What kids can learn from Harry Potter     Elizabeth Vozzola | Monday, 9 July 2007

Controversy has always surrounded Harry Potter's effect upon children. There's nothing to fear, says an American psychologist.

Harry Potter mania is on rise, again. Fans are already planning to camp out to buy their copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when book stores open on July 21. This is supposed to be the last of the seven books in the series, but it will not end debate about its effects upon children. Elizabeth Vozzola, a professor of psychology at Saint Joseph College, Connecticut, has conducted extensive research on what children learn from the novels. MercatorNet asked her what she had discovered.

MercatorNet: Is the incredible popularity of the series due only to the clever plots and rich imagination, or is it appealing to something deeper?

Vozzola: I need to address this question not only as a psychologist but also as a lifelong passionate reader and a former bookstore manager. I have always found that the best children's literature (eg, works by authors like Phillip Pullman or Madeline L'Engle) often addresses mythic themes of good and evil and employs archetypal characters such as the Wise Man, the Hero, the Maiden, the Trickster. Psychologists such as Jerome Bruner argue that humans are essentially hard-wired to be drawn to narrative as a way to make sense of their own lives and the world around them. In short, I believe the Harry Potter books appeal to the deep human need to make meaning through stories.

MercatorNet: What particular virtues can children take from the series?

Vozzola: We asked them that question specifically. Here's a line from our paper: "All groups [ages] identified courage and friendship as major themes. However, at the post-graduate educational level, participants were significantly more likely to identify loyalty and obedience as major themes than were less educated readers. Interestingly, it was elementary school participants (about ages 10-13) and post-graduate participants who were most likely to list kindness as a key theme (83.7% and 76.2% respectively) in contrast with our middle school/high school (57.9%) and college samples (58.8%)."

MercatorNet: Some critics claim that the books are subversive of authority. Conservative ones say this is bad; liberals say it is good. Which are right?

Vozzola: Well, everyone, from our youngest fourth graders to our adult PhDs had to agree that Harry Potter didn't always respect the rules. But, especially in Amie Senland's current study of perceptions of Biblical and liberal Christian families, we asked a lot of specific questions about whether participants (kids and parents) thought it was okay for the headmaster Dumbledore to sometimes let Harry and his friends break the rules. What children seemed to understand very clearly was that he was allowing them to break rules to do things that saved lives.

Again from our paper: "All groups perceived that Harry kept trying when faced with obstacles (all groups 100%), had courage (all groups 100%), and helped others (elementary 98%, all others 100%)."

MercatorNet: Does the Harry Potter series send confusing messages to children about the occult and magic? Why do a lot of adults think so?

Vozzola: Again, we asked that question specifically. Children told us No. Their body language was terrific. We'd ask them: "Do you think people can really do the sort of magic in the Harry Potter books?" and they would roll their eyes a bit as if to say "And these people have PhDs????"

Amie's research suggests that more liberal Christian parents interpret the magic in Harry Potter as fantasy but Biblical Christians parents (who believe the Bible is revealed truth) are much more likely to interpret it as occult. Biblical Christians point to specific Bible passages forbidding sorcery and quote them frequently when they argue against the book.

What our work shows, however, is that the messages in the book are overwhelmingly pro-social and that the readers we sampled had a clear grasp of the fact that the books were fantasy. (Of course some of the younger ones certainly thought it would be very cool if people could actually do these things!)

MercatorNet: But don't kids need a certain maturity and discrimination to handle the increasingly darker tone of the books?

Vozzola: I would agree. Ideally, parents have a good sense of their child's emotional and intellectual maturity and use that knowledge to guide them to appropriate media. For example, I didn't let my younger son watch the TV show The Simpsons until I could see that he understood irony. I wanted to be sure that he saw Bart Simpson as providing ironic commentary on American life, not as providing a role model!

