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Should "Harry Potter" Go To Public School?

By Karen Jo Gounaud

October 13, 1999

Harry Potter, a boy character in an extraordinarily popular book series for children, has won for his author a number of prestigious awards - 1997 National Book Award (UK), New York Public Library Best Book of the Year 1998, and Parenting Book of the Year 1998, to name a few.

Harry has also taken center stage, as evidenced by FFL calls and referrals, as the most frequent character name mentioned in public school children's book controversies in recent months. In addition to these parental inquiries, several private family policy organizations have also asked FFL to review and report on this book series to explain why such a popular and successful creation has nevertheless raised increased concerns for parents - especially Christian parents.

The short answer is this - Although the J.K. Rowling Harry Potter book series is imaginative, colorful, clever and adventurous, FFL believes it is not appropriate for the public school classroom. The school library is a different matter, and will be addressed later in this piece.

For the classroom, our objections fall under four categories:

1. Religious content

The Harry Potter book series has predominantly occult themes, heavily permeated with characters and practices associated with Witchcraft. For example, Harry is a warlock, his dad was a warlock and his mother was a witch. The Wicca/Witchcraft belief system practices include spells, chants and other rituals used for worshiping the Goddess of this Neo-Pagan religion. The word "witch" is a derivative of the Old English noun "wicca" (sorcerer) and the verb "wiccian" (to cast a spell). But it's no longer an ancient group of forgotten mythology -- it's active and very much a part of the modern world landscape. In fact, in the United States, the Wiccan church has been granted IRS status and the U.S. Government has appointed military chaplains in their behalf.

It's important to note, however, that the presence of religious values and beliefs in a book, whether fictional or non-fictional, does not automatically disqualify a work from classroom presentation. After all, the mere review of U.S. and world history reveals countless leaders -- Churchill, Lincoln, Washington, Gandhi, Popes and Rabbis, including those who fought the Holocaust -- for whom faith was central to their decisions and their conduct. And public schools presenting the Sound of Music can't tell the true story of the Von Trapp family without including Maria's Catholic connections and their faith that helped them escape from Nazi danger.

Nevertheless, the teacher, as an authority figure, and the classroom, as a place of required attendance, must not promote any particular religion, say the courts. Although religion as a general topic may be studied in an unbiased historical context, one particular religion cannot be singled out for emphasis overall. While public schools throughout the nation have been methodically removing any association with Christian faith from the classroom and other school activities, they seem to be welcoming classroom materials and extracurricular activities associated with pagan religions.

Although these Potter books are not religious instruction manuals, they celebrate Witchcraft through entertainment. As a result the books can prove to be a powerful advertisement for the occult religions. As a Time magazine article of Sept. 20, 1999 pointed out, after reading Harry Potter, "Who wouldn't choose a wizard's life?" I doubt seriously a school would allow a teacher to do the Christian equivalent such as reading a book or playing a tape from Focus on the Family's "Adventures in Odyssey" series pointing listeners toward the advantages of a Christian life. So it is most unfair, though it's been happening more frequently, to engage in activities promoting pagan gods especially when that activity is reading a best selling book about a wizard boy so close to the age of the students. And although C.S. Lewis is considered a classic author, how many public school teachers would be allowed to discuss the full implications of the Christian symbolism of the Narnia series in their classrooms?

Finally, in contrast to the positive, uplifting direction of stories talking about the place of great faith of mainstream world religions in human history, the Harry Potter book series focuses on the dark side of religion. There is good and evil portrayed among the witches and warlocks, but the power is in self-centered pagan worship and magic, not in the righteous God of the world's great religions. The action emphasizes revenge and dominance rather than reconciliation, forgiveness, and serving others. The violence and bloody action is within the context of who controls the magic, not self-sacrifice for such issues as faith, family and freedom.

2. Violent content

In this post-Columbine society where violent websites, violent movies, music lyrics promoting violence, and violent video games popular with youth, have been linked to violent youth crimes, it is irresponsible to choose for the captive classroom, especially for the teacher to read aloud, a children's book explicitly describing violent material with no moral explanation or high moral purpose. Death and death "education" has become a fascination for some of these murderous youth. Despite its basic setting of magical fantasy and adventure, in Harry Potter's young world, death is very much a player.

