It should be said right away that Hogwarts is one of the most well-constructed and well-realized fantasy settings of modern fiction. And not only because of the novels written by J.K. Rowling. Over the years, the Harry Potter films have each added to the lore of Hogwarts in their own unique ways, and we're all the better for it.
At the same time, it can be painful to experience the Harry Potter story, because it's almost impossible not to yearn for your own acceptance letter into this School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The towering castle tucked away in a secret part of Great Britain has a lot to teach us about the students who go there, the secrets of its mysterious yet intriguing history, and how magic can play a crucial role in the formative years of lovable, fictional characters.
But can Hogwarts teach us anything about the real world? Is it possible that we would all benefit from applying the appealing nature of Hogwarts to our real schools all around the world?
There's a lot to consider if you believe this is possible. And putting away the obvious given that no school could be as "magical" as Hogwarts, and that the school is a dangerous place as a result, we can propose a compelling case for why more educational institutions should take note from Rowling's frankly brilliant creation.
1. Hogwarts is a real place.
It would be misleading to overlook the clear influences Rowling took from British schools and landmarks when conceptualizing Hogwarts. The competitive houses and driving narratives from the series derive from the school Rowling attended herself, Wyedean Comprehensive. And the gothic look and flavor was inspired by Ampleforth, Edinburgh Castle, and Chepstow Castle, among others.
This is important to note because Hogwarts parallels to the modern world in many observable ways. Its foundation is not as fantastical as the subject matter of its classes, and that's a key reason why we can take more substantial lessons from how the school is run and why it's uniquely successful within the context of its own world.
Remember, Hogwarts is always the pivotal "battleground" of the Harry Potter story, partly because the main antagonist, Voldemort, has a deep connection with his experience there for reasons we don't have time to get into. Put simply, Hogwarts is a place that represents the most important values shared by the wizarding society, which is why it serves as the eventual staging area of a massive war over said society's soul.
This is a big reason why someone like Professor Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, is so widely feared and respected. It's why the Ministry of Magic pays very close attention to the affairs of the school, and it's why so much of Hogwarts is designed to be as comfortable as possible for every student. It's because the wizarding world rightly understands that what the students learn and put into practice at Hogwarts will shape their own world in a short matter of time.
Going forward, we can start to accept the premise that Hogwarts is an imaginative extension of institutions we already recognize. We don't have to invent "new" schools to apply the principles learned from Rowling's ideas. We simply have to add to what already exists.
2. Hogwarts provides intentional education.
Some of the most important takeaways of this write-up come from the very philosophy behind Hogwarts. What it wants from its students and how it achieves those goals is extraordinary to think about and quite easy to quantify.
For one thing, the students have a more focused role in their education, starting when they reach age 11. Up to that point, many of them have already been introduced to the world of magic, but there's also a lot of room for muggleborns (people without any magical background) to catch up on the status quo. Hermione Granger is a fascinating example of this, as she becomes top of her class in the first year she discovered her penchant for magic. A school that allows for that kind of rapid, substantial progress is certainly doing something right.
Let's be more specific, though. The curriculum of Hogwarts is quite different from the scattered, complicated mess commonly found in other schools. To illustrate this point in the most concise way possible, here's an excerpt by respected educator Marion Brady from Washington Post that addresses the problems facing American education today, as well as the solutions:
One: Accept that something is seriously wrong with traditional schooling. Learning is natural, pleasurable, and satisfying, but what most schools do is so at odds with those emotions it requires all sorts of social and legal pressures to keep them operating.
Two: Accept that myriad internationally known and respected scholars may be right. Think of school subjects as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that make a lot more sense to kids when they can see the whole that a simple system for connecting the pieces makes clear.
Three: Add a class at the middle or high school level that uses the core subjects to do what everybody is already doing, and needs to do better—make sense of immediate experience. Personal interpretations of what's happening "right here, right now," determine what people do next, and what people do next determines the courses of lives and shapes human history. Here are several ways to put such a class in place without lengthening the school day or year or going outside the boundaries of familiar school subjects.
Put another way, Charms is quite different from Potions, just as Math is quite different from History. But unlike those rudimentary subjects, the classes of Hogwarts have a unifying purpose behind them. As Brady points out above, there's a need for "immediate experience." The students of Hogwarts are learning more than just theory. They're learning how the schools of magic directly influence the rest of their lives outside the castle walls.
We see this more clearly in Order of the Phoenix, when Harry Potter challenges a new professor on the subject matter of their class. Dolores Umbridge forces the students to revert to a year one book for "Defense against the Dark Arts." Harry speaks out of turn in order to point out that they've already learned the theory, and it would be a step back to avoid putting what they've studied to real practice.
Believe it or not, that's a radical concept for many schools today, and with few exceptions. Not enough schools allow students to drop superfluous classes they know they won't need for further education. Hogwarts, on the other hand, essentially forces students to streamline their courses by the end of their fifth year (the equivalent of a sophomore in American high school) for the sake of having a more relevant and pragmatic education.
