Speaker by Various Artists


"The Ministry is interfering at Hogwarts"

by Matthew Bannister

"The Ministry is interfering at Hogwarts," says Hermione Grainger in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The occasion? An address by Dolores Umbridge, Ministry of Magic employee (and new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher) to Harry's school, Hogwarts, on the first day of a new term.

At the end of the preceding book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry witnessed the return of the Dark Lord, Voldemort, to human form, and the whole Phoenix book is shadowed by his presence.

But what does a children's book have to do with present-day New Zealand? Education is a political football - the government of the day always tries to impose its ideas on the system that supposedly moulds young minds, and provides opportunity for indoctrination.

Children and young people are always a focus of social and political concern, because "they're the future", they are "vulnerable" and because they have little voice of their own. Thus, well-meaning interest groups (particularly those in power) can impose their thoughts and fantasies, rehearsing them first in the media: "Educational standards slipping at Hogwarts" – remind you of Granny Herald at all? 

Dolores Umbridge's speech is a parody of the banal, smokescreen rhetoric that politicians routinely convey: "The Ministry of Magic has always considered the education of young witches and wizards to be of vital importance ... Let us move forward, then, into a new era of openness, effectiveness, and accountability, intent on preserving what ought to be preserved, perfecting what needs to be perfected, and pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited."

It puts the audience to sleep – it's supposed to. Only Hermione is smart enough to see it for what it is – a Ministry attempt to hijack the running of the school. Any parallels with present day NZ? You bet.

The Education Amendment Act 2015 changed the constitution of university and polytechnic ruling bodies to increase the number of Government appointees and minimise the involvement of teachers and students. Government appointees are usually from the private sector and their mission is to transform tertiary institutions from places of learning to places of business. If learning doesn't pay, in other words, it will be cut.

The first victim of such cuts is inevitably the arts and humanities. These disciplines have a tradition of debate and discussion. But in Umbridge's DADA class, asking questions is the one thing you're not allowed to do. The skills taught in the humanities, of writing, creating, thinking and arguing are not deemed "useful" (but who decides what is useful?).

So when Harry asks Umbridge why they won't be learning to defend themselves against the Dark Arts, she responds that there is nothing to defend oneself against. No arguments please - ten points from Gryffindor. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, to paraphrase John Key on the GCSB.

Next thing, Hogwarts teachers find themselves under surveillance, their curricula checked for appropriate content. Then classes start getting closed down: the sacking of Trelawney, and the replacement of Dumbledore by Umbridge. This is happening right now, all over New Zealand (actually all over the world); arts departments being slashed to the bone – UNITEC in 2013, the University of Otago right now. And it's coming to a place of learning near you, very soon.

There are parallels between Umbridge and our present Minister of Education. Umbridge seems homely and mumsy - she likes kittens and pink cardigans, but under the innocuous exterior are sharp claws.

It's pretty clear that the present Government is appointing women (Maori women moreover) in sensitive portfolios like social services and education. This is a clever way of defusing criticism from the Left and the politically correct, as it is difficult to attack them without looking sexist and racist.

Umbridge's veneer of mumsy femininity is the Trojan horse used to storm the Hogwarts ramparts, and Maori women are being used to ram home reforms aimed at neutering the critical potential of the education sector, as well as attacking the Muggles of NZ society - the unemployed, the "idle", beneficiaries, the mentally ill, ethnic minorities, anyone who doesn't own a house. Their numbers are growing every day. How long before you find yourself branded Undesirable by the Ministry, a blood traitor? Pure blood status guaranteed as long as you keep up your interest payments. 

The Ministry of Magic's policy is to keep up a "business as usual" front and deny the truth (known only to Harry) that Voldemort is back. This is pretty similar to the situation many tertiary teachers in New Zealand (and worldwide) find themselves in today. They are told that student numbers are falling and that the fault is in the way they teach, so they have no alternative but to accept reforms.

But I don't think how they teach is the real issue. The real issue is Mammon – privatising education, and if this means dumbing down and drawing the teeth of one of the few institutions still capable of critiquing the present order, that is all to the good.

John Key isn't Voldemort, he's more like Cornelius Fudge, possibly acting under the Imperius curse - his true master, Voldemort, is neoliberal global capitalism which wants to turn everything, from ideas to the water we drink and the air we breathe into a commodity. Maybe you think I'm just one of those Internet conspiracy theorists - but that's what they said about Harry too. 

Matthew Bannister is an author, musician and Lecturer and Postgraduate Theory Supervisor in the School of Media Arts at the Waikato Insititute of Technology (Wintec).

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