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News & Views - May, 2000 Issue #69

Vitamins, Minerals and Harry Potter
The campaign to ban the Harry Potter books fails to grasp their essential value: the benevolent depiction of a world in which good triumphs over evil.

By Dr. Dianne L. Durante 

[This was submitted to us, with permission to publish, by Jocelyn Baker, Public Affairs Manager, The Ayn Rand Institute (310-306-9232 ext. 224 or jocelynb@aynrand.org.)]

Activists across the country are crusading to have the Harry Potter series banned from school libraries, claiming it encourages interest in Satanism and the occult. In fact, children desperately need such books in school libraries, just as much as they need nutritious food in school lunches.

It is true that Harry Potter lives in a world where hats and paintings speak, broomsticks fly and goblins run banks—but these are non-essential details. The essential element is the inspiring depiction of a boy’s triumphant struggles. These books tell the story of an eleven-year-old orphan, despised by the relatives he lives with, who discovers he has a rare talent and works hard to develop it. In the course of his education, he learns to think 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 as a 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 ultimately win?

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 or 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 Dorothy’s, and her friends’, determination to attain difficult goals. Little Lord Fauntleroy is not a manual for how to inherit an earldom but a portrayal of a child whose 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). Here, a 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 indestructible camera, which had been hidden away, is discovered by local bullies, who prepare to use it 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 sports.

What crucial need does the Harry Potter series fill? In a culture where cynicism is too often the dominant note, 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.

Ban Harry Potter? We ought to make certain every school library has copies.

Copyright © 2000, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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