As a develomentalist, I would generally see the final books as more appropriate for children of 9 or 10 and up not because they have a dark tone (read any book of fairy tales) but because younger children are not going to understand fully some of the important emotional themes. However any child who has been reading the series is going to want to read this final book. The best solution seems to me to be to read the book aloud to younger readers so you can stop and talk about things with them.

MercatorNet: Any inside tips on who is going to die in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows?

Vozzola: Would that we did! Our research team is as curious as the rest of the world. My own personal guess is that Neville and Snape will not make it to the end. I've had a theory for a long time that Neville is the person the prophecy refers to and that everyone from Voldemort to Ron and Herminone have been fooled into focusing on Harry. I think Neville, who has increasingly shown courage and unique abilities, will sacrifice himself for the forces of good. In myth, the hero has many trials to overcome before prevailing and coming into his/her own. Harry's certainly had his share of trials. I for one wish him a "lived happily ever after" ending.

Elizabeth Vozzola is a professor of psychology at Saint Joseph College, West Hartford CT.


Harry Potter: Death stalks the halls of Hogwarts 
Written by Joe Woodard  
Friday, 13 April 2007

The tragedy to be unveiled in the last Harry Potter is a mirror for our age.

ImageHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is scheduled for release July 21. And barring possible plot surprises, heroic Harry is doomed to die in this seventh and last book of J.K. Rowling’s hugely popular teen sorcerer series. He will follow wise and self-sacrificing Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry headmaster Albus Dumbledore and a half-dozen fellow students into some vague though presumably comfortable afterlife, apparently as a disembodied spirit.

Given that the Potter books now rank second only to the Bible in their popularity, what are we to make of Harry’s pending death?

Boasting solid five-star Amazon ratings and over 300 million sales, Potter is a clear symptom of Western civilisation's slow slide back into naturalistic mythic paganism. Despite our electronic heart monitors and computerised intravenous drips, modern technological optimism is finally colliding with the unavoidable reality of death. In a banal mockery of Nietzsche’s "Eternal Recurrence," Western civilisation is reverting to an epoch of tragedy, a worldview that virtually defined the Ancient Greeks and Romans -- and which they then rejected some 1,500 years ago, voting with their feet in favour of the Christian comedy.

The Potter books encapsulate three cultural temptations that have undercut the once Christian West ever since the philosophers of the 17th century Enlightenment launched their insurgency against Christendom. In historical order, those trends are: first, the reduction of human reason to mere practical technique or "problem-solving"; second, the rejection of rational metaphysics or theology in favour of self-conscious myth-making (now glorified as post-modernism); and now, last and most clearly with Harry’s death, the slowly-dawning realisation that human mortality still punctures all of our idiosyncratic "realities" and renders human technology (even genetic engineering and sorcery) mere distraction and vanity.

Banal pragmatism

Harry’s education at Hogwarts rivals modern medical schools in its philistine pragmatism. Whether studying spells and potions, dark arts or magical beasts, the sorcery students learn only how to "do" things, like flying on brooms, de-gnoming gardens or creating gluttonous feasts. Magic is just another craft. What they should "be", what sort of character they should cultivate, never becomes a topic of instruction or conversation. Harry is encouraged only to be true to himself. And one of the four school "houses," Slytherin, is explicitly dedicated to the nasty kids, presumably because that’s just the way they are, and they have a right to an education sharpening their nasty skills.

It’s unclear whether Rowling is deliberately parodying modern "self-affirming" schooling here. But the pedigree of her stunted understanding of education and human reason includes the likes of Enlightenment philosophers Spinoza, Descartes, Bacon and Locke. In their quarrel with Ancient metaphysics and Christian theology, early modern philosophers sought to harness reason to the "relief of the estate of man" and the creation of a "heaven on earth" through technology. So they rejected any sort of metaphysical speculation and therein the contemplative intellect as essentially useless, asserting (in Thomas Hobbes’s words) , "We know only what we make."

