Local View: 'Harry Potter' showed young people the way
Over a number of years together in a school, a group of young people discovers the adults around them are not all trustworthy. Some of the adults, they learn instinctively or through experience, are downright evil. Many have prejudices against children whose parents aren't "purebred." In their own school, dark forces attempt to unravel integrity, weaken the strong, and silence those who could resist. As the schoolchildren mature and gain experience in the larger world of adults — the world of banks, commerce, and government — they start to discern corruption in their midst. Ministers are craven. Cruel, power-hungry individuals seek positions of authority, and others consort with sub rosa organizations trying to undermine society itself. As these students enter their teen years, it starts dawning on them that they may need to arm themselves against the corruption, moral enervation, and subversion that is part of the fabric of the adult world. They may even end up having to be the community that forces change in the larger world, that inspires adults in their resistance, and that provides the most galvanizing leadership in a movement of change.
Welcome to the world of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.
As media outlets cover the national walkouts at our high schools and colleges and as young people from Florida have asserted their voices into the gun-control debate, many adults have wondered aloud where these young adults gained the insight and skills to take on one of the most powerful lobbying organizations, the NRA, and to argue persuasively and skillfully for change to our political culture and change in the national conversation on the 2nd Amendment.
Those who support public schools (I count myself among them) have argued that Parkland students demonstrate the efficacy of their education in an American high school. Others posit that movements like #metoo or #neveragain have provided a model of social-media resistance against powerful, corrupt authority figures.
Women have brought Harvey Weinstein down. Perhaps these high school students can do the same against those who use money to buy the cooperation of politicians.
I'd like to suggest another influence: author J.K. Rowling. Since the Columbine High School murders in 1999, a generation of students grew up witnessing massacre after massacre in our public spaces, including schools. Just after Columbine, the first American version of J.K. Rowling's great Harry Potter series, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," was published by Scholastic Books. The final book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," appeared in bookstores in 2007. The popular film series overlapped the books' appearances, and other series like Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" trilogy rode Rowling's coattails.
Very few people are not acquainted with the world of Hogwarts. Harry Potter and his friends have had enormous influence on America's young people — the world's young people, for that matter — for a generation. The evolution of the series' protagonists gives us their maturation, their growing awareness of the adult world's corruption and weak counter-measures, and even outright denial of the evil Voldemort's presence. They learn to sort out trustworthy adults who provide moral leadership from those who act in self-interest or lust for power, like the ministers of magic, aspiring headmistresses, and the like. In the end, Harry and his friends have to form Dumbledore's Army to consolidate their resistance and to force change.
In other words, the Harry Potter series provides a blueprint of how young people must assume moral authority when the world needs to change. The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are a version of Dumbledore's Army.
With 14.2 million followers on Twitter, Rowling is extending her influence in a new way. She is among the most important moral witnesses globally. Currently she is applauding the courageous young adults who are calling out hypocrisy, demanding change, and holding adults accountable for the state of the world. These young people grew up with the Harry Potter books, stories that speak to justice, diversity, and love. They are bringing the lessons of Dumbledore's Army into our world, with a passion and determination that places a bright light on moral cowardice.
Sometimes life imitates art in the best ways. This moment, led by young American adults, exemplifies this truth.
Susan N. Maher is dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota Duluth.