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 HARRY POTTER AND THE STANDARDIZED TEST:
 SOME THOUGHTS FOR TEACHERS ON
MAGIC, RHETORIC, AND COMPOSITION

A sixth grade girl sits in her seat staring at a passage from a standardized test the like of which she’s taken many times before. She knows the drill. Read the passage on the advantages and disadvantages of solar power, underline the thesis, topic sentences, and key words, so to more efficiently answer the questions at the bottom of the page: “The author’s point of view on solar power can best be expressed in which of the following statements, blah, blah, blah.” She’s been told that her scores are important, the teacher, the principal, her parents all want her to do well on this test for lots and lots of reasons that do not matter to her in the slightest (not even those personal ones about college and some vague future that she can’t believe will ever really come about). She just wants to finish these passages so she can have time to read something that seems infinitely more real to her even though it describes the exploits of a fictional child who goes to a fictional school.

Shifting in her uncomfortable seat, she frequently longs for a magic broom to appear which could whisk her out of her boring class to the infinitely more exciting ones at Hogwarts. The students there don’t just sit and take tests; instead, they learn how to transform, attack, defend, stupefy, disappear, heal, create; in short, they get to use magic. Or at least they were able to because now suddenly in book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a witch (literally) by the name of Dolores Umbridge has taken over the school and has forbidden the students to do anything practical. At first, she enforces this only in her own class, “defense against the dark arts,” where she changes the curriculum from giving students practice in finding effective measures to protect themselves against spells, ghosts and the occasional perturbed pixies to having them sit in silence and read about abstract theories that have no application to their lives whatsoever. But now because the Ministry of Magic (the governmental watchdogs whose job, it seems, is to take away all the fun and creativity from the student’s lives) has given her added power, Professor Umbridge visits the other teacher’s classrooms and insists that they too revise their courses to reflect her own pedagogical leanings.

I believe Professor Umbridge would already be happy with most American classrooms where the current emphasis on testing a standardized curricula prevents students from being involved in their education, from learning anything practical, and, ironically, from even remembering any of the details on which they are being tested. The evidence for this is overwhelming, yet so is the trend to continue with it. There are reasons why this is so—the desire for greater efficiency, a reliance on outdated Enlightenment philosophy, and our society’s obsession with measurable results. All of these reasons make sense in light of their own logic, but they keep us from acknowledging the best reason for students to come to school in the first place, to learn magic. In the Harry Potter books, magic is always a means through which students use language to create something out of nothing, to impose their will upon others, and to defend themselves against those who would impose their will upon them. I believe students must learn this type of magic now more than ever, although we do not have to call it that; instead we can use a slightly more acceptable term, “rhetoric.”

I say “slightly” more acceptable because rhetoric has gotten a bad rap lately. It is degraded as a “mere” word divorced from action, such as when Bill Clinton speaks of “not having sex with that woman” or George W. Bush boasts of being a “compassionate” conservative. But according to its standard definition, rhetoric is the means through which any kind of persuasion becomes accomplished whether or not it leads to corresponding actions. At any rate, it is almost impossible to speak definitively about what words carry substance and what words are mere rhetoric, as any statement can be challenged or justified with selective evidence. One could look at our recent war with Iraq and argue that we removed a horrible dictator while sending a chilling message to terrorists in the region, or one could say we invented an excuse to snatch up more oil while providing our enemies with a greater justification for future attacks. Both sides can dismiss the others’ views as rhetoric, but the fact is that the one who uses language better is going to have greater powers of persuasion.

In Harry Potter’s universe, magic functions in much the same manner. On the most immediate level, the students at Hogwart’s have to utter words in order for their wands to function, and any mispronunciations or wavering of voice will severely weaken or alter their spells. On a deeper level, rhetorical magic functions in much the same way. William Covino defines it as “the process of inducing belief and creating community with reference to the dynamics of a rhetorical situation.” The closeness of his definition to that of Kenneth Burke’s denotation of rhetoric as “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols,” is not accidental, for Covino demonstrates throughout his book Magic, Rhetoric and Literacy that magic and rhetoric have similar histories and similar goals. Despite the continuous disparagement of magic from the scientific community and repeated attempts to reduce rhetoric and composition to a recipe or technique, nothing stimulates human action nearly as much as creative spells of words that weave their own sense of reality.

Of course, as the Harry Potter books demonstrate many times, these spells can be used for good or bad ends. Lord Valdemort reveals the way in which rhetoric can be used for evil purposes, carrying on the traditions of the master evil rhetor of the previous century, Adolph Hitler. Similar to his real life counterpart, Valdemort attempts to create a pure race of wizards, recruits followers by promising them power, and attacks others without mercy. Though Harry is able to stop him from time to time, the only wizard who truly keeps Valdemort at bay is Hogwart’s Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. While Valdemort desires to impose an extremely regimented magic for the right people, Dumbledore is more of a tolerant guide, encouraging all his students to explore the possibilities their studies can bring them. In so doing, he invites them to think for themselves and to act accordingly even if it means that they break the rules that he himself set out.

