Harry Potter and Yale: Buying into the myths

Harry Potter the movie opens in theaters nationwide today. Devoid as it is of 9-year-olds, this campus has been host to none of the Harry Potter madness ignited in recent years by J.K. Rowling’s series about a young wizard, Harry Potter, and his education at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Students admit to having heard of the books or seen the film trailer, but Yalies seem snobbily reluctant to succumb to the magic of Harry Potter.

Are they too busy? Too embarrassed to enter the “Bookstore, Bookstore, Bow Wow Wow!”-titled children’s section of the Yale Bookstore? Have they been brainwashed by Rowling-bashing professor Harold Bloom?

Or is it that they believe the story of an English boy-wizard who owns an invisible cloak completely irrelevant to their lives? Hmm.

After reading the first book in the series, my mother became convinced that Harry Potter and Hogwarts were somehow a loose parallel to Yale. Jaded by too many essays that manage to mediate dichotomies in 2,500 words or less (think “the Smurfs and Urban Violence” or “Kindergarten: Building Blocks or Business Model?”), I dismissed her musings. But I’ll admit it (just this once, so enjoy it, Ma): My mom was right.

For Harry Potter, life changes when he receives a piece of parchment, delivered by an owl, informing him of his acceptance to Hogwarts. For us, life changed when we received the Big Envelope, delivered by the comparatively practical U.S. Postal Service, informing us of our acceptance to Yale.

Dorm assignments at Hogwarts are performed by a “sorting hat,” which confers on its wearer the right house for him or her. Woe to the poor student who ends up in Slytherin instead of Gryffindor! One suspects that the process of assignment to residential colleges at Yale, advertised as “random,” employs a similar mechanism — how else could Pierson College be universally superior in every way, and Saybrook College, for example, so consistently shady? (Full disclosure: I am a proud Piersonite).

The uniting force at Hogwarts is the sport of Quidditch. Though wholly foreign to Muggles (non-wizards), matches of Quidditch are the defining social and athletic experiences of their school year. At Yale, the calendar counts from the third Saturday in November — i.e. The Game. Displaying athleticism dismissed by banal Big Ten fans as irrelevant, accompanied by tailgates imagined by outsiders as elitist, the Harvard-Yale game is appreciated by us alone.

But it really isn’t the literary details that link Yale to some children’s novel. The ideals that have made Harry Potter an inspiration to readers –and now filmgoers — the world over are the same that have made Yale more than just a collection of college kids and gothic buildings.

Especially in these times, critics cite the values underlying the story — aspiration, intelligence, bravery, and more than a fair share of luck — as the reason for its success. These tomelike volumes tell a simple story: little kid makes it big and shows them all — a sort of American Dream-redux, with a touch of Horatio Alger for good measure.

Thousands of students apply for admission to Yale every year. The New York Times practically devotes its wedding pages to Yalie nuptials. And when an actor wears a Yale T-shirt on the big screen, it’s a character device.

Why?

We are not just a place to take a few classes, but a symbol of opportunity and upward mobility. “Yale” invokes pictures of intense students strolling across ivy-lined paths, healthy-looking aristocrats playing touch football on the lawn, and chummy deal-making in wood-paneled rooms.

Hogwarts doesn’t exist outside the realm of imagination. And behind the curtain, Yale is a world of homework, musty buildings and everyday people. The difference is that we’re real. This is a place where an admissions letter does whisk you off to a new life, where you are surrounded by people who share your dreams, and where possibility can supercede reality.

Some dismiss Harry Potter as a product of overhyping and savvy packaging. Many more think the same of Yale. But I’ll still read the next J.K. Rowling, and I’m still attending Yale. In a world of the painfully real, they’re both things of wondrous magic.



Sarah Merriman is a senior in Pierson College. Her columns appear on alternate Thursdays.

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