School Rule From Bong Hits 4 Jesus to the New Harry Potter Movie

9 07 2007

Here’s a high-stakes reading comprehension test item for Thinking Parents and Citizens. Is this fictional or real-world, the witch Dolores Umbridge or the muggle lawyer Stanley Fish?
“That enterprise [School] is not named democracy, and what goes on within it – unless it is abuse or harassment or assault – should not rise to the level of constitutional notice or any other notice, except the notice of the professional authorities whose job it is to keep the educational machine running smoothly.”

Today we’re discussing Stanley Fish, blogging for the NYT about Clarence Thomas being constitutionally correct in the latest student expression SCOTUS ruling:

If I had a criticism of Thomas, it would be that he does not go far enough. Not only do students not have first amendment rights, they do not have any rights: they don’t have the right to express themselves, or have their opinions considered, or have a voice in the evaluation of their teachers, or have their views of what should happen in the classroom taken into account. (And I intend this as a statement about college students as well as high-school students.)

One reason that students (and many others) have come to believe that they have these rights is a confusion between education and democracy. It is in democratic contexts that people have claims to the rights enumerated in the constitution and other documents at the heart of our political system – the right to free speech, the right to free assembly, the right to determine, by vote, the shape of their futures.

Educational institutions, however, are not democratic contexts (even when the principles of democracy are being taught in them).

. . .What this means is that teachers don’t have First Amendment rights either, at least while they are performing as teachers. Away from school, they have the same rights as anyone else. In school, they are just like their students, bound to the protocols of the enterprise they have joined. That enterprise is not named democracy and what goes on within it – unless it is abuse or harassment or assault – should not rise to the level of constitutional notice or any other notice except the notice of the professional authorities whose job it is to keep the educational machine running smoothly.

So think about that without howling a minute. This is perfect timing, what with the new Harry Potter movie playing! The central character is a power-mad, government-approved school administrator named Dolores Umbridge, all the more insidious for being so prim and soft-spoken and sweater-wearing.

MisEducation presciently critiqued the wizarding world’s lessons about everything wrong with School in December 2002, a good six months before the book that’s now a movie first arrived in the real world, before Umbridge herself set fictional foot in Hogwarts and our collective consciousness.

So by the time this cautionary tale of School “spelled” it all out for us, there was nothing left to conjure thus not much left to say, harumphed MisEducation. JJ as muggle mom though, howled all the way through Order of the Phoenix, via email list magic in summer 2003:

Here is a passage that had me racing around the house looking for someone to share it with (unschooled children were all I had handy, and while they laughed, I think they were mercifully incapable of fully understanding why I as a former public school person found it so pithy.)

In chapter 12, “Professor Umbridge,” the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, tells the class they will be reading from the text only, not actually practicing defensive spells. The students rebel, whereupon they are told in a dangerous voice:

“I’m afraid you are not qualified to decide what the ‘whole point’ of any class is. Wizards much older and cleverer than you have devised our new program of study. You will be learning about defensive spells in a secure, risk-free way — it is the view of the Ministry of Magic that a theoretical knowledge will be more than sufficient to get you through the examination, which is, after all, what school is all about.”

(Furious since he has great need of practical knowledge to stay alive, Harry Potter asks what good theory’s going to be in the real world, and Professor Umbridge primly replies):

“This is school, Mr. Potter, not the real world.”

Later JJ blogged it as “Defense Against the Dark Arts” for Culture Kitchen:

There’s little left about the culture of school that fosters the scientific method of inquiry, so why would we fancy school a fit environment for real world-class science education –in fiction or fact? Are we too stupid to let go this fiction that Defense Against the Dark Arts, whatever that proves to be in our very real post-9-11 culture, is just textbook theory and not the real world?

and NH Union Leader columnist Fergus Cullen wrote about Harry Potter’s whole world as “the Realm of Big Government”:

. . .Every time another department within the
Ministry of Magic is mentioned, I wonder if the real threat to Harry’s
liberty is Voldemort or the Leviathan government, which has a branch
overseeing all aspects of wizard daily life. There’s the Improper Use of
Magic Office, the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes, even
the Department of Magical Games and Sports, which may be needed to
investigate steroid use among Quidditch players.

Most ministry departments are regulatory agencies, suggesting that
Ronald Reagan’s observation about how government operates (“If it moves, tax it; if it keeps moving, regulate it; and if it stops moving,
subsidize it”) applies to the wizard world as well as to Washington. . .

