Defusing the debate over 'Harry Potter'
Inside the First Amendment
By Charles Haynes
Senior scholar, First Amendment Center
Unless you live on a remote desert island, by now you know that Harry Potter has worked his magic on millions of children and on a surprising number of adults as well.
But not everyone is wild about Harry.
Last week, a California superintendent called to tell me that a group of angry parents have demanded that the district ban Harry Potter books from the classroom.
This isn't an isolated incident. According the American Library Association, the wildly popular books by J.K. Rowling have been challenged in at least 13 states.
What's all the fuss about?
Some of the critics view the books as too violent. Others question their educational value.
But the most serious challenges come from conservative Christians who object to the images and themes of witchcraft found throughout Harry Potter's exploits. Last year, parents in South Carolina went so far as to characterize the books as "evil."
For the uninitiated (all three of you), Harry is a wizard who is taught to use the powers of sorcery to fight the evil Lord Voldmort, who murdered his parents.
So what should that beleaguered California superintendent do? Here are three suggestions:
Earlier this year a Michigan superintendent found out the hard way that ordering teachers not to read the books aloud and removing them from displays in the library doesn't work. He may have satisfied the few parents who objected to the books, but his actions inspired a huge movement in support of Harry. In May, the superintendent rescinded most of the restrictions.
- Listen to what's really being said.
Some supporters of the books dismiss objecting parents as extremists who can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality (or who don't trust kids to tell the difference).
But fear of the occult is not entirely unfounded in a society where every kind of "religion" imaginable is practiced including religions that are sometimes violent, occult and dangerous.
Moreover, many conservative Christian parents feel frustrated when public schools won't allow Christian stories to be read but will assign stories about witches and wizards. Although Rowling may not intend to promote witchcraft in her stories, she does create a world that many Christians find antithetical to their faith.
These parents aren't against stories of imagination and adventure. But as one critic asked, would public schools allow teachers to assign the Narnia tales by C.S. Lewis and discuss the Christian symbolism with the class?
(Narnia, you may recall, is also a fantasy world where magical and miraculous things happen to children. But Christian convictions about good and evil, salvation and redemption inform the meaning and significance of the stories.)
Try to respond with fairness and respect.
Start by making sure that parents are familiar with the books that are assigned or read by teachers. Informed parents tend to be far more supportive than parents who feel like outsiders.
Be sure to let parents know that they may request to have their child excused from a particular reading if the assignment violates their religious convictions. But if the parents still insist that the book be removed entirely, follow a fair, consistent process for addressing the issue. A broadly representative group of parents and educators should be at the table, with the school board making the ultimate decision.
A final word of advice:
This challenge is an opportunity to re-examine the curriculum as a whole. Make sure that a variety of perspectives and worldviews are represented.
If Rowling is read, how about including selections from C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others? Are all of the assigned stories secular, or are some drawn from various religious and cultural traditions? Designing a curriculum that is fair and balanced takes work.
Since I'm a bit of a muggle (Harry-speak for a non-magical person), I don't think that this controversy can be made to disappear by waving a wand.
But maybe it will push us to listen to one another, to discuss our differences with civility and, where possible, to find common ground.
Your questions and comments are welcome. Write to:
The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center
1101 Wilson Blvd.
Arlington, VA 22209
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