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Harry Potter and the Ivory Tower: Children's Literature and Academia

Posted: 23/05/2012 01:00

Last week, there was an academic conference at the University of St Andrews dedicated to the Harry Potter series of books. Over 50 academics gathered to discuss J.K. Rowling's books, and apparently this caused quite a stir among people who think that children's literature is not worthy of study.

While I personally am not a fan of the series, I defend the right of academics to study it, or to study anything else for that matter, whether for children or whether 'popular' and supposedly 'low-brow'. I'm appalled by the snobbishness of some people, such as John Mullan, professor of English at University College London, who was quoted by the Guardian as saying: "I'm not against Harry Potter, my children loved it, [but] Harry Potter is for children, not for grownups...It's all the fault of cultural studies: anything that is consumed with any appearance of appetite by people becomes an object of academic study."

Why is work for children not an appropriate subject for academic study? One could turn this question around and ask how anything could possibly be more important than what the next generation reads and is taught.

What children are exposed to says a lot about our society. How can we not want to explore this? How can we not consider it absolutely vital to study and analyse what we are telling children in literature and how we are telling them it?

Personally, I've devoted a large part of my career to children's literature precisely because children are, to borrow a cliché, the future, and I care about them and want to understand how we are attempting to shape them through literature and other media. I'm not alone in this venture; well-respected professors such as Maria Nikolajeva, Peter Hunt, Riitta Oittinen, Perry Nodelman, Gillian Lathey, and others also research and teach in this essential area.

But many view children's literature as beneath them. If it's not for 'grownups', it's not worthwhile. But, wait, here's a sneaky little problem: what about all the 'grownups' who read and enjoy Rowling's work and other children's books? Shouldn't we explore why these works appeals to adults who are apparently supposed to know better?

Mullan, and other academics like him, show how behind the times they are with comments such as, "They [i.e. academics] should be reading Milton and Tristram Shandy: that's what they're paid to do." Actually, they're paid to do research and teaching in many areas of literature and society, and not just into a few narrow topics, despite what old-school profs might wish to believe.

And, of course, some of the authors that academics like Mullan praise and study are people who were considered "popular" in their own times and maybe have even been read to or by children. We must always be aware of context, which quite a few people seem to forget. So before we rush to praise the classics, we must keep in mind how they were received and understood and who they were read by when they were first written and published.

Not only are popular texts and works for young readers interesting to study because of what they can tell us about literature and society and readers both young and old, but there are many other relevant topics in regard to them that are thought-provoking. For example, did you know about how badly some of the Harry Potter translators were treated? (See Hebrew translator Gili Bar-Hillel's article for more on this.) And how about the idea that the Harry Potter series has converted previously unwilling readers into eager bookworms? Is there any truth in that? And what about censorship in relation to children's literature? Should adults ban books for young readers just because they might contain "threatening" ideas, such as witchcraft?

Obviously, there's a huge range of subjects to study around just the Harry Potter series, not to mention all the thousands of other books for children. This suggests that the world needs more such conferences as the one held at St. Andrews, no matter what a few curmudgeonly professors might say.

The ivory tower is not just a place for the privileged few, a sort of academic "chamber of secrets"; rather, it must be open to all subjects, including children's literature.

 

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