, who believes that the classroom is not the place for job training because that should be "the responsibility of the employers themselves;" Umbridge's treatment of the classroom as job training lacks critical pedagogy, mostly because, for this class in which the students have had a different professor in each of their years at the school, there is no status quo to change, other than that of instability. Her reliance of standardized testing to show application of knowledge may create a stable environment but the lack of real experience to engage critical thinking negates any potential for positive outcomes. The authority Umbridge exercises in the classroom is one of business, but Shor argues that "Curriculum should not be driven by business needs because business policy is not made democratically at the workplace or in society" (143). Shor, an advocate for democratic classrooms, explains that modeling classrooms based on business creates environments in which student conflict and resistance to learning are fostered because businesses typically are not run in a democratic manner. Instead, democratic classrooms should allow the students "to learn how to learn, to question, to do research, to work alone and in groups, and to act from reflective knowledge" while "Job training should be extracurricular" (143). The focus on teaching-the-test, Umbridge's preferred method of education, takes away from the societal aspect of education and teaches students that issues will be encountered in a specific context, which is untrue. Dolores Umbridge's lack of dialogue, mutual understanding, and, thus, critical pedagogy make her an enemy, not only of Harry and his cohorts, but of education in general. She ignores the many different learning styles and refuses to acknowledge these various styles within the classroom, further supporting the status quo of oppression. Hogwarts, like many real life schools, has students from various backgrounds and areas of residence, and the cultures of home and school sometimes clash. Umbridge's inability to communicate with students disables her ability to effectively teach her lessons, resulting in teaching less rather than more because these lessons are often "not placed in any meaningful context" and in the students focusing "on low-level thinking" the atrophy of "their school-based intellect" (Delpit 174). Teaching straight from the book without dialogue and without knowledge of students' various aptitudes and backgrounds restricts the potential for learning because of the lack of context.

Even though Umbridge is presented as an educator, a position which evokes a sense of maternalism and caring for students, she lacks any sense of empathy for her students. In "Progressive Pedagogy and Political Struggle," Valerie Walkerdine states that "the teacher is there to help, to enable, to facilitate ... independence and autonomy are fostered through the presence of the quasimother" (20). At Hogwarts, the students have several quasi-mothers, the most dominant of these for the main character being Dumbledore and Umbridge, representing two very different maternal types. Despite Dumbledore's masculine gender, he still helps, enables, and facilitates Harry's independence and it is through Dumbledore's instruction that Harry learns more of his past (he knows little of his biological parents until his arrival at Hogwarts at age eleven, learning new information throughout the course of the series), of the present situation (the imminent rise of Voldemort), and of himself (he's no longer the boy under the stairs or merely "The Boy Who Lived" after Voldemort's attack). Umbridge, on the other hand, facilitates as well, but only in the aspect of banking information (depositing knowledge for it to later be withdrawn, as though the mind were an ATM) and desires the students to be autonomous in carrying out the actions of mindless drones. If this story were a fairy tale, Umbridge would be the wicked stepmother, hindering the growth of her stepchildren by teaching them to independently serve her. Umbridge relies on the banking system of education, preferring to teach-the-test rather than encourage critical thinking, causing the students to have low expectations of their major exams, the Ordinary Wizarding Levels (OWLs). While the fault of standardized testing does not belong solely to Umbridge, she supports it and merely teaches Ministry-approved lessons, decontextualizing each lesson even further and creating a fostering environment for student resistance. Shor argues that "Democratic education seeks to maximize" the development of "intellectual curiosity, scientific thinking, cooperative relations, social habits, and self-discipline," but Umbridge's approach, while seeking some of these objectives (cooperative relations, but only with her, and self-discipline, but only to follow the rules), is ultimately passive teaching (136). While in Umbridge's class, and, after her promotion to headmaster, in her school, students are not encouraged to question the status quo or even to share their thoughts, which goes against Dewey's definition of democracy, thus hindering "open communication and mutual governance" and instead relying on "unilateral power" (Shor 136). Despite the lack of applicable experience in his fifth Defense Against the Dark Arts exam, Harry's prior experiences enable him to pass that particular exam with flying colors. Had the lessons taught by Umbridge been his sole source of information, he would have failed as there was no practice for the spells, meaning critical thinking was absent from the lessons, proving Shor's argument that students "have learned in traditional classrooms that their role is to answer questions, not to question answers ... [and] they grow up unequipped to analyze and transform their world" (137). Essentially, students have been taught lessons so that the information can be regurgitated in a controlled setting for the purpose of showing knowledge.

Umbridge attempts to uphold certain standards at the expense of valuable education of her students, but other characters (Harry and, to a lesser extent, Dumbledore) more than make up for her inability to effectively teach. Mike Rose defines standards as "a systematic means of specifying what students should learn" (127), an idea that is great on paper (having clear cut expectations of every student enrolled in school), but which also limits the instructors and students in the co-development of curriculum. Rose also notes the importance of knowing historical events, and Rowling applies the same knowledge when describing the wizarding exams, including questions such as "Describe the circumstances that lead to the formation of the International Confederation of Wizards and explain why the warlocks of Liechtenstein refused to join" (Phoenix 725). But what is missing is the critical thinking portion of this knowledge. Students at Hogwarts, like students outside of the fictional world, are expected to know these events, what caused them (chain of events), and why they are important, but there is no expectation for critically thinking about the causes of the individual links. These exam questions are based on what is taught as fact in the classrooms, implying that everything in life is either black or white with no area of gray. The response to these questions is simple regurgitation of information, and Harry's inability to focus is not uncommon, although his reason for distraction is specific to him (Voldemorts invasion of his brain, an issue throughout this novel, makes it difficult for Hariy to focus at times). Repeating information back requires little to no thinking and, many times, has no context with which to connect it. These exam questions are also extremely isolated, with no connection to other courses, so each subject is treated individually rather than as a part of the whole. This lack of cohesive lessons, and examinations, are directives from the Ministry of Magic, an implication that the government does not care for critical thinking and pedagogical practices, and, as such, the Ministry supports oppression.

