|Back to April Ed Reporter|
|NUMBER 171||THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS||APRIL 2000|
In March a suburban Detroit high school settled a lawsuit brought by a student who claimed her rights were violated when she was told she couldn't wear symbols of witchcraft to school. As a practicing witch, she claimed she had a right to wear the symbols of her religion to class.
In May what was apparently a budding "coven" of eight witches was discovered at a middle school in Colorado. The 12-year-old girls were known to read books about witchcraft and to sit in a circle during recess threatening to cast spells on classmates they didn't like.
Let's face it, witchcraft is the latest adolescent fad. Television programs such as Sabrina, The Teenage Witch and Charmed have been teen hits. Feature films with titles like Practical Magic, and The Craft have also been popular. Spin Magazine, in its "Grrl (sic) Power" issue, ranked witchcraft as the top interest among teenage girls.
Now the elementary schools are helping to bring the "witchcraft is cool" message to the preteen set. Public school teachers around the country are reading the Harry Potter stories to 6-, 7-, and 8-year-olds who are apparently eating them up.
Who is Harry Potter? He is the hero of a hugely popular series of books by British author J.K. Rowling. The self-proclaimed experts on children's literature call them delightful.
The only problem is that some parents have raised a fuss. You see, Harry is a witch, or at least a wizard, who is attending Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry so he can reach his full potential as a witch/wizard. The books tell the story of Harry's experiences at Hogwart's and how he uses "good" witchcraft to fight off the "bad" witchcraft of his foe, the evil Voldemort, who killed Harry's parents when he was a baby.
Who could object to a harmless set of stories about how a "good" witch triumphs over a "bad" witch and also gets the best of the crass and unimaginative "Muggles" who surround him? "Muggle" is the derogatory term used in the books to refer to the non-witches (i.e. normal people) who are just too dull-witted to appreciate the magical arts. With such terms we convey the message that, not only is witchcraft cool, but opposition to witchcraft is totally uncool - a product of underdevelopment in a person's mental and spiritual capacities.
Even some notably "conservative" reviewers have failed to see the harm in these stories and have instead promoted the virtuous character qualities that are sometimes displayed by Harry and his sidekicks. But this reviewer is not in their camp.
Certainly, the books tell a story that holds the reader's interest and keeps you turning pages. The author also displays a clever wit in her humorous portrayal of Harry's dysfunctional relatives and the topsy-turvy world at Hogwart's.
But it is the portrayal of witchcraft as a fun-filled and morally neutral activity that is the most troubling aspect of the books. Indeed, witchcraft is presented not just as morally neutral, but as "totally cool." It is clear in the books that the worst fate that could befall a person is to be merely a "Muggle" - someone who has no involvement in witchcraft whatsoever.
The reply of Potter defenders is that the books only present a fantasy world and aren't about real world witchcraft. But the books themselves betray this argument. First of all, the stories are not set in some fantasy world or parallel universe such as the "middle earth" of the Tolkien Hobbit stories or the "Narnia" of the Chronicles of Narnia. When children's literature presents a fantasy world that is clearly detached from our own the author thereby makes it clear that what is normal and acceptable in the fantasy world is not necessarily so in the real world. But in the Potter books, Hogwart's is depicted as being located in this world, in England, although its existence is magically concealed from "Muggles."
Furthermore, we are told in book two that Hogwart's was built in England a thousand years ago, "far from prying Muggle eyes, for it was an age when magic was feared by common people, and witches and wizards suffered much persecution." The implied message here is that Harry's morally neutral witchcraft is directly connected to witchcraft in the real world and that "real world" witchcraft is also morally neutral. It has only been labeled as "evil" by paranoid "Muggles" who used to persecute well-meaning witches.
Concerned parents have argued persuasively that this is not a message we want to convey to our children. The real world of witchcraft is not harmless and morally neutral. It is powerful and evil. It is confusing to children to suggest that there is a "good side" to witchcraft, and especially to suggest that concerns about witchcraft are simply the result of narrow-minded paranoia. This can only have the result of breaking down the child's natural aversion to the evils of witchcraft and promoting an unhealthy fascination with such things. Such a fascination, as we have seen, can lead young children to terrorize their classmates with threats of magic spells, and it could lead older adolescents into a dangerous involvement in the occult.
Some have suggested that the Harry Potter books are no different from such children's classics as the Chronicles of Narnia, which also include witches and magic. But there is an important difference that I, as a dedicated Chronicles of Narnia fan, would like to point out.
In Narnia, the witches are villains. They are never presented as heroes. And while many magical things happen in the imaginary world of Narnia, the idea of dabbling in magic in this world is strongly discouraged. For example, in one Narnia book, The Magician's Nephew, the boy who is the title character of the book discovers that his uncle has spent a lifetime dabbling in magic. It is made clear that in his pursuit of "the magical arts" his uncle has become heartless and cruel, and not at all someone to be admired or emulated. When Digory, the main character, suddenly discovers what his uncle has become, he says, "I didn't believe in magic till today. I see now it's real. Well if it is, I suppose all the old fairy tales are more or less true. And you're simply a wicked, cruel magician like the ones in the old stories. Well, I've never read a story in which people of that sort weren't paid out in the end, and I bet you will be. And serve you right."
Another important episode dealing with magic can be found in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, another of the Chronicles. In this episode, Lucy, one of the main characters, is forced to read through a book of magic spells in order to find a spell that will undo an enchantment that has been worked upon some of the inhabitants of the Narnian world. As she looks for the necessary spell to undo the damage, however, she cannot resist using another of the spells to find out what some of her friends in this world think about her. Soon Aslan appears, the Christ-figure who represents moral authority in Narnia. He scolds Lucy for this improper use of Narnian magic. Ultimately this episode shows clearly the line that C. S. Lewis drew between using magic to affect events in the fantasy world of Narnia and trying to use magic to affect events in this world. One is pure fantasy not strictly bound by the moral framework of this world. The other is bound by that moral framework and is clearly presented as wrong.
When it comes to the moral training of young children, it is important that children's books make these sorts of clear distinctions. It is important to show that those who dabble in magic and witchcraft are "paid out in the end." The Chronicles of Narnia and other great children's books are careful to observe this convention. The morally ambiguous world of Harry Potter, on the other hand, can only leave children morally confused. Haven't we seen enough of the damage that morally confused adolescents can do? Can't we all, by now, agree that the morally ambiguous message of the Harry Potter books is not the sort of message our schools need to be conveying to impressionable young minds?
Stan Watson, Ph.D., is director of research at the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of the family. His weekly column is a copyrighted feature distributed free of charge. Call 205/870-9900 for more information.