Reasons We Should Be Reading ‘Harry Potter’ in Grade School

LET’S LEARN TOGETHER, HARRY!
LET’S LEARN TOGETHER, HARRY!

Today I saw a friend post a link to the Scotland independence vote results on Facebook with the comment, “I guess J.K. Rowling comparing some ‘Yes’ campaigners to death eaters worked…?’’

Of course, this was in reference to a post by Rowling, who financially backed the anti-independence campaign, on her personal website that stated, “… when people try to make this debate about the purity of your lineage, things start getting a little Death Eaterish for my taste.’’ Fair. Taken out of context by some media outlets? More or less. But did the insider reference to “Harry Potter’’ series’ villains translate on a level that gainednewstraction for her cause? Absolutely.

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Earlier this week, Hanna Kozlowska explored the idea of “Harry Potter’’ being incorporated into grade school curriculums for the New York Times. Jumping off Facebook’s user-generated list of “books that have stayed with us,’’ Kozlowska cites research that examined heightened levels of tolerance, awareness of prejudice, and political involvement found in readers of J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular boy wizard series.

She writes:

Researchers from several European universities found that reading Harry Potter may make young people more tolerant. In the study “The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice,’’ psychologists led by Loris Vezzali at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia say that reading “Harry Potter’’ improves attitudes toward stigmatized groups, such as immigrants, gays and refugees.

But many books are well-written and teach valuable lessons, you say. Why aren’t they taught in school? “The Hunger Games’’ also made Facebook’s top 10, but not trilogy is not found on many required reading lists either — what makes “Potter’’ more worthy to be taught by the public school system? And if adding them to the curriculum is too extreme, why not add them as options on the summer reading list? There’s a difference between a book being taught and a book being read.

The Boston Public Schools’ summer reading list for grades 6-8 and 9-12 most definitely feels modernized with range — including the likes of Jacqueline Woodson’s John Newbery Medal-winning “After Tupac and D Foster’’ and Alice Sebold’s popular novel-to-film, “The Lovely Bones’’. Classics like “Emma’’ and “Frankenstein’’ are introduced in high school years, but contemporary literature reigns king on these lists. The “Divergent’’ series made the cut— but why not “Harry Potter’’?

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While I can’t quite argue that the “Potter’’ series is more valuable to a well-rounded education than “Pride and Prejudice,’’ I think its lasting impact on this generation speaks volumes. I read “Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone’’ when I was in middle school, and nearly 15 years later, it remains subject matter that I can recall at the drop of a hat. And still, as I grow older, I find myself going back again and again, only to find something new or interesting that I hadn’t noticed before.

While Kozlowska’s study-based arguments are valid and worth noting, I think reasons for the value of “Potter’’ and the seven books that make up the series extend far beyond research. Here are just a few:

— The series shows the cultural impact books can have on a generation. If we want to be meta about it, we can look at how a book — not a movie, a TV show, or a comic book, but a book with paper pages, text, and a spine, has become a worldwide phenomenon. Going back to my friend’s comment about Death Eaters, Rowling, and Scotland, the inherent understanding (and subsequent outrage) may make the “Potter’’ movement even more universal than we give it credit for. Classrooms often look to lists of banned books to examine reading’s impact on society, so why not extend that scope?

— The books’ important lessons go beyond understanding, empathy, sacrifice, and acceptance. They also encourage readers to question everything around them. Don’t always trust the press (you heard me), or the government, or even the people in charge of your education. This goes hand-in-hand with the thirst for knowledge and understanding that most of Rowling’s main characters demonstrate. They also use education as a foundation for lessons in failure and resourcefulness.

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— Likewise, intelligence is consistently rewarded and valued in the world of “Potter.’’ There is reoccurring emphasis on being “bright,’’ “clever,’’ and “brilliant.’’ Yes, the characters are at school, so there is an obvious grading system, but their study habits, albeit not always prioritized, are consistent and the payoff of intellect and skill goes far beyond the classroom.

— One of the most powerful quotes of the series, delivered by Professor Albus Dumbledore, is, “Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.’’ Our editorial assistant @meaganmcginnes reminded me that negligence, ignorance, and fear of the unknown result in long-term consequences for some the characters, often as result of the much more literal class system of the wizarding world. These evils are no lesser than violence, anger, and disrespect and deserve a storyline of their own. In her piece, Kozlowska noted the study that showed reading fiction improved our ability to empathize with others. Why not use the opportunity to allow the undervalued and ignored to have their voices heard?

— “Potter’’ teaches the idea of “chosen families.’’ While independence is a regular theme in many of the books I remember from school, the concept of “chosen families,’’ is an important one to learn once you’ve left home for the first time. As an orphan, Harry is in a situation that the majority of grade school students may not be able to immediately identify with, but he develops deeply loyal, intimate bonds of love and friendship throughout the series that serve as the family he never had.

— Obviously I’ve disclosed more than enough to reveal just how much of a “Harry Potter’’ nerd I am, but it actually was our news intern @elle_mno who reminded me that many of the names of characters, spells, and items in the books are deeply-rooted in classical languages and mythology. This will probably only pique the interest of readers who become invested beyond the classroom, but the cleverness and depth of the use of etymology is not lost.

— Another friend who teaches English on a college level added that this aspect of the books makes them “ideal for academic analysis’’ and discussion. I remember often bringing the books I read in grade school (“The Catcher in the Rye,’’ “Fahrenheit 451,’’ “The Great Gatsby’’) to the dinner table because my folks had read them at my age. As the first “Potter’’ generation matures, how great would it be to continue and perpetuate the love and excitement of reading with our children?

HERMIONE GRANGER. Enough said.

And honestly, I think this falls into one of those scenarios where the question shouldn’t be why, but why not?

Ravenclaw, out.

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