Whatever the differences among the Enlightenment savants, they agreed that reason is not a mirror of an independent reality, mundane and divine, to which human beings must conform themselves. Rather, they redefined reason as a human construct, obedient to human purposes. Yet any definition of those purposes, beyond the endless increase in human powers, has remained up for grabs.

The result of this philosophic lobotomy we see today in a medical profession fully committed to expanding its techniques, but oblivious to any distinction between its legitimate and illegitimate purposes. We see it in accountants and engineers who work themselves to death, because doing is all they know, because no one has taught them that happiness is found in contemplation and worship. And we see it in the Hogwarts (and Springfield Elementary) school faculties, dedicated to empowering students, but deliberately recusing themselves from training characters in righteousness and nobility.

The modern technological ambition to reconstruct both material and human nature has naturally culminated in the post-modern presumption that we can all construct our own personal, virtual realities. In contrast, the claims of Christendom stood or fell on issues of historical fact, like whether that tomb was really empty. But these days, we’ll deliberately commit to any likely story that will temporarily make us feel good.

In this context, author Rowling is symptomatically post-modern, not in the obvious fact that she is creating a new myth (as did Tolkien), but in her blithe assumption that whatever reality lurks behind the mythic is basically benign. For all the murder and soul-sucking in the Potter books, Rowling pokes hardly at all into questions of what lies beyond the veil. Spirits haunting Hogwarts, like Nearly Headless Nick and the Fat Friar, provide reassurance of some sort of commodious afterlife, despite the cutthroat will to power in this life, so it really doesn’t matter who’s won when the whistle blows.

Modernity’s Achilles’ heel

And yet… and yet, death remains a problem -- a serpent Rowling has not avoided but rather tried to domesticate. And the viper cannot long imitate the garter snake. The culture of ancient Greece and Rome, the world of Homer, Sophocles and Virgil (and most of the world besides), was virtually defined by their awareness that human beings would always strive for a nobility rendered ephemeral and pointless by their mortality, and the more noble the human, the more tragic the death. Life itself is the undeserved misfortune suffered by noble characters -- the classic definition of tragedy.

For this tragic epoch, the Good News of the Christian Gospel (as pundit Chesterton said) was original sin, the revelation that life wasn’t pointless cruelty, that the universe wasn’t stacked against man, but rather that man was simply his own worst enemy. Conjoined with the promise of the "resurrection of the flesh" and eternal life, this meant that life was basically the undeserved good fortune enjoyed by ignoble characters -- the very definition of comedy. So Christendom was expressed in the farces of Dante, Chaucer and Cervantes. And the joys of contemplation were opened to the meanest intellects in the church’s endless parade of feastdays.

After a thousand years of Christendom, however, the insurgents of the Enlightenment found the idleness of worship and the reign of clerics an affront to human pride. They believed that unleashing all the potential of human technology alone would render mankind healthy, wealthy and wise. Some thought, with Hobbes, that life made commodious and safe would become reconciled to quiet death in old age. Others, with Descartes, believed that the development of medical technology would bring practical physical immortality. Either way, man the worker would emerge as the happy master of his own house.

It hasn’t turned out that way, of course. First, the modern obsession with conquering human suffering has made Western man pathologically soft and sensitive, discombobulated by daily irritants our grandfathers would have simply ignored. Second -- confirming the Christian hypothesis of original sin -- the expansion of man’s power over nature has meant (as others observed) the expansion of some men’s power over other men. Given today’s malignant public administration, economic interdependency and mass media, almost no one now pretends to be the master of his own house.

And third, technology itself has developed a credibility bubble; its promises of happiness have outstripped its delivery, and with every further development of medicine, death looms larger as the final frontier -- unknowable, implacable and unavoidable. So the last man’s ideal life has become perfect fitness until 75 or 85, then a little poison for a comfortable death. And to this he dedicates life-coaching, organic cooking and treadmilling.

