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When Hogwarts Came to Harvard: Real Life Villains and the Universal Power of Imagination

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To the delight of Muggles and half-bloods alike, April brought the opening of Pottermore, a digital portal for the best-selling novels about Hogwarts' young wizard that captured the hearts and minds of a generation. The wizarding world of Harry Potter has taken the planet by storm, selling half a billion copies and reconnecting children and adults everywhere with a love of reading. An international phenom, the series has been translated into over 70 languages and become a cultural touchstone worldwide.

What universal appeal might the story of Harry Potter, with its young upstart wizards and Dark Lord, have for the real struggles of so many people around the globe? Some may think the books relate little; nothing more than fantastical diversions from everyday life. And yet, the magic of literacy and the power of imagination can open up very real possibilities for the world to change. To fully understand how, one only has to peer inside the mind of its young female author.

I had the great chance to hear the incomparable J.K. Rowling give the commencement speech in 2008 at Harvard (or "the world's largest gathering of Gryffindors") where she captivated a live audience as thoroughly as she does her readers. During her address, Rowling turns back the clock on her magical world to the reveal the grim stories and real-life villains she came face to face with every day as a young British staffer at the human rights organization Amnesty International:

Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. I paid the rent in my early 20s by working at the African research department at Amnesty International's headquarters in London. Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to speak against their governments. Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

As a reader, a fan, a student of global education policy and an advocate for human development, I couldn't help but take away a powerful sense of purpose from that day as I moved out into the world. At its heart, education works its own magic. As we learn to read, it enables us to empathize with others, think critically about the world around us, and ultimately, imagine something better.

Watch the full video of J.K. Rowling's moving speech at Harvard.