Harry Potter Excursion #1

Posted on August 11, 2011 by


Harry Potter and the College Experience

After a period of dormancy, The Love Machine is back on a regular update schedule, with Caitmechanic posting on Tuesdays and yours truly posting on Thursdays. I’m continuing my series Society, Morality, and Harry Potter, but I’m not picking up where I promised I would in my last entry, talking about Fred and George as model entrepreneurs. That will come eventually, but it’s going to take a lot of quotations to do it justice, and I find myself without copies of the books in front of me.

Instead, I’m putting out my first Harry Potter excursion piece, where I don’t discuss Harry Potter as a postmodern liberal narrative but instead identify some other aspect of the work and the cultural phenomena left in its wake which I find interesting. In this first excursion, I discuss the unexpectedly high levels of Harry Potter fandom at American college campuses.

By the time I was a freshman in college, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had been published and all of my peers (who were roughly the same ages as Harry, Ron and Hermione as the books were published) who wished to finish the series had already done so. The books, while they certainly aged along with readers, are books for children and young adolescents, and by all rights we should have looked fondly upon the series upon its conclusion and found something else to read. And as students at a high-quality liberal arts university, many of my peers at Richmond did just that. But many students, even as they had Proust or David Foster Wallace on their bedside tables, still talked about Harry Potter with one another. They did so all the time, about the still-upcoming movies or just about jokes or anecdotes from the series. Many had Harry Potter themed clothing, posters, or other objects. And some took the ultimate plunge and joined the newly-created collegiate quidditch team, which spread to colleges all over the country, but particularly on the east coast, after Dartmouth College invented the sport in 2006.

The goal here was to find common ground. Everyone had read Harry Potter, so it was something everyone could talk about. Indeed, as I went through undergraduate school, I noticed Potter-mania lessening with each passing year, but that incoming freshmen always loved to talk about Harry Potter. The t-shirts and bags and posters were visual cues for conversation starters. And the quidditch team was a way to meet like-minded nerd-friends while keeping fit, especially for students who had played sports in high school.

One thing I should note was that Harry Potter fandom as a social cue and conversation starter was largely confined to women. I think many men feel that starting a conversation or even a friendship over a shared bit of pop culture or a shared taste is uncool. But even for men, I think Harry Potter provides an inner narrative that resonates in college, because it gives students an occasion to indentify with Harry in a new way. College students’ expressed fandom for Harry Potter increases during college, and especially in their first year of college, because for most US college students, college represents a journey akin to Harry’s own – college is their Hogwarts.

I have no idea what percentage of British students attend boarding schools nowadays, but I suspect it is significantly higher than the percentage of American students at boarding schools, though probably still a fraction of total students. Boarding schools do exist in America and people do go to them, but the vast majority of Americans attends schools close to their homes and lives with their parents until college. While there is probably a boarding school culture among those in the US who actually attend boarding schools, there is not really consciousness of this culture for the US public in general. There isn’t really an idea of a boarding school culture in America (though certainly there used to be; see the boarding school accent). Additionally, American parents are increasingly keeping their children closer to home by homeschooling them, not sending them to sleepaway camps, etc. Thus, college represents the first time many young adults will be in an enclosed community at which they are autonomous. In short, college is their first boarding school.

Many students also hope to imitate Harry’s journey while at Hogwarts. Those unsatisfied with their opportunities and environment growing up may see college as a transition from their normal world to another world where their talents are appreciated. The college lifestyle, mindset, and particularly the sequestering effect that “bubble campuses” (like that of my alma mater), only reinforce a new student’s sense that he or she has entered a protected, magical space. And perhaps they have.

The excitement that college students feel of moving away from their families while still living in a structured, school-like setting is enhanced by the fact that, at least in the northeastern US, many schools feature gothic revival architecture that gives them a medieval, European feel. In my junior year of my undergraduate studies, I took a class on landscape and land art that was team-taught by a painter (Erling Sjovold) and a philosopher (Gary Shapiro). Our first major assignment was to walk around the University campus for two hours with other students in the class, then write a paper based on our observations. One of the other students I walked around with was a freshman from Arizona. As we walked around the library, she mentioned that she wanted to go to the University because it looked like Hogwarts.

At this point I had to restrain myself from laughing. I attended the University of Richmond, which, if you’ve never been, looks very little like Hogwarts. Every building on campus (except one, but we don’t talk about it very much) is made of red bricks and concrete. Buildings are in an exaggerated gothic style common at a lot of older East coast universities, but they don’t really have the materials or the commitment to old-school gothic revival architecture to really have that castle-like charm. And because Virginia is fairly warm (though not on the day we were walking around, which might have been the coldest day in January), the vegetation doesn’t look anything like what you would find at Hogwarts, somewhere in northern Britain, or even in the universities of the northeast (Princeton, for example) that show up in articles about colleges that have a Hogwarts look to them.

But hey, she was from Arizona, where architecture and landscape don’t even come close to Hogwarts or anything old and European. Compared to deserts, adobe and cacti, the University of Richmond, with its beds of ivy, gothic architecture, and well-groomed European-style gardens on the grounds, would surely call Hogwarts to mind. And that might have made the place seem more familiar to her, more like a home. Incoming college students need to feel at home in their new surroundings, and Harry Potter can give a little of that feeling. Until incoming college students are too young for Harry Potter to be a shared cultural phenomenon (maybe only in a couple years, maybe much longer, time will tell), Harry Potter will continue to see this jump in popularity between senior year of high school and freshman year of college.

Posted in: Literature