Colliding with the inevitable

This is where Harry’s death comes in, as yet another symptom (like Columbine High) of where we’re heading. It took 400 years for the Enlightenment buzzards to roost. For four centuries, Western pragmatism has coasted on its reserves of Christian optimism. But the tipping point was reached when the sexual revolution threw off the last of Christian "oppression", and then raised a next generation of deracinated barbarians.

Kids today have far fewer self-serving illusions than their baby boomer parents. Death has always been the staple of adolescent literature; but today the hero dies. So they can again understand Achilles’s complaint, "Do you not see what a man I am? How huge? How splendid?… Yet even I also have my death and strong destiny; there shall be a dawn or afternoon or noontime when some man in the fight will take the life from me also."

So there is a silver lining to the pagan cloud, descending over the land. Modernism was a kind of naïve vanity, predicated on an immature bracketing of the big questions of life -- like the businessman who resolves to spend time with his family once his bundle is made. But kids now are realising that, even if you’re a technological wizard, you still die in the end. Culturally they feel the heart flutter, the shooting pain down the left arm, the memento mori. The now-manifest spiritual vacuity of the pragmatic epoch means they’re now open to something, almost anything.

Joe Woodard is former editor of the Canadian conservative magazine Western Standard, now teaching in Calgary.


All is for the good in Harry’s end   Elizabeth Quinn
The final Harry Potter book affirms the deathless power of goodness lurking in the most unlikely characters.

The overwhelming sense that one is left with on completing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is that of ambiguous satisfaction. More than any of the six books preceding this final instalment, Rowling's final offering leaves the reader pondering the finer points of fate and free will. Closure is only truly reached for the quadrivium of characters that Rowling has always focused on: Harry, Voldemort, Dumbledore and Snape. Everyone else -- even those who meet their demise -- is dealt with in a way which is simultaneously sufficient and somehow unfulfilling, like the ending of a lengthy visit with friends that has been wonderful but only reinforces how much you wish you could stay.

Deathly Hallows is not without its moments of comedy. A personal favourite is Fred's equating Voldemort's ability to move at amazing speed to "Severus Snape when confronted with shampoo". But on the whole this is the darkest of the books, and it is guaranteed to be met with no small measure of emotion from fans who will mourn the loss of so many well-loved characters, both through death and the end of the series.

    Magic itself, like any other power we Muggles possess -- money, influence, oratory or the written word -- is neutral by nature; it is what you do with it that makes it either good or evil.

Anyone hoping that the last Harry Potter book will put its creator in the same league as Lewis or Tolkien should think again. Rowling herself has never claimed as much, even though her inspiration is the same mythos which formed the basis for The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter was never designed to be a fantastical interpretation of Christianity or a far-reaching quest of little people against a mysterious and powerful evil. Instead, its setting is the very real, modern and imperfect world that we live in; the characters are undeniably flawed and human, albeit gifted with wondrous talents, and for this reason the black and white common to fantasy works of previous generations is replaced with a palette filled with countless shades of grey.

Time and again throughout the Harry Potter series we have seen evidence that none of the characters is perfect; in Deathly Hallows the motives of many are shown to be questionable, and none more so than those of Albus Dumbledore, the deceased Headmaster of Hogwarts. While Rowling has previously shown Dumbledore to be as human as any other character, a significant part of this last book is dedicated to the revelation of his murky past, which causes Harry -- and most of the wizarding society -- to doubt his intentions. Rather than exonerate him from all allegations, Rowling's eventual denouement has Dumbledore fully admitting to youthful errors of pride, selfishness and poor judgement. Yet, rather than this being a cause for concern (and, for the more critical among us, censure), this revelation of the very human nature of the characters seems to me one of Rowling's greatest achievements. Triumph for Harry and his companions comes through learning from their mistakes as much as it does from being good or using magic.

Magic itself, like any other power we Muggles possess -- money, influence, oratory or the written word -- is neutral by nature; it is what you do with it that makes it either good or evil. Good people can sometimes do bad things and, as is seen more than ever before in this last book through the actions of Peter Pettigrew, Draco Malfoy and most especially Severus Snape, "bad" people can be redeemed and use their actions for the good, even when it is at the cost of their own lives.

