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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 2, November/December 2003

B.C. Liberals learn from Hogwarts High Inquisitor

by Nancy Knickerbocker

In a bizarre case of life imitating art, British Columbia’s teachers are reporting mysterious parallels between the recent actions of our Ministry of Education and the fictional Ministry of Magic.

As the past school year ended, a literary mania swept classrooms across B.C. and around the world. Students and teachers alike eagerly anticipated Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the latest in J.K. Rowling’s series about the brave young wizard and his struggle against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

Potter fans of all ages were desperate to read about Harry’s fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the year he must write the dreaded OWLs--Ordinary Wizarding Level exams. High-stakes testing isn’t Harry’s only problem, however. The unexplained absence of his teacher and friend, Hagrid the giant, is another big worry.

But Dolores Umbridge, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, turns out to be the greatest source of stress at Hogwarts this year. Professor Umbridge begins her introductory speech to the students nicely enough:

"The Ministry of Magic has always considered the education of young witches and wizards to be of utmost importance... The treasure trove of magical knowledge amassed by our ancestors must be guarded, replenished, and polished by those who have been called to the noble profession of teaching." (p. 192)

Then comes a long discourse on permanence and progress, during which most students’ attention drifts. But to those who were listening, Umbridge gave notice that big change is coming:

"Meanwhile, some old habits will be retained, and rightly so, whereas others, outmoded and outworn, will be abandoned. Let us move forward, then, into a new era of openness, effectiveness, and accountability, intent on preserving what ought to be preserved, perfecting what needs to be perfected, and pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited." (p. 193)

Excuse me, professor. Did you say, "Move forward? New era? Accountability?"

The plight of Hogwarts’ students sounds disturbingly familiar. Harry’s brilliant friend Hermione realizes there’s "important stuff hidden in all the waffle" of Umbridge’s speech. "It means the ministry’s interfering at Hogwarts," she says, through gritted teeth.

Like Hermione, B.C. teachers have been gritting their collective teeth in the face of Liberal laws that are eerily similar to the many high-handed Educational Decrees promulgated by the bad guys in the Ministry of Magic. Their frightening reforms are applauded in the pages of the Daily Prophet. Real-life readers of the daily Province and other CanWest papers will recognize the tone of mandatory enthusiasm for ministry initiatives.

In a surprise move last night the Ministry of Magic passed new legislation giving itself an unprecedented level of control at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry...

This is not the first time in recent weeks that the Minister, Cornelius Fudge, has used new laws to effect improvements at the wizarding school. (p. 275)

Educational Decree Number Twenty-Two empowers the minister to overrule decisions made by Professor Albus Dumbledore, the wise and beloved headmaster, who’s trying to protect his students and his school from destruction. It has clear echoes of the Liberals’ Bill 28, which centralized power in the ministry and eliminated provisions to protect learning conditions for children.

Educational Decree Number Twenty-Three creates the new position of Hogwarts High Inquisitor, appointed personally by the Minister of Magic and endowed with "powers to inspect her fellow educators and make sure they are coming up to scratch."

As Umbridge sweetly explains on first meeting Hagrid: "You ought to know, too, that as High Inquisitor it is my unfortunate but necessary duty to inspect my fellow teachers. So I daresay we shall meet again soon enough."

The inspection scenes in Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures class and Professor Trelawney’s Divination class read like every teacher’s nightmare, especially teachers facing increased supervision in the climate described by Education Minister Christy Clark: "For too long we’ve had a model that assumes teachers and administrators are enemies and children are widgets. They’re not." (Ahem.)

Meanwhile Lord Voldemort, the scariest enemy of all, is marshalling his dark forces. With the Ministry of Magic in complete denial about Voldemort’s return, Dumbledore and other wizards unite to form the Order of the Phoenix. Harry and his classmates want to help, but they aren’t learning anything at all about Defense Against the Dark Arts from Umbridge, who just makes them read the textbook as per ministry policy. But the students are determined to learn, so they convince Harry to teach them in secret.

When Umbridge gets wind of the existence of their clandestine study group, she responds swiftly with Educational Decree Number Twenty-Four: Any student found to have formed, or to belong to, an organization, society, team, group or club that has not been approved by the High Inquisitor will be expelled. (p. 313)

Surrey teachers and students who tried to establish gay–straight alliances also remember prohibitions against such rebellious student clubs. And, of course, Surrey teachers won’t forget being expelled on ministry orders from a recent news conference.

Thousands of B.C. students are enjoying Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for Rowling’s wonderful characters and energetic narrative. But their teachers enjoy it at another level, and feel a sense of connection with the author. Whether it’s under Margaret Thatcher or Gordon Campbell, we’ve all experienced the same political agenda, and we’re responding with the same skepticism to their educational decrees.

"If only we could wave a magic wand and put everything back to normal," one B.C. teacher wistfully wrote. Unfortunately that can’t happen here in the Muggle world, the non-magical realm where real teachers, students, and parents are struggling to defend public education.

But, like true Griffindors, we’re going to give it our very best!

Nancy Knickerbocker works in communications for the BCTF, and is forever grateful to Harry Potter for magically transforming her youngest child from a reluctant reader into an avid one.

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