Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “Harry Potter”

Nauseating words

I’ve occasionally read articles about words that people hate. Apparently one of the most disliked words in the English language is “moist”.

But this article reminded me of two of my least favourite words — 2 New ‘Harry Potter’ Books Are Coming This October:

Harry Potter fans have yet another reason to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the iconic wizarding franchise: They’re getting two new books this October.

For me two of the most nauseating words are “franchise” and “brands”, but “iconic” comes a pretty close third.

Harry Potter is a fictional character in a series of books. Why call him a “franchise”? Why are so many sports teams called “franchises” nowadays. These words do have proper uses. I have no objection to referring to a fast-food joint like KFC as a “franchise” where it means that they have been licensed to use the KFC brand and logos even though they are independently owned. But call it a franchise when referring to their business model;, not to the stuff they sell (ground up chicken beaks and gizzards called “nuggets”).

But how many authors have been licensed to write Harry Potter books? How many sports teams around the world (or even the UK) have been licensed to call themselves “Manchester United” or “Norwich City”? As far as I know, one and one only in each instance. That doesn’t make them a franchise, or anything remotely like it.

And all this talk about “brands” — are you interested in “brands”? Yes, I’ve seen online questionnaires that ask that. Should I say yes, I’m interested in brands. I really do prefer KFC to Ford, for example. Fried chicken gets me from A to B so much faster than a motor car, Dettol plays much better cricket than the Titans.

But perhaps I’m alone in this. “Brands”, “franchise” and “iconic” don’t seem to have made these lists, no matter how high they are on mine “Moist” And 28 Other Gross-Sounding English Words That Everyone Hates | Thought Catalog, and 11 Gross-Sounding Words Everyone Hates To Hear, According To Science.

The SAfm radio station has a Sunday morning programme on media, and “brands” feature pretty prominently in it.

Samuel Maverick

It all makes me rather sympathetic to Samuel Maverick, whose name entered the English language because he never branded his cattle. Unbranded cattle that did not belong in the herd were called “mavericks”. Later it came to be applied to people who didn’t follow the herd, like politicians who didn’t toe (or nowadays “tow”) the party line. Like Makhosi Khoza. I suppose that’s why I like to read the Daily Maverick. And why I would like to see Makhosi Khoza as our next president.

So the more talk I hear of “brands”, the more I think of Samuel Maverick. No matter what else he did, he made an important and much-needed contribution to the English language.

Kentucky Fried Quidditch

6 Harry Potter Films According to Someone Who Never Saw Them | “If you’re anything like me, you’ve never read a Harry Potter book or seen a Harry Potter movie. Statistically speaking, you are nothing like me, as the latest installment of the Potter franchise is already poised to smash all relevant box office records, everywhere. (I should make it clear that when I say, ‘relevant box office records,’ I mean, ‘only box office records that pertain to The Dark Knight.’) Despite my lack of interest in and familiarity with the franchise, I’m not against the idea of it and I don’t hate the people who love it or the cultural impact it’s made (even though being a non-fan when a new movie comes out sort of feels like being the only Jewish kid during Christmas time). This franchise just missed me completely.”

Franchise? What do you mean franchise?

No wonder you’ve never seen it — it’s a film, not a Bic Mac.

One you see at the bioscope, the other you buy at a hamburger joint.

Hat-tip to whatisname.

Harry Potter as a Christian allegory – gullibility as a horcrux

Sue has posted some interesting thoughts about the Harry Potter series in Abstractions: Harry Potter as a Christian allegory.

While I don’t think it is really accurate to describe the series as an allegory, there are some allegorical tendencies within it, for example the satire on educational bureaucracy I pointed out in an earlier post on Zemblanity in Education. But satire is not necessarily allegory.

One of the things in Sue’s post can be accurately described as allegorical though — (warning, spoilers ahead) — when Sue describes the process by which a satirical post in The Onion was believed as literally true by some Christians in the USA, and was propagated as truth.

The way in which Harry Potter himself turns out to be a horcrux in which part of Voldemort’s soul is hidden is perhaps an allegory of the way in which the gullibility of some Christians led them to believe and propagate an urban legend that was not merely untrue, but harmful.

I was able to observe this at first hand because someone sent the piece from The Onion to me by e-mail, with no indication of its source, and urged me to pass it on to many others in a kind of spam operation. I read it, and suspected that it was probably satire, as it was too over the top to be true. I did a web search for Harry Potter and The Onion, and bingo – there it was. I wrote to the person who had sent it to me, warning them that they had been duped into accepting a satire as true. So yes, the way Harry Potter became a horcrux that contained part of Voldemort’s soul is indeed an allegory of the way in which the devil gets a foothold in the souls of Christians, and incites them to do his work by spreading malicious gossip in the belief that by so doing they are serving God.