The police power of the state is also worrisome. The Department of
Magical Law Enforcement acts as a sort of KGB, rounding up citizens to
appear before the Wizengot, where the accused are tried in a dungeon
while bound to a chair. . . Government agents known as obliviators go
about brainwashing people by erasing their memories. The Floo NetworkAuthority gives the ministry the ability to monitor communications, sort of like your boss reading your e-mails at work.

I hate to say it, but the wizarding world could use the ACLU.

Everyone works for the government: Aside from George and Fred Weasley, the young entrepreneurs who dropped out of Hogwarts School to start a
joke shop, everyone else seems to work for the government. The private
sector is limited to a handful of merchants on Diagon Alley and in Hogsmeade Village, and most of them seem essentially to be government contractors who supply Hogwarts students. The one bank, Gringotts, has a state-protected monopoly. . .
Harry himself aspires to become an Auror, a government agent, when he
grows up. Do any witches and wizards earn their knuts, sickles and
galleons by providing goods or services that add value?

. . .Government run schools: Children are taken away from their natural
parents at age 11 and remanded to a government-run school, where they are required to wear uniforms and tuition is free. After five years of
indoctrination, they are given a mandatory test, the O.W.L., the results
of which define what vocation students can pursue. Unhappy with the
independent-minded leadership of Professor Dumbledore at Hogwarts, the ministry installed Professor Umbridge as High Inquisitor in his place.
And some think No Child Left Behind represents heavy-handed federal
intervention in public schools.

I suggest we try a little spell of our own and see where it takes us.

Suppose (before you reject them as villains out of hand) that the ideological rule of Professor Fish and the Ministry of Magic under Umbridge were to prevail in America today. Can we use our own individual powers to divine the resulting future, sense what this could mean and how things might change, maybe even progress as well as devolve?

Push in here and see the bulge over there — that’s not magic, that’s science! 🙂

Might it unexpectedly solve some problems, for society to spell out this clear and clearly harsh view of “schooling” as an authoritarian environment, exactly like the military and prison, and so unlike the good magic of natural learning and liberal education?

I wonder if by the time we get to the surprise ending, this plot might even serve “home-schooling” well, for all school to be equated with unilateral discipline and unchecked power:

“That enterprise is not named democracy and what goes on within it – unless it is abuse or harassment or assault – should not rise to the level of constitutional notice. . .”

Parents were literally ignorant of everything being done in “their” world, thus impotent despite all their supposed individual powers, far away from the too-real World of School and being lied to by the government-corrupted press, alternately stirred up and soothed by the sly and irresponsible Rita Skeeter.

So Hogwarts students and teachers were spellbound not by Black Magic but by perfectly ordinary, unmagical community rules and institutional school.
They could only save themselves, their educational enterprise and even their clueless families back home, when Dolores Umbridge was finally seen stripped of the polite fiction, standing in stark relief as the Corruption of Power she represented in the very real world, when they finally understood that people couldn’t just go along to get along anymore. When they were finally “forced to choose.”

What if that happened to this enterprise we muggles call School?


Update 1:40 pm – and none of this, not one speck, is ABOUT THE MONEY!! Geez, all you free market RR zombies and closet Young Earthers, give it a rest already. Ideology is the lesson and tyranny is the price, not taxes or vouchers. Go read this and if you don’t get that, you’re not ready to analyze school OR education. And you might want to rethink homeschooling, or at least get some help!



29 responses

9 07 2007

Here’s one consideration to start you off, about school authority extending to parents and affecting the workplace, and adults’ ability to sit down while there! How long would it take after this School Rule was “implement-ed” (that’s a paddling pun) for parents to suddenly learn the real lesson of school-as-authority, and get busy changing the real rules?

9 07 2007

And another, about school-related stress from Umbridge-style authority and “high stakes” testing. Suppose schools are literally MAKING kids obese by “teaching” them how to be healthy? Check out the neuropeptite Y news below, it’s on the Diane Rehm Show right now on NPR.

Isn’t this like Umbridge supposedly teaching the kids vital defense against the dark arts but really doing the opposite, making them more vulnerable to it . . .?

Moms too. Every mom I know is battling obesity although none of us were fat kids or teens. The chronic stress of trying to create nurturing, healthy environments for our own families in this incredibly high-threat, high-authority, Big school-and-rule real world could be killing us all while claiming to save us from the very effects it is creating.

I’m thinking obesity might even be caused by motherhood, in a non-baby fat and non-sedentary way. Those of us who are smartest, most wordly and the most conscientious are capable of the most complex worries and thus might create npY cortisol fat for ourselves when we become responsible-for-everything moms?

