J.K. Rowling taught English in Portugal for a time during the 1990s. I don’t know if it was being a teacher that formed her opinion about government interference in education or if it was being the parent of a school-age child. I am not sure how the education system works in other countries, but in the USA, the government funds public schools. Naturally, government officials feel that their contribution means they should have a say in what happens in those schools. On the one hand, I can see their point. They worry that teachers are not competent. They worry that test scores are low. They worry that we are churning out a future nation of illiterate numbskulls. Frankly, a lot of what the government mandates about education is designed to do just that last — teachers are not hired to teach students to think criticially, question, and grapple with ideas. They are supposed to do well on standardized tests. The last thing the government wants us to teach students is to think critically, question, and grapple with ideas. The students might come to conclusions that the government would prefer students not consider. No, better to look at test scores as results. Better to blame all of the problems on the teachers and the school systems. Better to enact legislation ensuring that “no child will be left behind” without giving schools the tools to reach standards of accountability and annual yearly progress. Government officials can tell you all day long what they think is wrong with schools and how it should be fixed, but I doubt the vast majority of them could make it one day — no, even one hour, in the typical public school setting in America. They feel vastly equipped to tell schools how they should be run and teachers how they should teach, but what would happen if they actually had to teach? What would happen if they had to run the schools personally? I suspect it might look something like Professor Umbridge’s tenure at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I believe much of OotP is a scathing attack on government interference in schools.
Professor Umbridge arrives at Hogwarts ostensibly because Dumbledore is unable to find a DADA teacher. It becomes clear after her speech at the Sorting Ceremony that her presence really represents Minstry of Magic (government) interference in schools:
“It [Umbridge’s speech at the Sorting Ceremony] explained a lot.”
“Did it?” said Harry in surprise. “Sounded like a load of waffle to me.”
“There was some important stuff hidden in the waffle,” said Hermione grimly.
“Was there?” said Ron blankly.
“How about ‘progress for progress’s sake must be discouraged’? How about ‘pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited’?”
“Well, what does that mean?” said Ron impatiently.
“I’ll tell you what it means,” said Hermione through gritted teeth. “It means the Ministry’s interfering at Hogwarts.” (214)
When the Gryffindors go to their first DADA lesson with Umbridge, she states that the students’ “teaching in this subject has been rather disrupted and fragmented,” citing the “constant changing of teachers, many of whom [did] not seem to have followed any Ministry-approved curriculum.” She concludes that the students are “far below the standard [the Ministry] would expect to see in [their] O.W.L. year” (239). It would seem Hermione’s fears may prove to be correct. When Umbridge shares her course aims, she removes all doubt regarding the ministry’s intentions when Hermione asks Umbridge about the absence of “using defensive spells.” In the ensuing “class discussion,” Umbridge reveals several things about herself and the Ministry: 1) they do not trust Dumbledore’s decisions regarding staffing, 2) they don’t understand that part of education is practice and “doing,” not merely reading about something, and 3) there is an attempt at work to suppress information and spread the story that all is well — Voldemort has not returned.
Shortly after this classroom incident, the students learn that Umbridge has been named Hogwarts High Inquisitor, a title I am sure Rowling hoped would remind readers of the Spanish Inquisition. Indeed the purpose of the Inquisition in the Catholic Church was to “suppress heresy.” Surely Rowling would be aware that “even those with no interest in European history associate [the Inquisition] with negative meanings” (“Inquisition”). Her appointment as Inquisitor will give the “Ministry of Magic an unprecedented level of control at Hogwarts” (SparkNotes). Indeed, they learn that Umbridge will be inspecting each teacher. Those not meeting ministry standards may be fired.
The No Child Left Behind Act seeks to bring up standards in American education. Schools not meeting national standards and making Adequate Yearly Progress will lose their federal funding. The way in which schools can most easily be held accountable is through standardized testing. Unfortunately, this means that teachers, in fear for their jobs, will teach to the test, severely limiting educational opportunities for their students that might enable them to think critically and engage in learning. Instead, classes will be test-prep sessions designed to help students figure out how to perform well on a test. Standardized testing will be required, even if a school has a high percentage of ESOL students or students of a low socio-economic status. Absenteeism will figure into Adequate Yearly Progress. Suspension counts as absenteeism, so if you have difficult students at your school, you will have to avoid suspending them at all costs — their absenteeism will affect your Adequate Yearly Progress. As a result of this government interference in education, our public education system could wind up in shambles as almost every school is unable to meet the impossibly difficult standards set forth in No Child Left Behind.
Do I think schools should be held accountable? Absolutely. Government interference is not always the way. While interference has brought about good things, such as desegregation, it has, in the past, prevented the teaching of evolution and required prayer in schools.
Clearly, Rowling sees government interference with schools in general as a bad thing:
- Umbridge’s Educational Decrees prevent students from unifying and learning about the world outside them.
- While Umbridge’s inspections do root out poor teachers (Trelawney), they also threaten excellent teachers who happen to disagree with Umbridge (McGonagall).
- Umbridge questions Snape’s teaching practices when she inspects him, noting that students should not be learning a Strengthening Solution. Why shouldn’t they learn that, if he thinks they are ready? What is so dangerous in teaching them that recipe?
- The Ministry of Magic’s appointment of Umbridge is a huge mistake. Ironically, as one of the worst teachers at Hogwarts, she is in charge of making sweeping educational reforms.
How is this satire an accurate reflection of the current situation in education?
- Book banning is quite common. Students do not have access to certain books in their libraries, and teachers are not allowed to teach those books. Harry Potter books commonly appear on lists of banned or challenged books.
- Teachers have to toe a certain invisible line. I felt this very strongly in my own last year in public education — scrutinization made Tums a regular part of my diet. My private school’s hands-off approach, however, has enabled me to be an excellent teacher. I think, in part, it was that I did not agree with some of the educational practices common at the public school in which I taught — for example, that students were not held accountable for their actions as they should have been and that, as I was told, my expectations were too high. Almost every decision I made as an instructor was scrutinized.
- I often felt like the administrators telling me how I should teach couldn’t do a successful lesson in one of my classes themselves.
One of the themes of OotP is that “education is empowerment”:
In Book V, Harry’s education is put in jeopardy for the very first time, and the true value of that education becomes fully clear. Hogwarts is gradually overtaken by the corrupt Ministry of Magic, and High Inquisitor Dolores Umbridge refuses to let the students learn proper Defense Against the Dark Arts. Concerned, the students take learning Defense into their own hands, forming a secret study group, the D.A., and spending the semester meeting privately to learn and practice Defense spells. Ultimately, their hard work and practice save them at the end of the novel, where they use their newly developed skills to escape the Death Eaters unharmed. Had the students not been so stubbornly proactive, they might not have survived, and they can appreciate the true importance of what they are learning at Hogwarts in an entirely new way. (SparkNotes)
This is exactly what our schools need to do — prepare students for the real world. Because of government interference, they are unable to do this. I think Rowling is underscoring the upcoming crisis in education, but she also offers a sound solution: Let those who know how to educate students do their job and students will learn what they need to know.
- The Sugar Quill: Educational Theory and Practice at Hogwarts
- The Leaky Cauldron Discussion: Harry Potter and Higher Education
- The Scotsman: Rowling causes umbrage with her Umbridge
“Inquisition.” Wikipedia. 12 Mar. 2005. 12 Mar. 2005 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquisition/>.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Press, 2003.
SparkNotes Staff. “SparkNote on Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix.” 12 Mar. 2005 <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/harrypotter5>.