Home > Criticism and Theory > Fantasy Round 50: Wizard School Reform

Fantasy Round 50: Wizard School Reform


There’s an element that commonly appears in fantasy novels.  In some cases, as in Harry Potter, it’s explicitly constructed as a school.  In many others, it’s more of a master-apprentice system.

But the bottom line is this: none of the improved pedagogical methods that are used in modern-day Muggle classrooms are making it into the magical community.  Worse, many of the methods of magical instruction are downright abusive.

Since I just gave up on watching a show that was supposedly about a graduate school in magic, let’s talk about this mess.

Hogwarts: It looks nice, but it's not everything that it's cracked up to be.

Hogwarts: It looks nice, but there’s a lot of ugly on the inside.

Abusive Tactics

Let’s consider a scenario where a high-school level student is being a bully.  He’s caused some property destruction or minor injuries to another student, say.  An instructor at the school approaches the student, ties him up, and bounces him around a bit.  This could have caused the student serious injury.  The instructor, notorious for his paranoia and extremism, is only reprimanded for this behavior.  Would you, as a parent, be okay with this situation?

This is essentially the non-magical version of when Mad-Eye Moody turned Malfoy into the amazing bouncing ferret, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Given how seriously reports of teachers and security officers assaulting students are generally taken, I’d like to think that this wouldn’t be tolerated in a real school — no matter how obnoxious the student was.  However, I know that, in historical reality, corporal punishment was considered both appropriate and necessary, and it’s conceptually reasonable that punishing students with spells could be considered acceptable.

Even though it probably shouldn’t be, and even though it’s played for laughs in the book (at least in this example).  It’s… not really that funny, when you think about it.

In the master-and-apprentice scenarios, it’s also all too common for abusive situations to occur — from Harry Dresden’s first master’s emotionally abusive tactics and plans to use Dresden as a pawn, to the numerous cases in various media where the master is mysterious, refuses to explain simple concepts, yells, and otherwise mistreats the student in various ways that, in other interpersonal relationships, would be considered unacceptable.

Oh, and it gets worse.

Non-Benign Negligence

One of the other major issues with Hogwarts in particular (as well as other magical training scenarios) is the high frequency of visits to the school infirmary.  Harry and his friends end up there at least once every year, and in many cases, the injuries aren’t even accidental.  There are fights with Malfoy and with assorted monsters that somehow manage to get into the school, in addition to the numerous magical accidents.

Apparently, Hogwarts has no OSHA compliance.  And these are middle and high school aged students — many not even teenagers yet.  It seems beyond ridiculous that there isn’t so much as a fence marking the Do Not Enter boundary to the Forbidden Forest, to help avoid accidents and discourage students from wandering over there.

I recognize, from a narrative perspective, that having no safety precautions allows for more action and drama in the story, but I sincerely hope that nobody tries to take any this into real schools.

It’s The System

Then there are the cases where the system of instruction itself is clearly broken.  This happens frequently in master-apprentice cases.

One particularly extreme example is the Doom of Damocles that appears in the Dresden Files, when Harry Dresden takes on Molly as his apprentice.  The Doom means that Molly’s tampered with dark magic, and one step out of line means both master and apprentice go on the chopping block.

Not exactly a great atmosphere for learning.

In some other stories, the mater-apprentice relationship is abusive, with the mentor belittleling the student, forcing them to take on immense drugery for no reason or do things without explanation, and generally treating them poorly.

The Dresden Files example, at least, largely skips that problem.  Instead, Molly has an unrequited teenage crush on Dresden.  He’s a decent enough person to find this creepy, and immediately corrects her expectation that, as an apprentice, he as a senior wizard would take advantage.

Which makes me wonder how many other apprentices were taken advantage of in just that way.  Even if they were “willing,” this falls very deep into the realm of inappropriate behavior, sexual assault, and command rape.  And yet, the system in which they are operating would view these actions as… pretty much a-okay.

Which is not a-okay.  I’m suspicious that the White Council (of wizards) has never had an anti-harrassment seminar.

Speaking of which…

Not Masters of Education

One common thread through all of this is that most of the magical instructors weren’t even primarily interested in teaching, but rather simply in the subject matter itself.  This is something that shows up in real life in research universities: the professors are interested in researching their subject, and sometimes put minimal effort into teaching.  As a result, some of them are excellent instructors, and some… are very bad at it.

Something I have never seen in fiction is a focus on magical pedagogy.  For example, in real life, Stanford University (among other places) has a group working primarily on physics pedogogy.  The focus is not physics itself, but how it is taught, how students learn the subject matter, and how it could be taught more effectively.

So, what I think would be fun to see: A magical master’s of education, where people who know the subject learn how to teach. Combine that with study into how people learn magic, and how to teach it more effectively.

Including magical laboratory safety.

And something about how to not be horrible to the students.

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  1. 2017/02/05 at 10:06 am

    Thinking about it, that the teachers generally range from dubiously incompetent — Hagrid, Lockhart — to outright hostile — Snape, Moody — including neglectful — Flitwick, McGonagall — in magical school stories is probably why the schools are such a closed world in these stories. Because if not, someone would have used these incidents to their profit, be it the parents themselves — at the time of the incident with Moody, Malfoy Sr still has a fair bit of influence, so Moody isn’t hanging around for long if he learns of it…with all the consequences for Dumbledore of having one of his close associates caught abusing a student — or a third party — in the second book, Harry gets his arm bones vanished by Lockhart. I think Dumbledore would have been in a bind if anyone with any influence and griefs against him learnt of it. Now, I understand that it’s often done to add some drama to the story, but that makes one wonder why any Muggle-raised — bar cases where they don’t have much if anything waiting for them in the Muggle world like Harry or Tom Riddle — are going back for more.

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