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Craving Community: Learning From Harry Potter

— When I talk to people about the residential college idea, one of the reactions I often get is, “That sounds just like Harry Potter!”

Harry Potter (in case you’ve been living in a cave for the last decade) is the fictional boy-magician who stars in a series of young adult novels by British author J.K. Rowling. The popularity of these novels, and the attendant movies, has made Rowling a multi-millionaire. She’s obviously tapping into something. What might it be?

The Harry Potter novels are not set in a collegiate university, but they are set in something that is structurally almost identical to a collegiate university: a residential private school (“public school” in British parlance) that is divided into four “houses” with the magical names Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff. Members of the school’s faculty serve as masters of each of the houses, and each house has its own colors, insignia, mascot, and all the rest (see the Collegiate Way’s “How To” sections 3.2.3 and 3.2.4 for some non-fictional collegiate equivalents.)

The merchandising that has gone along with this phenomenon is remarkable; even the ten-cent store down the street from where I live in rural Vermont sells Harry Potter accessories. They are probably sold near you, too. If you haven’t seen any of the Harry Potter movies, they are certainly worth viewing, not only for entertainment but also in the context of educational psychology (and so you’ll know what many of your students are talking about).

But surely (you say) this is all juvenile stuff, not of interest to university students. Perhaps, but I doubt it. I was first introduced to the Harry Potter series by my own undergraduates some years ago. Many current university students have grown up with the series, and the collegiate organizational structures represented in the stories are more familiar to these students than they are to many of their academic elders.

I won’t try to offer any deep psychological analysis of why the world of Harry Potter has been so attractive to so many young people, but there are a few features that clearly stand out. The young protagonists in this world are learning to function on their own, away from their parents for the first time. They discover many new things and encounter many dangers, but ultimately they know they are in a safe place because there are adults around (who sometimes appear at critical junctures). Praise from those adults is much valued, even from the ones who seem alien and creepy at first but turn out to be not so bad after all (perhaps like us). House membership within the school as a whole (like membership in a college within a university) creates a strong sense of identity. And inter-house rivalries fuel this sense of identity, even though membership was initially determined randomly (well, OK, magically) by means of a public ceremony at which the students’ names are drawn from a “sorting hat” (a procedure which has generated its own fan industry).

What can we learn from Harry Potter? That young people (and perhaps all people) crave opportunities for growth in a safe environment, they crave support and praise from their elders, and they crave a sense of group identity and community (not to mention magical powers). If you provide the first three, which are the things a residential college can provide, who knows what sorts of magical powers might come into being as a result.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021