Zemblanity and education

A few years ago I was a member of an SGB of SAQA, that is a Standards Generating Body for the South African Qualifications Authority. It was the standards generating body for Christian Theology and Ministry, and had to generate standards, that is learning outcomes, for various theological qualifications from Grade 10 to Doctorate in Theology.

The SGB completed its work a couple of years ago, and a bunch of standards were registered. But now, it appears, they have to be revised, and so the SGB is being reconstituted, and will have to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops again.

I don’t mind too much. I quite enjoyed the meetings, because I met a group of stimulating and creative people from a variety of Christian traditions. I was able to meet some old friends and make some new ones. But the work we were required to do was frustrating. One could see that it had some good intentions and good goals — to raise the general standard of education, to weed out incompetent and fraudulent educational institutions and so on. But at the same time it seemed likely to stifle initiative, frustrate learning, and make education prohibitively expensive.

I was thus interested to read this, which seems to sum up the drawbacks and dangers of the current system: Changing the World (and other excuses for not getting a proper job…): Serendipitous Learning and Zemblanitous Education

The core of it deserves to be quoted:

…serendipity has an opposite. An antonym, in fact. (And how often do you get to use that word?) ‘Zemblanity’ is a more recent coinage, the work of the novelist William Boyd:

So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design.

All this I learned by following up a presentation by a Finnish guy called Teemu Arina – which I came across thanks to a post from Artichoke. Teemu reckons (and I agree) that “making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design” is a pretty good description of what happens in formal education, when “learning outcomes” are specified in advance.

And I’ve been rereading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where the bureaucratic mentality of educationists (or pedagogicians, as some of them like to call themselves) is satirised in the person of Dolores Umbridge.

Outcomes-based education was introduced into South Africa after our first democratic elections in 1994. It was an attempt to remedy the damage caused to the South African education system by four decades of the National Party policy of “Christian National Education” (which, as Christian educators often pointed out, was neither Christian, nor national, nor education). The damage was worst in Bantu Education, which was hived off into a separate government department that made the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter look positively sane. The whole evil system was underpinned by the pseudoscience of “Fundamental Pedagogics”, which was used to cripple thousands of student teachers at the start of their careers, and consisted mainly in the rote learning of obscurantist definitions of terms that were dressed up in pompous and bombastic language — a smoke and mirrors trick to make them appear more “scientific”. For example, one had to learn such terms as “Temporal Andragogics” (the History of Adult Education, I kid you not).

One of the “learning outcomes” of this system was that students learnt that you did not have to understand this outlandish terminology, you just had to learn the definition by rote and repeat it in the exams. The most important learning outcome was slavish political correctness. You said what your teachers, lecturers and bosses wanted to hear.

At the University of South Africa (which trained more teachers than any other institution in the country) a Fundamental Pedagogician said (of an incomprehensible passage in a first-year study guide), “they don’t have to understand it, they just have to learn it.” Or, as another one said to a person who was trying to translate a study guide from Afrikaans to English, and could not understand the Afrikaans text, “you don’t have to understand it, you just have to translate it.” This was said without tongue in cheek, dead seriously. Dolores Umbridge had a great deal to learn from the Department of Fundamental Pedagogics at Unisa; she was a mere amateur by comparison.

After all that, I can sympathise with “outcomes-based education” (OBE), at least in theory. It moved the emphasis from curriculum (input) to what is actually learned. It takes away the excuse of teachers who say “we taught them that but they didn’t learn it.”

But as it has been applied in South Africa, I doubt that it can remedy the disease of “Christian National Education”. Many teachers who were trained in Fundamental Pedagogics will, and have, treat it simply as a slightly different variety of political correctness — new terms to be learned by rote and used, especially when within earshot of your boss.

So Outcomes-Based Education comes with its own vocabulary. The emphasis is not on what teachers teach, but rather on what learners learn, so it is important to think of learners as people who are learning, regardless of age, and so when speaking of the actual education process one speaks of “learners” rather than “students” or “pupils”. Students study, and pupils are supervised by tutors, but learners learn. But when a teacher is quoted in a newspaper as saying that “One of the pu… learners was run over by a car outside the school yesterday,” you know that political correctness is rearing its ugly head again. It doesn’t matter what the word “learner” means, it is the one my boss’s boss wants us to say. Rote learning of educational jargon does not make a good teacher.