Though Dolores Umbridge is not directly in league with Lord Valdemort, she works towards similar ends and against the desires of Dumbledore, whom she eventually replaces (but not, of course, for long). From the start, Umbridge attempts to make her classroom have as little to do with the outside world as possible. The other Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers had their problems too, but at least they all knew that the students needed to learn how to defend themselves against an unpredictable array of potential dangers. Under Umbridge, the students now must sit through class and read a standardized textbook, titled “Basics for Beginners,” drained, as most of such manuals are, of any excitement, controversy, or spirit. The book as well as the pedagogy that inspired it runs contrary to the way magic works in the Harry Potter universe, which fits with Covino’s characterization: “the magical world is one in which language can bewitch the soul, and it is also unstable and dynamic, spirited and licentious.” Stripping magic of its essential nature leaves the students bored, restless, and unprepared to deal with anything of consequence outside the classroom.

Of course, the writer’s world is also one in which “language can bewitch the soul” and is also “unstable and dynamic.” But consider how many times classrooms attempt to “Umbridge” it into something bland, predictable, unchanging. Consider the following all too typical instructions given as part of a writing assignment:

 

Make certain that you have an Introduction, conclusion and three body paragraphs, that the thesis is clearly stated at the end of the first, and that topic sentences introduce each of the remaining ones; do not use “I” and refer to any reaction as coming from “the audience” or “the reader”; make certain that the grammar, punctuation, and spelling are all correct, for points will be taken off for any error or deviation of the above formula.

Do we wonder why students hate writing? First of all, the focus is on a formula, not a generative form that can create many variations. It asks for a singular point of view, as opposed to one that can reflect the ambivalence that many of us feel about certain issues. It demands the student leave themselves and anyone real out of the essay and replace it with a generic, predictable “audience,” and it makes it clear that the point of the essay is to be correct, not to move the audience or to make them consider something further. Does this prepare students for anything other than writing for this classroom? Has anyone ever seen essays like this anywhere else? The purpose of this assignment is not to teach students to write in a manner that will please anyone outside of the classroom but to program them to follow orders, regimented activities, and leaders who do not always have the students best interests at heart. No magic in magic, no magic in rhetoric, no magic in composition strips all of their essential nature.

Most students exposed to such pedagogy year after year follow a rather predictable pattern of boredom, restlessness, and, eventually, resignation. Fortunately, however, Harry and his friends are not typical. Hermione Granger, the intellectual leader of the group, is the first to object to Professor Umbridge’s manner of teaching. To which Umbridge replies “why I can’t imagine a situation arising in my classroom that would require you to use a defensive spell….You surely aren’t expecting to be attacked during class?” When Hermione objects further that the whole point of the class is to prepare them for what they might face outside of it, Umbridge attempts to put her eager student in her place:

 

“Are you a Ministry-trained educational expert, Miss Granger?” asked Professor Umbridge in her falsely sweet voice.

“No, but—“

“Well then, I’m afraid you are not qualified to decide what the ‘whole point’ of the class is. Wizards much older and cleverer than you have decided our new program of study. You will be learning about defensive spells in a secure, risk-free way.”

Her response is extremely telling; first, she attempts to strip Hermione of any power to decide the course of her own education and then tries to change the nature of the subject to fit within the confines of her pedagogy.

Composition/Rhetoric/Magic has never been “risk free.” Whenever one uses words socially or personally, there is always a great deal of risk that goes with it. So bored and disgusted are they with Umbridge’s classroom, that Harry organizes a group to meet secretly, so they can practice defense against the dark arts on their own. Harry and his friends are not just extraordinary in ability but also in resilience to the wrong people and the inappropriate attitudes they attempt to engender.

What we need to do is teach students “correct magic,” a process that is twofold: the ability to see through the linguistic trickery of advertisers, politicians and the like, and the ability to create our own more appropriate magical spells. Only through critical thinking and the imagination can both these abilities be achieved. But, alas, at Hogwarts, as in most classrooms today, these are two activities that tend to be discouraged. Where is there room for either in a standardized test, in a composition formula? And even when students are not taking tests, they tend to get shot down when they try to articulate points of view that run contrary to established positions. The exchange between Hermione and Umbridge is typical of many I’ve witnessed in classrooms through the years, and for Harry matters are even worse. Even at home, his imagination is continually stifled by his foster family who try to make Harry’s life as banal and routine as possible.

Yet somehow Harry manages to keep hold of his imagination, his critical thinking, and the good magic. In fact, his very survival depends upon it. In each of the five books, Harry, like most heroes, must undergo a series of obstacles to defeat his enemies. And in each of these cases, Harry is not aided so much by great strength or superior magical power as he is by his ability to think through the situation and come up with a creative solution that Valdemort doesn’t expect. Like Harry, students today are going to need to use critical thinking to insure their survival. Consider the problems they will have to face over the next few years: the inevitable proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, the consequences of environmental decay and massive energy consumption, the ethical questions that accompany technology. In order to survive in a world that is becoming increasing dangerous, students will need plenty of the “correct magic” that Burke and others recommend.

Yet it seems unlikely that education is preparing for this to happen. John Taylor Gatto argues that American education was designed to strip students of their power, and teach them obedience in order to prepare them to fill the millions of factory jobs that were opening up at the turn of the last century. These early “visionaries” of public education followed a Prussian model of pedagogy that had the suppression of democracy as a stated goal. This resulted, according to H. L. Mencken, in a school system whose real goal was “simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.” The key words in education today—“standardization,” “mainstreaming,” “efficiency”—show that we continue to march to the beat of the same pedagogical drums; in fact, we may have sped them up to brush aside any time for creative thinking in favor of increasing test scores.

Alas, as with Harry and his friends, our students may have to find their own ways, outside of the classroom, to practice magic.

October 2003

From Randy Fallows

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