Newsweek, Dr. Dean Ornish
Research Relates Belly Fat To Stress, Hormone”

Monday July 9, 2007
10:00 hour\The Diane Rehm Show
Stress and Obesity

Dr. Zofia Zukowska, Department of Physiology and Biophysics, Georgetown University

Dr. Adrian Dunn, Boyd Professor Department of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Neuroscience Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center

Dr. Elissa Epel, Assistant Professor, Dept of Psychiatry, University California, San Francisco and director of research, UCSF Obesity Center

9 07 2007
Nance Confer

Educational institutions, however, are not democratic contexts (even when the principles of democracy are being taught in them).

. . .What this means is that teachers don’t have First Amendment rights either, at least while they are performing as teachers. Away from school, they have the same rights as anyone else. In school, they are just like their students, bound to the protocols of the enterprise they have joined. That enterprise is not named democracy and what goes on within it – unless it is abuse or harassment or assault – should not rise to the level of constitutional notice or any other notice except the notice of the professional authorities whose job it is to keep the educational machine running smoothly.

And what is the big difference between the teachers being in school and the students being in school?

Once you’re in you have to abide by the rules. But, if you are a teacher, you are there by choice.


9 07 2007
Nance Confer

And on the obesity front:

This is a tricky area. One blogger — was it Tiny Cat Pants? I don’t remember — was upset about any discussion of being fat always being about women. That was one of several points she made.

And JJ has mentioned this stress fat research lately.

And then I read an issue of Big Picture about obesity. (Do go visit the Big Picture website and order all the free stuff that is available. It is supposed to be written at a kid level but these must be some darned smart kids. 🙂

Anyway, I thought the Big Pictures issue on obesity was a good overview. It was balanced. One page about metabolism is even called “a fine balance.”

And all of this is about me, of course! 🙂

I have been walking, sporadically, as weather and family permit, with wonderful Mom Deanne. But we are not focussed on losing weight. We walk to be a bit more active and feel a bit better. Trying not to set unrealistic goals and just enjoy ourselves.

Now, yesterday, my MIL shows up and exclaims: “this walking is really paying off!” Polite and well-meaning pronouncement as she decided that I look slimmer.

I am not, in fact, slimmer. I do not really want to be slimmer. That’s not the point.

But I did not go into all that with her. She was trying to be nice.

But it is the standard expectation that anyone doing anything but sitting is trying to lose weight.

Anyway, all this talk of losing weight — I think I need a cookie! 🙂


9 07 2007

I enjoyed this post. I’ll never look at Harry Potter the same way again. We are eagerly awaiting the new BOOK.

Our local public schools went to mandatory public school uniforms with no opt out. Even though a large number of parents objected and even brought a law suit against the school board. The School Board won because we got a senile judge and their lawyer kept referring to it as a “dress code”. The uniform consist of navy/khaki slacks and a white/navy polo (they even go so far as to specify the # of buttons the polo can have). The reasons given were the kids would look more professional, it would level the playing field (socialism/communism) and improve test scores.

On the other hand the teachers can still wear whatever they want including jeans and T-shirts.

That’s how loony our school system is. The students are suppose to look like professionals but the teachers (who are suppose to be the professionals) don’t have too.

9 07 2007
Nance Confer

And the reason we need higher test scores? No, not because we think it really means the kids learned anything.

As a matter of fact:



“Article published Jul 8, 2007
Area high schools fail to meet their goals
Low reading scores on the FCAT this year prompt changes in the classroom


_tiffany.lankes@…_ (mailto:tiffany.lankes@…)

Riverview High School had to do something to help its struggling students do
better in reading.

So the Sarasota school hired seven reading teachers to give students intense
remedial classes.

Teachers of other subjects learned to incorporate more reading skills into
their classes.

Still, many of the school’s lowest-performing students did not improve. The
state stripped Riverview of its A status, knocking it down to a B rating.

And most other high schools in the region had similar outcomes.

Despite hundreds of hours of drilling for the Florida Comprehensive
Assessment Test, extra tutoring and a focus on teaching basic reading skills,
scores for high school students across the state are stagnant. The percentage
of Florida 10th-graders reading at grade level is actually lower than it was
five years ago.

. . . ”

But if the scores are higher, the school gets more money. That’s how it works here, anyway.


