Censorship and the Great Books (Educational Insights from Hogwarts, Part 6)

Hogwarts castle
We are now on to the second half of our 10 part series on Educational Insights from Hogwarts. If you missed the first five, check them out at the links below.

Part 1: Lessons from Dolores, Dumbledore, and More

Part 2: Private Christian Schools and Government Involvement

Part 3: Meaningful Teacher Evaluations

Part 4: Student Organizations

Part 5: On the Integration of Subjects/Arts

Censorship: Educational Decree #27

In this sixth installment we will explore Educational Decree #27 in which Umbridge bans The Quibbler after Harry gives an interview about what really happened on the night of Cedric Diggory’s death. The move is clearly a response to Harry’s interview and not to anything otherwise objectionable in The Quibbler. We therefore learn as readers that Umbridge and the Ministry desire to exert control over a future generation of students by censoring what they read. Much the same move is made in Umbridge’s Defense Against the Dark Arts class when she has them read merely theory and no practical defensive magic. For Umbridge and the Ministry, censorship is their power play at control. Intriguingly, the more that they attempt to censor, the more that two results (neither which they intend) obtain. First, their attempts at censorship actually lead to widespread distribution. There is something in the human spirit that desires something that is forbidden, and Umbridge’s censorship of The Quibbler ignites that spark of rebellion in the students at Hogwarts. Second, the more Umbridge and the Ministry seek to censor ideas and squash free thought, the more they actually become like Lord Voldemort.

The issue of censorship is certainly an important one for classical Christian schools. On one hand is the concern to maintain freedom. An education is hardly liberal (in the classic sense of the term) if it is not liberating. If a school maintains a list of banned books, it seems difficult to likewise encourage imagination, freedom to express ideas, and exposure to different viewpoints than our own. On the other hand, we certainly aim to protect children from material that is not age appropriate, and likewise refrain from material that is not appropriate at all. Liberal and liberating learning does not require that all ideas are worth hearing, seeing, reading, or considering.

The problem with maintaining the appropriate balance, however, faces a multitude of challenges. How, for example, is one to determine what is age appropriate? Is the language and ideology of 1984 too strong for a 7th grader, yet appropriate for a 9th grader? Or what of questionable content, such as magic? Is the magic of Harry Potter occult, yet the magic of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia given a pass? Why and how would (or should) we distinguish them? Or what do we do with objectionable ideas in the Great Books? Do we throw out The Iliad for adultery, Beowulf for violence, Fahrenheit 451 for language, or many of the Enlightenment philosophers for their atheism? More provocatively, do we throw out the Bible for its depiction of all of these? The danger of having any banned books is the need to justify all books, whereas the danger of allowing all books is the inability to teach students to feed upon what is true, good, and beautiful.

The fact that students will “read it anyway” as they did with The Quibbler is no excuse for permitting it. But we should think carefully and prayerfully before we start banning books and censoring our classical canon, for I think we find that like Umbridge and the Ministry, such actions are often more akin to our evil enemy than to Christ.

If it were up to me, I would ban very little, but would put before my students Great Books of all varieties and seek to read virtuously in their presence, that they may be trained up in reading well with a critical mind and a charitable heart to the glory of God.

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