June 3, 2011
With the regular academic year over at most American universities and students either taking a summer vacation or attending summer school, I thought I'd turn to some lighter subjects. This month, I discuss the cultural impact of the British youth novel and film series Harry Potter (written by J.K. Rowling) on the contemporary U.S. college campus. As we'll see, Harry Potter has exerted its influence both inside and outside the classroom.
For readers not familiar with Harry Potter -- which describes my own situation until 2009, when my then-girlfriend and now wife got me into the Potter movies and audio cassettes -- the storyline follows young Harry, a boy born with magical powers, as he progresses through Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Bolstered by his friends Hermione and Ron, headmaster Dumbledore, and sympathetic teachers such as Hagrid, Lupin, and McGonagall, while thwarted by others, Harry tries to complete his academic work while also fighting the evil forces of the "dark wizard" Lord Valdemort, who killed Harry's parents when Harry was a baby. Throughout his journey, Harry encounters entities with such exotic names as basilisks, bezoars, and bludgers.
Beyond being an entertaining and thought-provoking literary series, Harry Potter has now become the subject matter of college courses. An article from CNN.com characterizes the situation thusly:
Drawing on their expertise in theology, children's literature, globalization studies and even the history of witchcraft, professors have been able to use Harry Potter to attract crowds of students eager to take on a disciplined study of the books.
The article cites Potter-based courses at Yale, Georgetown, Liberty, Pepperdine, Stanford, Lawrence, Swarthmore, and Kansas State. Another university with such an offering is Arizona State, which augments its course with a Harry Potter Day of wand-making, "muggle studies," and quidditch (more on quidditch later).
According to the Wikipedia page on the Potter series, the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007), "sold 11 million copies in the first 24 hours of release, breaking down to 2.7 million copies in the UK and 8.3 million in the US." Almost certainly, therefore, millions of students who have gone to college in the past decade or so have grown up on Harry Potter and are thus a ready audience for Potter-related courses.
As I watched and listened to the seven years of Potter stories (in accelerated fashion), I honed in on death and dying as the key theme. (Author Rowling apparently feels the same, according to the aforementioned Wikipedia page.) At several points, key characters contemplate whether they may be able to leave their most positive legacies by not seeking the greatest possible physical longevity. The quest for eternal longevity, after all, appears to be behind Valdemort's murderous ways, as he can acquire "horcruxes" (vessels to preserve his soul) only by killing people. Also at numerous points, Harry holds conversations with dead people, who appear either as ghosts or as other images. Are these others in heaven?
The Potter series portrays many examples of positive character (e.g., Harry and his friends' courage in standing up to Valdemort; Harry staying behind during competitive racing situations to help other kids in danger; Dumbledore's wisdom), but also some that are not as positive (e.g., the academic short-cuts Harry takes in some of his classes). The impact of these examples on children's (and adults') values, decision-making, and coping with threats would be an interesting topic for systematic research.
Enough for the heavy stuff; after all, I said this would be a lighter entry! One of the most fun aspects of the Potter stories, especially for a sports fan such as myself, is quidditch. Initially a fictitious sport dreamed up by Rowling, quidditch has now become a game being played (in modified form) across an ever-growing list of campuses. The quidditch of the Potter books and movies is played in midair, with the players flying around on broomsticks (the fancier models of which go by names such as Nimbus 2000 and Firebolt). Some of the players focus on trying to throw a ball (the quaffle) past the opposing keeper through one of the hoops on the field, while avoiding, in dodgeball fashion, other kinds of objects, known as bludgers. Other players fly around trying to capture a walnut-sized object, the snitch, which travels through the air in seemingly random patterns. Seizing the snitch, which Harry was always good at, is very important.
Because real-life college students cannot fly, the quidditch players among them instead run around with broomsticks between their legs. According to the International Quidditch Association -- yes, such an organization really exists -- several hundred U.S. colleges and high schools have teams, at various levels of development. The university where I'm on the faculty, Texas Tech, has hosted major quidditch tournaments in recent years. Further, the two schools from which I have degrees, UCLA (undergrad) and Michigan (grad), have each recently run articles in their respective alumni magazines on their current students' participation in quidditch (here and here).
So rapidly is the Potter franchise expanding its reach into American higher education, I'm sure it's only a matter of time before the candy sections of university bookstores will be selling Chocolate Cauldrons!
Alan Reifman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University.