MILSTEIN: God, country, Hogwarts?

Karen Tian_Opinion HP_0927 small file
Photo by Karen Tian.

When I first saw Commons on my official tour of Yale, my guide announced giddily that the dining hall looked like the one at Hogwarts. My fellow visitors and their parents “oohhed” and “aahhed” when they saw the splendor of the room, and nodded in agreement. Yes, this was Hogwarts incarnate. This is the school they needed to attend.

An opinion piece in the News observed that “Yalies [seemed] snobbily reluctant to succumb to the magic of Harry Potter.” But that was in 2001, and in just over 10 years, this observation could not be further from the truth. As the generation of children who grew up reading Harry Potter are now Yalies themselves, references to this World of Witchcraft and Wizardry have become commonplace. Students argue why their residential college is the true Gryffindor, draw connections from the Tyng Cup to the Triwizard Tournament and Instagram photos of campus with #Hogwarts as their captions. One student I overheard even compared the Yale-New Haven relationship to that of Wizards and Muggles — and that’s just offensive.

What may have started as a harmless attempt to relive childhood nostalgia has now become a spell cast upon the student body. Yale is not Hogwarts, nor should it try to be. The comparison overlooks the centuries of tradition on which Yale rests — traditions that precede the book and its author. Yale is an institution steeped in real history that cannot be reduced to the fantasies of a single individual. By fetishizing the college experience into fan-fiction, we reduce what makes Yale uniquely our own into nothing more than an item that can be purchased at Barnes & Noble.

Even some of the most esteemed Yale professors would recoil at this analogy. In a famous Wall Street Journal op-ed from July 2000, Harold Bloom argued that J.K. Rowling’s writing was junk, and her 35 million book buyers were just plain wrong. He goes on to warn that “cultural critics will … introduce Harry Potter into their college curriculum,” diluting the value of education. This forecast, of course, came true at in our own Blue Book; “Harry Potter and Christian Theology” is a residential college seminar this year, and has been offered in others. While I do not doubt the rigor of this course, if students were looking for the Harry Potter experience, it would be much cheaper and easier to simply go to Universal Studios.

Perhaps our larger campus fixation with this book is a sign of gratitude — an acknowledgment that what we often feel on campus is so surreal it can only be described as straight from a book. But we must remember that exact point: Harry Potter is fiction. Hermione did not have to take the SATs when she was a junior, and Ron never had to cram for an Econ midterm. Not only is it a cliché to use Hogwarts as a comparison, but it it’s not a fair fight either. There is no way a school can live up to a child’s dreams, no matter how great Yale may be.

So whether we look to Rory Gilmore, Harry Potter or any other made-up character for a mark of accomplishment, enough is enough. Although J.K. Rowling appeals to our desire for fantasy, we do, in fact, live in the real world. Behind every gothic façade on campus, there is a student working on an essay, not a potion for the dark arts. Our college dining halls may not have candles floating midair, but the chicken tenders are still pretty good. We may not have received an acceptance letter by carrier owl — but that’s okay, too.

We don’t need a sorting hat to remind us our time here is meaningful. Only once we move past these types of comparisons can we hope to have a college experience with more dimension than a page in a book.

Larry Milstein is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at larry.milstein@yale.edu.

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