I recently re-read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and perhaps on account of all the study I have been doing about classical Christian education, it struck me how much of this book was about educational philosophy. I was even more surprised that despite the reality that Dolores Umbridge is cast in an evil light and Albus Dumbledore as the hero, the wisdom of educational decisions are not quite so cleanly split down the line between good and evil.
For example, as great a wizard and as good a headmaster as Dumbledore assuredly is, employing Rubeus Hagrid and Sybill Trelawney as professors is a terrible idea. Both prove on multiple occasions to be clueless and careless teachers. Hagrid often puts his students in moderately dangerous situations that have little educational value (Blast-Ended Skrewts!). Trelawney, though giving a legitimate prophecy earlier in her life, has no ability to teach her students even the basics of divination. Moreover, in both cases Dumbledore is able to find superior replacements when the two professors cannot perform their duties. Professor Grubbly-Plank routinely steps in and gives valuable lessons, a point made several times in the books. Likewise, Dumbledore hires Firenze to share in the divination duties. He proves a much better teacher, yet Dumbledore does not fully replace Trelawney.Additionally, Dumbledore asks Harry to take Occlumency from Professor Snape. Dumbledore stresses how important it is for Harry to learn Occlumency, but he dooms this learning from the beginning by placing Harry and Snape together, knowing their mutual disdain for one another. Moreover, after Snape kicks Harry out of his office and ends all lessons, Dumbledore does not intervene and ensure Harry’s success in this subject.
To make matters more confusing, Umbridge is not entirely out of place in requiring her Defense Against the Dark Arts students to begin with the fundamental basics of the subject from the textbook. The textbook choice is admittedly terrible, but she is correct that the students have had up until that point a disjointed education. Moreover, much like art education where students need to learn the basic skills before being told to express themselves, so also students need to understand the foundational information and purposes of Defense Against the Dark Arts before they should be waving their wands with incantations. Umbridge certainly proves throughout the novel that she is a terrible educator (and a worse person), but these initial comments aim to draw attention to the reality that the issue is more complex than perhaps initially supposed.
In the coming weeks, I will be publishing a series that explores the eight educational decrees mentioned in the book and what we can learn from them and how we can apply these insights to 21stcentury classical Christian education. In the tenth post I will explore a few other random educational examples from the novel. My hope is that exploring the practices of this fictional school may help illuminate for us areas in our own schools that can be improved.
Admittedly, Dumbledore has good reasons for keeping Trelawney at the castle, but surely he could find an alternative reason for her presence there.