In this last Harry Potter book, as in the previous novels, what has struck me is the power of youthful insight; it is Dudley who acknowledges Harry's worth after so many years; Hermione who maintains her faith in Harry when it seems his mission is pointless; Neville, Luna and Ginny who rouse the remaining Hogwarts students in resistance against the Death Eaters who take over the school; Draco who refuses to betray his schoolmates, even in the face of potential suffering and torture; Harry who rejects Lupin's help and instead rightly tells him to return home to his expectant new wife; and Harry who chooses to believe in Dumbledore, despite the evidence that his deceased headmaster is less than perfect.

In some instances the actions of these young characters are undertaken in disobedience to the wishes and advice of the adult authority figures present, such as the moment when Ron, Hermione and Harry refuse to reveal the nature of Dumbledore's last request to Mrs Weasley, and later to Remus Lupin. However, ultimately their decisions prove to be the correct ones, and reflect an important teaching that I believe Rowling has imparted with consistency over the entire series: it is the responsibility of adults both to provide a positive and solid foundation of values and behaviours to the youth of each generation (whether their own, or those placed in their care) and to have faith that the teachings they have imparted are understood and will be used by the young as they grow into adulthood. This two-fold tenet is again brought home with particular strength in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where we see faith and hope combining to support Rowling's ultimate message: the strongest power, the greatest magic, the ultimate goal and achievement of our lives is love.

In the world of Harry Potter, if it is the exercise of our free will for the good that is the measure of our true worth, then it is love that makes this exercise possible. In Deathly Hallows, no character reflects this truth more than Severus Snape. The truth of Snape's allegiance is finally revealed, and he is shown, against the expectations of many, to be allied with Dumbledore, because of his lifelong love for Lily Evans, Harry's mother. Snape forfeits his life because of the actions he has undertaken out of love for Lily, and he is not alone in making the ultimate sacrifice because of love.

Ron and Hermione repeatedly risk their own safety to help Harry; Tonks dies because she cannot bear to let her husband Remus battle the Death Eaters without her; Molly Weasley risks death at the hands of Bellatrix Lestrange to protect her daughter Ginny; Dobby sacrifices himself to save his adored Harry Potter; and Harry himself willingly offers his life for everyone out of love, convinced that by confronting Voldemort and allowing the Dark Lord to inflict the Adava Kedavra spell upon him, he will die. Instead, he is transported to a limbo-like King's Cross Station, where Dumbledore explains to him that, precisely because "of love, loyalty and innocence Voldemort knows nothing", Harry is able return to the world and to life and defeat him.

While so many of the characters do not receive a final nod before the curtains close -- Luna, most of the Weasley family, the greater Hogwarts ensemble encompassing both teachers and students and many of the other characters we have come to love throughout the Harry Potter books -- Rowling shows us that life continues, and even in the epilogue, it is love that is the focal point of Rowling's conclusions: the love of friendship that evolves to that of a couple and a family, the kind of love that shows "all is well".

Elizabeth Quinn is a 27-year-old who took English and History majors for her BA at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Of more relevance, she is an avid Harry Potter fan, along with her eleven brothers and sisters, seven of whom have also already finished Deathly Hallows.


Harry Potter and the family    
By Alfonsina Ramirez Paulin
Friday, 24 March 2006
Underlying J. K. Rowling's fantasy world are some sound insights into family life.

We, the Potter readers, could be classified as omnivores, detractors and fans. I belong to all three classes, but I do love J.K. Rowling. Initially, I fell in with the detractors. With so much magic and so much action together, I wondered whether the children would become obsessed with this weird type of adventure. What kind of values would they grasp?

