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Susan J. Napier Headshot

From Hogwarts to Harvard: Survival Games for the 21st Century

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The recent reports of the cheating scandal at Harvard (and other schools), brought back memories, and not only those of my own long ago undergraduate days there. Although I must confess that my mind initially did turn back to a time when, as a naïve sophomore, I watched in disbelief as a fellow student in a large English course browbeat her teaching assistant into changing her grade from a B+ to an A-. The reason? She "had to get into law school." So, yes, cutthroat competitiveness and cheating at Harvard (and everywhere else), is not exactly a new phenomenon.

But the memories that were most sharply aroused by the news reports were actually of this year's crop of spring and summer movies, some of which seemed to me to be presciently commenting on the scandals to come. Or rather commenting on the attitude that may have led to the scandals, one of indifference and irresponsibility on the part of those who should be authority figures. To put it another way, popular culture these days illustrates a world in which young people are forced to do anything it takes in order to survive in a harrowing society where authority figures are either corrupt, absent, or simply inept.

Take the most obvious example, this spring's blockbuster film, The Hunger Games. Based on the best-selling trilogy by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future where a selected group of young people must fight to the death in a high tech booby trapped arena for the delectation of a decadent crowd of adults. The heroine, Katniss, ultimately survives, but her survival is at a debilitating emotional and spiritual cost that will only deepen throughout the rest of the series.

The Hunger Games may be the most brutal example of this trend, but the last few years have offered many other pop culture works in which young people have to fend for themselves without any helpful or compassionate adult guidance. From the youthful romantics of Moonrise Kingdom, whose parents are immoral and irresponsible, to the feisty young heroine of Brave, whose father is good-hearted but pea brained and whose mother is a straitlaced pettifogger, these protagonists are literally on their own in the wilderness. Perhaps the most poignant young heroine this summer was Hushpuppy, the very young protagonist of Beasts of the Southern Wild, who wants to believe that "the entire universe fits together just right." Except that it doesn't. Early on in Beasts we see the 5 year-old girl having to learn survival skills when her father abruptly abandons her for several lonely days.

But, you might ask, isn't this typical youthful adventure stuff? Isn't 19h century literature, from David Copperfield to Kim, full of plucky young heroes cast off from society and making their way on their own? True enough, but David, Kim, and most of their fellows had at least one adult mentor figure to help guide them through their adventures at their most challenging moments. And, even in the 20h century, Dorothy has Glinda the Good to help her get home, and the young hobbits of The Lord of the Rings have both Gandalf and Aragorn to help them get back to the Shire.

Contrast these advisors with Haymitch, the "mentor figure" in The Hunger Games. Haymitch is not a bad guy and he does get around to teaching Katniss and her comrade Peeta some useful survival skills, but first they have to rescue him from the alcoholic despair that engulfs him. And let's not even talk about Katniss's mother, an emotional basket case whom Katniss despises, due to her mother's uselessness after the death of Katniss's father.

Speaking of problematic parental figures, we might also mention the Harry Potter series, which ended two summers ago but still packs a huge emotional wallop on the younger generation. Harry's world is amazing and exciting but it also features a stunning parade of inadequate, disappointing, or simply absent father figures. Harry's dead father, James, turns out to have been a bully, and his godfather, Sirius Black, while devoted to Harry, is also a reckless daredevil who cannot quite grow up. Even Harry's surrogate father figure, Mr. Weasley, though kindly intentioned, can be disturbing inept. Most problematic of all is Harry's headmaster, Dumbledore, a master wizard who may have betrayed family and friends and is possibly manipulating Harry for his own ends.

Today's popular culture shows a world in which young protagonists may still yearn for home and mentorship, but are ultimately left on their own without guidance or safety. This is not to excuse the real world Harvard students or other young people who try to game the system, but to suggest that the system itself seems to have lost its way, abandoning the very people it should be nurturing. Or at least that's how the most popular books and films for teenagers portray our present era. Where is Gandalf now that we need him?