Harry Potter lives in a world where hats and
paintings speak, broomsticks fly, and goblins run banks—but these
are nonessential details. The essential element is the inspiring
depiction of a boy’s triumphant struggles. The series
tells the story of an eleven-year-old orphan, despised by the
he lives with, who discovers he has a rare talent and works
hard to develop it. In the course of his education he learns
for himself, to be honest, and to be self-confident. He finds
friends who share his values and he earns the respect of his
teachers. He battles the class bully as well as the most evil
wizard on earth, and we rejoice when, with considerable effort
and courage, Harry prevails.
What is the educational value of this? A child needs to learn
concrete facts, of course, but that is not enough. In order
to organize and utilize such facts, a child urgently needs,
framework, a basic, abstract view of life—and he needs
it in the form, not of an abstruse treatise, but of a concise,
easily graspable presentation.
This is what literature provides. By means of the theme, plot,
and characterization—particularly as they involve the hero—every
children’s story implicitly addresses such broad questions
as: Is the world fundamentally a benevolent or a malevolent place?
Can one rely on one’s own mind or not? Is life to be
eagerly embraced or fearfully skirted? Can the good succeed
or does evil
The Harry Potter series appeals to so many children (and, incidentally,
adults) because the answers it gives to these questions are
overwhelmingly positive. It shows a world in which happiness
can be achieved,
villains can be defeated, and the means of success can be learned.
When my seven-year-old races around the dining room table swathed
in an old bathrobe, with a broomstick made of a mini-blind
wand and cardboard, she is not expressing an interest in witches
the supernatural. Rather, she is trying on the personality
of an independent, courageous, intelligent individual who conquers
evil. She is enthusiastically endorsing a positive philosophic
perspective on herself and on the world.
It is a story’s abstract meaning, not its physical setting,
that influences the reader. The Wizard of Oz, for example, is
set in a land inhabited by witches, Munchkins, and talking trees—but
it really is about the determination of Dorothy and her friends
to attain difficult goals. Little Lord Fauntleroy is not a
manual for how to inherit an earldom, but a portrayal of a
honesty and integrity see him through adversity.
By contrast, consider the ghoulishly titled Say Cheese and
Die! (from the popular Goosebumps series, by R. L. Stine).
cursed camera causes death and destruction whenever it snaps
a photo. The main character, who repeatedly capitulates to
his friends’ insistence that he use the camera, is cowardly,
panic-stricken, and ineffectual. The story ends on a foreboding
note, as the hiding place of the indestructible camera is discovered
by local bullies, who prepare to use the camera again.
This book is appalling not for its supernatural elements but
for its sheer malevolence: the “hero” is powerless,
innocuous-looking objects wreak devastation, evil is invincible.
A child overexposed to the malevolent universe of Goosebumps—or
Beavis and Butthead or South Park—might well wonder why
he should risk getting out of bed in the morning, never mind
why he should strive to master his schoolwork or to excel in
What crucial need does the Harry Potter series fill? In a culture
where fear and cynicism are too often dominant, it provides
a reminder that life is good—that it is challenging and full
of exciting possibilities. The books are, in short, fuel for
a child’s maturing mind. As vitamins and minerals are essential
to a child’s healthy physical development, so literature
with this view of the world is essential to a child’s
healthy mental development.
So take your child to see the Harry Potter movie, or curl up
and read the books. It’s not mere escapism. Wars aren’t
won only by superior weapons or brute physical force, but by
the belief that one can win and deserves to win.
Dr. Durante is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute
in Irvine, California. The Institute promotes the philosophy
Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.
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