The creation of Dumbledore's Army (DA) in the second third of the novel exemplifies the ideas in Rivers and Weber's article, "Ecological, Pedagogical, Public Rhetoric." Umbridge uses her pull with the government agency to remove Dumbledore from his position of headmaster, resulting in the creation of the secret "army" of students, the members of which are students directly rebelling against Educational Decree No. 24, which states that "All student organisations are henceforth disbanded. Any student in noncompliance will be expelled," along with other examples of oppression, ranging from school lessons to personal recreation (Phoenix 351). While there may not be any possible paperwork to complete in order to form an organization, the DA members still have a very ecological impact on each of the other members as well as the entire student population. The entire rhetoric of the organizations creation, which is a response "within frameworks of existing norms, regulations, and procedures" even though their "ultimate goal is to drastically change those frameworks," is "to navigate and negotiate worldly encumbrances and the conventions of their publics," and the students are going against the conventions set forth by Umbridge and the wizarding government, even if it is not in writing (Rivers and Weber 190). The students, working within the framework of education to go against the newly set norms and regulations, set forth to promote liberation from an oppressive environment even though it is actually an alternative environment. While the DA may only be an alternate means of learning applicable skills, the members learn more about "intellectual curiosity, scientific thinking, cooperative relations, social habits, and self-discipline" in this setting than actually in the classroom (Shor 136).

Harry's role as leader and instructor for the DA, along with Neville's growth from clumsy student to positive role model, provides an example of what it means to give meaning to something, an argument made by James Paul Gee in his book The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning , when he states that "We humans try ... to recoup suffering and death in ways that make them meaningful, that fill them with purpose.... If we cannot do this, we can become depressed or sick" (134-35). Harry's parents were murdered, a seemingly senseless act with a high impact on Harry's life, especially within the wizarding world. Aside from making him an orphan, which certainly shaped his life and personality, this murder turned him into "The Boy Who Lived," a title only known among wizards. Because of his lack of knowledge of the wizarding role and his reputation for the first eleven years of his life, Harry was unable to draw true meaning from his parents' deaths, but once he learned the truth, their deaths gave him a purpose--he had to defeat their killer. Neville's childhood has similarities to Harry's--he, too, was raised by a relative--but his parents were driven mad rather than killed by one of the Death Eaters and their use of an Unforgivable Curse. This loss gives Neville, like Harry, a purpose, especially at the end of this book. Neville uses everything he has learned, both in classes and during the DA meetings, when confronting the woman responsible for the mental state of his parents. Neville's success shows the impact of critical pedagogy at work, especially the idea of mutual understanding on behalf of Harry. Harry and Neville both understand that even though their desire for vengeance may be selfish to a certain extent, it helps the greater good because they are fighting the enemies of wizarding equality.

The application of knowledge presented by various pedagogical texts to a fictional setting can deepen the fountain for both scholars and students, and even though superficially serve as a form of entertainment, Rowling's text provide fodder for analytical readings of different characters. While the novels chronicling the life and adventures of Harry Potter are not just fiction, but a fantasy, there are many lessons to be learned as well as different views to be seen, including a criticism of the educational system. The simplified depiction of critical pedagogical practices as good and of oppression as evil may not have been Rowlings initial intent, but the interpretation's supported by various texts on critical pedagogy make the argument valid. Those seeking to promote liberation from oppressive forces (Harry, Hermione, and Dumbledore) as well as those perpetuating such oppression (Umbridge and Voldemort, although in different capacities) both encounter obstacles, but the side of liberation requires more force to overcome their opposition. The use of Hermione's desire to liberate the house-elves, Dumbledore's subversive techniques, Harrys teaching of applicable skills to his peers, and Umbridge's consistent restrictions provide examples of different outcomes of teaching styles while commenting on the education system as a whole. The last installment was published in 2007 and the setting is England in the 1990s, but the warnings of oppressive education remain important especially in today's American political environment, which, not unlike the Defense Against the Dark Arts instruction, is unstable and these warnings deserve more credence.


Delpit, Lisa. Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom . New Press, 2006.

Dewey, John. The School & Society and the Child & the Curriculum . Seven Treasures Publications, 2011.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed . 1970. Bloomsbury, 2014.

Gee, James Paul. The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning . Palgrave, 2013.

Giroux, Henry A. On Critical Pedagogy . New York: Bloomsbury, 2011

Rivers, Nathaniel A. and Ryan P. Weber. "Ecological, Pedagogical, Public Rhetoric." College Composition and Communication , vol. 63, no. 2, December 2011, pp. 187-218.

Rose, Mike. Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us . The New Press, 2009.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire . Scholastic Press, 2000.

--. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix . Scholastic Press, 2003. Shor, Ira. Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change . U Chicago P, 1992.

Walderkine, Valerie. "Progressive Pedagogy and Political Struggle." 1986. Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy , edited by Carmen Luke and Jennifer Gore, 1992, Routledge, 2013, pp. 15-24.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A525993656