This is also explored in Order of the Phoenix, when each student is given extended face time with the professors to determine a career path that aligns with their strengths and weaknesses. And they're evaluated in real time with consistently constructed exams, two full years before they graduate.
That's a far cry from the state of the real world, where a staggering amount of students don't know what they want to do in life until their junior year of college or later. Specifically, 20-50% of students enter college undecided. And more often than not, a junior in college will be doing something radically different years later.
At least in America, this can be a real problem for many students, caused by a common perception spread by educators that college is far more important than high school, often to the students' detriment. In theory, that could possibly have something to do with the money there is to be made by universities (students are "cash cows," says Thomas Frank of Salon), though that's another topic entirely.
Things are simpler at Hogwarts. The burden of choice for students is far more efficient, and the faculty play a crucial role in ensuring additional education, like college, is mostly unnecessary.
To be fair, numerous schools around the world make a true effort with guidance counselors and honors programs designed to help prepare students for their adult years. But what makes Hogwarts unique (besides the magical factor) is how intentional every career path is. It's simpler for students to make the right choice when choosing a career beyond Hogwarts because the theoretical education has moved on to real experiences that they can engage with and properly weigh.
In other words, it's a lot easier to know what you want to do and be properly vetted for it after you've finished at Hogwarts, which is probably why almost every character Rowling writes goes on to do exactly what they wanted to do at age 15.
Just look at the Weasley twins, who with a little financial support were able to start their own small business after dropping out of school in their final year. Percy Weasley, Head Boy in his final year, ascended the ranks of the Ministry of Magic in an incredibly short amount of time, because the text implies that students are groomed for what they want to do very early on and without any time wasted. This is even supported by Rowling herself, who has said that Harry and Ron never went back to Hogwarts to finish school either, but were both accepted into their desired careers (and for good reason).
3. Hogwarts is a celebratory institution.
This was glossed over in the last section, but it should be emphasized that the gifts of every student at Hogwarts is celebrated. Neville Longbottom, for example, is a student who falls short of expectations in most of his classes, but he's outstanding at one: Herbology. He's not ostracized for it, and the school does not diminish this talent. Instead, he's often exalted by his professor and enabled by the school to eventually teach Herbology at Hogwarts.
The same goes for Harry's raw talent in Quidditch. The school is set up in a certain way to incentivize the extraordinary. Even the professors are in on the fun of the houses competing with each other. As a result, Harry is selected to join the Quidditch team in his first year, despite the fact that this is unprecedented and sure to rub other talented students the wrong way.
The four houses and their divisions might seem problematic in a sense. They certainly cause a lot of friction between the students, though it doesn't seem all that different from the self-selected clique culture of most modern schools. But their inherent competition drives students to excel at many varying talents. The House Cup is an ingenious incentivizing tool to compel the students into achieving their own triumphs.
If you're not great at Quidditch, you might be rewarded for answering a question correctly in class. If you're not great at studying, you can still win points for doing good deeds around the school. It's a simple method with little value beyond a celebration at the end, but it's enough to make room for all types of students to contribute to something bigger than themselves.
So even Hermione Granger, someone who couldn't care less about Quidditch, will celebrate and join in on the excitement of a Gryffindor win. Not just because her closest friends love the sport. Hogwarts teaches us that division can sometimes yield the most striking unity.
As expected, you can find samples of these Hogwarts "lessons" in plenty of modern institutions, especially British boarding schools. But for the most part, the convictions of these schools are less than practical, and they can contribute to a weary, uninteresting outlook on how education truly shapes future success.
Hogwarts, and perhaps Ilvermorny at some point, can be a fresh reminder of how imaginative ideas can influence great change. Obviously, we can't expect any school to be quite like Hogwarts, as the variables are far too complicated to be scientific. And ultimately, the "proof" of this article comes down to wishful ideas written by a talented creative in J.K. Rowling. But if we're seeking out people who have something new to contribute to how we make the world better for the youngest among us, Rowling should near the top of the list.
- Another potential "reason" I researched was the idea of Hogwarts being selective. There's value, I think, in the idea that schools around the world should exist to satisfy communities of a specific function. But this can lead to dangerous territory, despite innocent intentions. Racial divide, for example, is a clear side effect, which even the text of Harry Potter explores with the plight of the Death Eaters.
- I alluded to the American school, Ilvermorny, which we know far less about. That will hopefully change in the near future, as it would be fascinating to see how that school could directly compare with Hogwarts. If you're interested, you can read up on the full history of Ilvermorny and its founders on Pottermore.
- You might be wondering why I went to the trouble of writing all of this, and it goes beyond my love for Hogwarts and Harry Potter. People I admire and respect spend a great deal of time evaluating fiction, myself included. And while I adore unpacking a great film or book, I think there should be a stronger effort to link lessons learned from fiction to real life. This is the first of (hopefully) many explorations into that very topic.