Then, one day, a good friend of mine who is a high school teacher talked to me about the Potter Phenomenon: how the books were translated to the main languages, how the first and second books unexpectedly began to sell by the million, assuring the publishers a huge profit compared to best-sellers for adults. But the most incredible news was——so she said——that Potter was being read by children, their parents and even their grandparents, who actually turned off the television in order to read!

My first conclusion was that it must be an incredible publicity stunt. In spite of that, I succumbed to temptation and read The Sorcerer’’s Stone (or The Philosopher's Stone). Actually, I devoured it in a day-and-a-half, fitting it around work, traveling, and other tasks. As soon as I finished it, I gulped down the second, third and fourth books…… The Order of the Phoenix had not been yet published, and number six probably was still in Rowling’’s mind, but I could hardly wait. By now I was definitely Potter-omnivorous.

Eventually, I read the books again in the original English and that turned me into a full-blown fan of Potter, and Rowling as well. From the magical and fantastical pages there sprang many noble concepts about family, friendship, communication within the family, teens' development; the forgotten virtues of modesty, gratitude, humility; professionalism in teaching and so much more. There was a wealth of meaning I had missed earlier because I was so critical and compulsive.

I would like to give a glimpse of the family as it appears in the fantasy world of J. K. Rowling's stories.

Two archetypal families recognizable in everyday life come into view: the Dursleys and the Weasleys. The first, a middleclass family with one child, who own their own house and their own economical car of the year. The father is the manager of a drilling business, the mother a housewife, and their only boy, Dudley, is absolutely spoiled by the parents' softness and their abdication of authority.

The Weasleys, by contrast, are a generous family with seven children. Although they are wizards, the father has a modest job and a low income. Their house has been added to bit by bit and they have no car. The mother is a housewife who is always ready to welcome any friends of her husband or children. The seven kids——six boys and a girl——all have very different and strong personalities, but what they have in common is that they are hard workers, clever, level-headed, get along well together and, except for one, have a great sense of humor.

Throughout his life, both families will influence Harry Potter, forming his character, his habits, his loves and hates, his hobbies. But in spite of these domestic pressures, the author always——and I find this most educational——recognizes Harry's unique origin and respects his freedom.

Friction among the Weasley brothers brings out virtues, such as respect, although fights break out as well. Percy is notorious for his bad moods, but he is also the cause of a lot of amusement and laughter. And all the while, the authority of the parents moderates and sculpts the children's personalities. At the Dursley's house, things are horribly different. The only child not only manipulates both parents, he bosses them around, mocking them and pilfering from them. In his heart, he seems to despise them.

Both families face a financial crisis and have to contend with extra work, bosses, and unexpected friends. Among the Dursleys, trouble comes from a close relative, Auntie Marge. This prompted me to ask myself what role aunties, uncles, cousins and other relatives play in our daily life.

No role at all! I decided, sadly. There is no time for them. In big cities, we may telephone and go to the hundredth birthday celebration of our great-grandmother, but that's all. We forget how much they can share with us. Auntie Marge’’s character repulses me because of her imprudence, cruelty and sneakiness. My aunties were not that kind, none of them. This contrasting character reminds me about their presence in difficult and funny moments, at funerals and in hospital rooms, as well as at weddings and after dinner chats. Am I a lovable auntie? Will my nephews and nieces miss me when I am gone?

Tonks, a young lady in her early twenties and a bit crazy, appears in book six with eyes red and swollen from weeping: Mrs Weasley has been listening to her pour out her grief. Only at the end of the books did I come to know that there are heartaches. Such a wonderful friend is Molly Weasley! Sensitive, always available, thoughtful, a true grown-up friend with her own hardships in life, ready to share her experiences with optimism. Am I Mrs Weasley to all my friends? Do they find a Molly mixed with Michael Ende's Momo? I sincerely hope so.

Enough of Harry Potter's world for now. As soon as I come up with more inspirations about Potter and Rowling, I’’ll share them with you.


Alfonsina Ramirez Paulin, PhD, is a Mexican of the "third age" who has taken up writing as a second career after teaching at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).