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Ruth Starkman

Ruth Starkman

Posted: November 26, 2010 05:55 PM

As college students around the United States prepare for their end of semester exams and papers, they can take in the diversion of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, the first installment of the last film in J.K Rowling's mega-best- selling Harry Potter series, which many of them began in elementary school.

This penultimate film shows the three main protagonists, Ron Weasely, Hermione Granger and Harry Potter far from any academic pursuits. Indeed, the trio has dropped out of their magical school Hogwarts to fight in the nasty civil war that has thrown the wizarding world into chaos. Such activism may appear both thrilling and compelling to students as they face the drudgery of finals.

Is there any inspiration in the film to keep the focus on school? Especially when the film suggests that our world may not be so far from the dark, totalitarian bureaucracy of the Ministry of Magic after the Death Eaters take over. Even in our relatively calm 21st century university atmosphere 40+ years after the student movements of 1968, there are students itching to flee the library for the streets.

This film makes it seem like dropping out might be dangerous, but the characters have no other choice and have little use for school anyway.

That star student Hermione Granger seems perfectly self-sufficient with her own autodidactic learning and can conjure enough spells to consistently rescue her two hapless male counterparts. Who needs school if you and your friends can just read the manual and find that magic right answer just in the nick of time?

The fact is: their world is magic, ours is not.

That's the wet-blanket realist answer of course: Harry Potter characters live in a fantasy world, where if they eschew their studies in favor of a showdown with ultimate evil, they always have their wands, spells and elves to snatch them away from danger at the right moment.

For us there are surely civil wars raging around the world and poverty and injustice everywhere. Would it hurt so much to drop out of school for a while to go somewhere and fight the good fight? It might. Dropping out of school for students in this world, the disenchanted, real one of American universities could mean huge personal losses, both for the students and their families.

What then, if any intellectual succor or motivation to stay in school might this movie offer? Watching this blockbuster, students can confirm their own mastery of many of the series ideas from the set design to literature and philosophy: That Ministry of Magic is a textbook study in monumental, authoritarian design: Black lacquered industrial title? Check. Heavenly filtered lighting? Check. Dripping gold ornament and Arno Breker style sculpture? For sure. Did anyone miss the references to Macbeth with the young witch and wizards on the heath? What about all those classical names and constellations? Perhaps there is an ethical message that might inspire students to focus on their work while also coping with the existential intensity of being 18-22 in our times?

Rowling's ethics tend to be more religious than secular, indeed she consistently mobilizes a Christian Natural Law ethic that comes straight out of St. Augustine's City of God: Humans are born good, but flawed and need the grace of an ultimate good to choose good over evil. Lord Voldemort, the power-hungry, vengeance-bent, self-deformed ultimate evil nemesis, was once a lonesome boy who never new grace, love or community, and in the end chose evil. Harry Potter, far from perfect himself, is an average student with a volatile temper that often pitches him into mortal danger. These ethics also have a secular correlation in later normative theories. With Kant we might say that Rowling shows us the crooked timber of humanity, but Kant might also say that while fate throws students all kinds of challenges, students must make their own fates.

So, what's the take home message from this movie? Harry Potter and his friends may have dropped out of school to save the world, but you don't have to jump to that conclusion -- yet. Talk to your professors, no matter how evil they may seem: it's their job to help you. They aren't officials in the Ministry of Magic who have to cling to a rulebook written by elders, but rather they are there to work for you and help you explore great ideas, which may often contradict their own insularity.

Hopefully, your professors are more the benevolent Dumbledore type than the evil, simpering Umbrige-type. Too often, they are the vain, wound-licking embittered types like Severus Snape, but even Snape is capable of good.

When there are no wands or spells to save you, you can rescue yourself and choose good by getting others, especially your professors, to talk with you about important ideas.