Again, real life trumps satire like Harry Potter every time. At the University of South Africa a few years ago a task group was set up by the university administration, and the task group announced that its task was to “facilitate conflict”.

The theory behind the South African Qualifications Authority is good in some ways. If you had standard learning outcomes at various levels, then it is easier to say that one qualification is equivalent to another. A person transferring to a different university or a different faculty can be given credit for previous learning because they have achieved known outcomes to a known standard. Scammers who rip people off by offering bogus qualifications at fly-by-night institutions with high fees and low standards can be closed down.

But sometimes education, especially in a specialised field like theological education, can be, and sometimes is, done on a shoe string. I visited the St Sergius Institute in Paris in 1968. The students lived in poverty, in a basement under the church, with an open drain running down the middle of the floor, and cloth partitions between the beds. Most of them were Russian exiles, but some came from other countries. Their teachers were part time, their library facilities were minimal. They would never pass inspection by the educational bureaucracy. Yet they were motivated to learn, and learnt what they needed to learn. Registering such an institution in the new South Africa would be virtually impossible, and the fee for a single inspection would be more than the institution’s budget for three years. Far better that they should use the money for improving their teaching and facilities than on bureaucracy.

In South Africa today there are hundreds of refugee teachers from Zimbabwe who are better qualified than many South African teachers, and whatever the problems of Zimbabwe in the past or present, were not crippled by “Christian National Education”. Some of them teach in unregistered private schools, which would be closed down if the education authorities knew what was going on. But they are probably doing as much to remedy the deficiencies of South African education as many of the bureaucrats.

And back in the “old” South Africa a friend of mine, John Aitchison, organised a night school for the staff of the then University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg — cooks, cleaners, gardeners and so on, who had had little chance of education as children. Another volunteer effort, run on a shoestring, the teachers all being students and a few lecturers. By such means some people were able to bypass Bantu Education and have education for liberation. But it would be difficult to run such things under present regulations.

To return to Zemblanity. Another friend of mine, Larry Gilley, once returned from a meeting of people trying to develop an interdenominational Sunday School curriculum at which they had debated the relative merits of a Bible-centred curriculum or a child-centred curriculum. He remarked that it didn’t matter much, because whichever one they opted for, they would still end up with a curriculum-centred curriculum.

You may change the government, you may change the system, but zemblanity in education will cling like a limpet.

Fantasy lit as prophecy

Tony Grist has been writing about his impressions of reading the Harry Potter novels for the first time, without the gaps that most of us experienced of having to wait a year or three for the next one to come out. He makes some interesting comments

Every era gets the fantasy it needs. The early twentieth century had Peter Pan- rich pickings for Freudians and all that weirdly prescient stuff about lost boys. The second half of the 20th century had Tolkien- with his ethos of cold war paranoia and unwitting prophecy of flower power. And Harry Potter is the fantasy for the Noughties.

And then

Fantasy gets to places the realist novel can’t reach. At its best it doesn’t try to teach us anything (which is why C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman are lesser writers) it just tips the contents of what Jung called the collective unconscious at our feet. In hindsight it looks as if Rowling were writing a fantasy commentary on the Blair years- the scurvy politicians, the war on terror, the cynical trampling on civil liberties- but, of course, the whole series was planned in detail in advance. Azkaban isn’t a reflection on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, but a prophecy.

And he notes that those who have dismissed the Harry Potter stories as simply escapist are pretty far off the mark. The fantasy world of the Harry Potter stories has some remarkable resemblances to the real world. And his response to reading The prisoner of Azkaban comes even closer to the mark

Then there’s that other prison: the Guantanamo Bay-like hell-hole of Azkaban. In the first two books evil has been concentrated in the person of Voldemort (the enemy, the other, the dark lord, out there) here Voldemort never appears except in discourse and the focus of evil is Azkaban and its disgusting Dementors who- disturbingly- are on our side.

So, if we employ Dementors and send people who break our rules- like the innocent Hagrid- to a place where it’s guaranteed they’ll lose their minds if not their very souls- how exactly are we better than Voldemort?

One point on which I disagree with Tony Grist is that I believe Rowling, like C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman, does try to teach us things. Her blending of different genres (the school story and the fantasy story, for a start) enables her to go beyond the simplistic moral universe of classic school stories like the Billy Bunter series, for example. As Tony Grist himself notes, she teaches us that moral choices are not always simple. Like other school stories, the Harry Potter stories show some perennial problems in the school environment, like bullying; but Rowling also show how the pattern of moral behaviour formed at school continues in later life.

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