For example, in the first book of the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry is introduced to "Nearly Headless Nick" whose head was almost severed once and therefore can be flipped "...back onto his neck." Harry also learns his parents did not die in a car accident, but were blown up and murdered. Another ghostly entity was described as "...covered with blood." And of course Harry himself learns to use his own powers in hurtful ways, hardly a worthy example for children still trying to choose appropriate behavior on the playground. He is also advised by a wizard professor that "After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure."

Although many works of great literature contain episodes of violence or frightening circumstances, including deadly ones, those elements were placed within a framework of good overcoming evil, and self-sacrifice for the greater good of mankind.

3. Educational weakness

Rowling's books are so popular and well-known, teachers needn't add their authority to increase the likelihood of them being read by children. Popularity does not necessarily equate with educational value. In today's New Age slanted and saturated culture, children are much more interested in stories of power through sorcery and black magic and much less likely to pick up a classical piece of positive literature, or even know what those works are. Enticement to classic, time-tested children's literature is where a teacher should be putting her efforts, not simply joining the pop-culture crowd.

How many of the multi-generational time-tested winners have today's parents had time to read to their children? How many cyber-smart, video-focused, day-cared, extra-curricular kids take time to read these on their own? How many public libraries still make them the center of special attention? How many classrooms have brought these works to the students' attention? How soon will these classics be forgotten if a generation of children is ignorant about their presence, their richness, and their significance?

The argument for using popular contemporary publications which is that "at least they're reading" or that "this will lead to greater reading" doesn't stand up to the facts. Instead, reading Goosebumps leads to Fear Street, Steven King and the adult horror genre, not to Thomas Hardy, Homer or Shakespeare. Harry Potter, though much better written than Goosebumps, will likely lead mostly to more Harry Potter or imitators and all the commercial products that follow. Teachers who read this series will lead their students not to lasting educational achievements, but to profit for the manufacturers, producers, and publishers while the Wiccans and witches celebrate their mainstream success.

Is that truly where high educational standards are intended to lead?

4. Anti-family bias

Minus his murdered parents, the only biological family in Harry Potter's life is also the poorest model of family life - Harry's aunt, uncle and cousin. They are mean, selfish, unloving, and in general, nasty to him. He's even forced to sleep in a closet. Harry is best loved and helped by the occult characters rather than the human family to whom he's related . The ordinary human adults are powerless, the witches, warlocks and friends all powerful and wise. Once again, as in so many popular entertaining elements of our modern culture, traditional family is portrayed as striking out.

What about the public school library?

Parents should be kept informed about the presence of school library books which go beyond the expected content based on school behavior codes (no profanity, no sexually explicit statements, etc). Books like those as well as the Potter series with controversial religious and violent content and slant should require parental permission to check out if they are in the school library.

If I were a parent of an elementary school child, I would visit the school library to see if other staples have been covered - up to date reference books, books needed for regular classroom projects, classic literature, etc. Or is the school librarian emphasizing the popular culture themes and titles and ignoring community standards for what is acceptable for children and youth?

Although school librarians, like other school officials, are considered "in loco parentis" and expected to monitor the students more closely in all their educational pursuits than you can expect public library librarians to do, parents must still stay actively involved, assess what is happening, and communicate to proper authorities both about negative and positive situations they encounter.

What to recommend instead of Harry Potter: Suggest you order for yourself and provide for the teacher and principal copies of Home Remedies - Reading lists and curriculum aids to promote your child's educational well-being. Order from Family Research Council at 1-800-225-4008 for $4.00. In their classic list section, providing brief descriptions of literature from pre-school through highschool, the compilers noted this definition:

"Classic works are those which have been continually celebrated, analyzed, and discussed by successive generations of trained readers." - Roger Lundin and Susan Gallagher, Literature Through the Eyes of Faith

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From Home Remedies section on Classical Reading come these two lists below. Short descriptions of each work are included as are lists for other grade levels, preschool through high school.

Classic Reading for "Younger Elementary"

Tales of Hans Christian Andersen by Hans Christian Andersen

Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne

Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter

Charlotte's Web by E. B. White

Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

Aesop's Fables

Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

Classic Reading for "Older Elementary"

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Hans Brinker by Mary M. Dodge

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graeme

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

Black Beauty by Anne Sewell

Heidi by Johanna Spyri

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin

The Children's Homer: The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy by Padraic Colum

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