Let the Sorting Now Begin…

At precisely one minute past midnight on the 8th of October, students who had enrolled on the Education department’s Harry Potter course were finally informed as to the location of the first lecture. Rather than simply proving a testament to Dr Richardson’s theatricality or enthusiasm for the “wizarding” world, this is just one measure the department has had to implement since the national media caught the scent of another potentially controversial story. Indeed, the location of the first lecture and its content were allegedly discovered by the BBC before one o’clock on the very same morning that it was circulated via e-mail to students. Further to that, an article pre-empting the “Sorting” ceremony which took place in the first lecture was released some four hours before the event had even occurred.

Compared to when I first interviewed Dr Richardson last July, interest in his module entitled “Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion” has since been unprecedented. Certainly there was a buzz about Palace Green as students scurried towards the “secret” location otherwise known as Durham Castle’s Great Hall, robes, sorry, gowns billowing out behind us. We were stopped no fewer than three times before we were allowed to enter the hall in order to prove that we were Durham students. Undeterred by this harsh injection of reality into our playfully indulged fantasy, we entered the hall to find an enormous sorting hat sat on a stool, and four long tables decorated in tribute to the infamous Hogwarts houses, Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff. It took little imagination to be transported into the world of Harry Potter that afternoon, everyone dutifully booing those unlucky enough to enter Slytherin house and applauding the much sought after positions in Gryffindor.

Whilst it is inevitable that some tabloids have criticised the module, national reactions of the media have been positive in the main. Certainly most educators and journalists alike have been waiting with baited breath as to exactly how Dr Richardson will present Britain’s first ever Harry Potter module and indeed how successful it will prove to be. The Sorting exercise, as undeniably exciting as it was, also made an example of us and our preconceptions. Problems surrounding discrimination, stereotyping and the early formations of a group identity soon became apparent, and it goes without saying that the entire nerve-wracking process of “sorting” draws close parallels to the “muggle” selection process.

But when the new Coalition government has announced plans to cut university funding, threatening to raise tuition fees even further, can the study of so called “Mickey Mouse” modules really be justified? Or is it simply intellectual snobbery that encourages us to devalue the place of cultural icons such as Harry Potter in an academic setting that we might better cling to the remnants of more archaic traditions? Surely having a module that is both fun and academic doesn’t present a conflict of interest?

After all, a module that boasts Harry Potter as its gravitas should not necessarily be accused of pandering to the pressure of popular culture when the effects on our global society and national reading habits speak for themselves.

J. K. Rowling, if being accredited with nothing else, continues to motivate children to read in an age suffocated with technology. As dramatic as it sounds, Rowling should be lauded as a preserver of intellectual tradition, allowing reading to exist as a form of entertainment, an alternative to the literacy in the classroom which threatens to render the reading of classics for pleasure obsolete. Dickens and Austen for all their popularity cannot claim to have surpassed the sale of one of the best-sellers of all time. For the Harry Potter books are the only ever to have rivalled the circulation of the Holy bible in the last decade, selling over 400 million copies. Harry Potter has become the bibliotherapy of the twenty-first century. So if we are to question Harry Potter in terms of providing a legitimate foundation upon which to construct an academic module, are we also to question the justification of Christian theological modules in universities?

Although the module was created in response to demands from the student body, the texts themselves have stimulated a plethora of academic criticism since their publication and are far from irreconcilable with academic tradition. In fact the critical works continue to increase in number, from L. A. Whited to other recent publications of Granger’s; critical works are entering academic circles quicker than you can say “Expelliarmus”.

But it is precisely the impact of the Harry Potter “myth” rather than the literary calibre of the novels that Dr Richardson hopes to consider in the new module. The global success of a very non-mythical fifteen billion pound brand name apart, the social model of Hogwarts, and the moral dichotomies that are presented in the novels are not so far removed from our own “muggle” world. Stripped of its magical exterior, Rowling’s creation is an engaging microcosm in which courage and loyalty become victorious over moral degeneracy. It is this world in which we can bend the rules in the battle between good and evil that has surely appealed to such a wide child and adult readership alike.

Whilst Rowling’s nostalgic manifestations of the bygone British stereotype have been criticised by academics, it is surely this revival of the British wartime attitude, triumph in the face of adversity that has endeared the novels to the British public, and indeed the international one.

A statement released in May earlier this year by University UK Policy upheld that it is the “heterogeneity” of the diverse courses universities offer in this country that remains the key strength of the sector, and any such move to regulate new courses would “stifle innovation and diversity”. Harry Potter, even when discussed in terms of its contention continues to fuel the imaginations of students either in the attempt to uphold the value of fiction and myth, or in the process by which they dispel it.

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