9 07 2007

Ack, not the MONEY again!! 😉

But this story is exactly what I was thinking, and very sad. It’s like if doctors forced moms into boot camps and sweatboxes and starved them, etc, all for their own good and then wondered why their weight improvement and fitness was “stagnant.”

Reading is the goal? So let kids enjoy Harry Potter on cd and celluloid if they can’t read it, so they will get excited and interested enough to WANT to read it and care enough to learn . . .
and then help them because you love them and are on their side, not because the government has a checklist and the kid isn’t pedaling quite fast enough to stay with the pack!

9 07 2007

Hey, thanks for the link, Alasandra.
Love those butterflies, btw. (And I suspect they are stress-reducing and good for my health.)

9 07 2007
Rolfe Schmidt

I can’t believe I never thought of Harry Potter books as a critique of schooling. I mean it’s obvious and it is a big part of why I enjoy the books, but I never verbalized it. The kids learn what they need on their own, and the teaching works when they want it to work. They seem to get more resistance than help from authority.

Is this one of those truths that is so terrible you can only tell it as a fairytale? While (per dubious statistics I’ve seen recently) a good percentage of Americans are “against homeschooling” and probably think unschooling is crazy, they sure seem to like the Harry Potter books. The stories resonate. They tell us truths about our world or we wouldn’t be interested.

Oh, and keep walking! My wife and I started walking a lot after we had our first kid, and we’ve never felt better. We try to walk everywhere we can. Who cares about weight, it’s how you feel.

10 07 2007

Thanks, Rolfe, for getting it! 🙂

And I think it is easy to answer a poll question saying you are “against hsing.” Most people have no idea what it really is, what the laws are, what the choices are, etc.

And we have it pounded into our heads that ps is the only way.

I have become more bold in my advice to hsers because of this. Yesterday’s example was a Mom upset that her son had not tested well on our state’s standardized test, the FCAT.

After we emailed back and forth, she thanked me for talking her down off the ledge of thinking she needed to do something more schoolish with their time. Her son is an excellent reader but not a math whiz, so far anyway 🙂 , and she is learning not to try to fit a square peg into the proverbial round hole. That square pegs are beautiful! 🙂

But it isn’t her fault or any other parent’s fault if they think the school model of everyone doing everything equally well at the same age is the way things have to go. That’s what we are taught for many years and it is very hard to unlearn all that.


10 07 2007
10 07 2007

LOL — so we can ALL see what we want in HP. Like the Bible. It’s got a quote for everyone! 🙂


10 07 2007

Or the Constitution . . .
Power of story!

From simple quotes to the broadest themes, there’s never just one way to write it or to read it, or understand and apply it. If there is any transcendent meaning in “education” it surely must involve learning that one lesson.

MisEducation once wrote a whole essay on education politics using just three words from a local sign: “Large Dogs Welcome” — maybe it’s not of Biblical or Potterian proportions but it’s the same idea, see what you think.

UPDATE – thanks for making me remember this, you guys. I just added it as a page here, in case our parent-directed education website isn’t immortal. 🙂

10 07 2007
Not June Cleaver

//But it isn’t her fault or any other parent’s fault if they think the school model of everyone doing everything equally well at the same age is the way things have to go. That’s what we are taught for many years and it is very hard to unlearn all that.//

So true Nance. I’m still working on it.

11 07 2007

From yesterday’s NYT:

There is no Quidditch, and not many boarding-school diversions. Instead, “Order of the Phoenix,” which begins like a horror movie with a Dementor attack in a suburban underpass, proceeds as a tense and twisty political thriller, with clandestine meetings, bureaucratic skullduggery and intimations of conspiracy hanging in the air.

School, right Rolfe? 😉

12 07 2007
Rolfe Schmidt

It sounds a little more interesting than any school I went too, but hey you’ve got to sell the book, right? At least the spirit is there… And the meetings, you’ve got to have the meetings.

Regarding Nance’s comment

But it isn’t her fault or any other parent’s fault if they think the school model of everyone doing everything equally well at the same age is the way things have to go. That’s what we are taught for many years and it is very hard to unlearn all that.

This is very hard to get away from and I know I still fall into the trap even though I’ve “seen the light”. This problem is made worse because when certain people attack our right to homeschool, calling it “educational abuse” or something like that, they will point to any area where a kid is “behind” as evidence.

Heck, one person we’re all familiar with even suggested that based on demographics homeschoolers should all be scoring in the 90th percentile on some tests. The fact that they scored in the 80th percentile was cause for concern. We don’t have to defend ourselves against stuff like this as long as our kids are ahead, way ahead.

But real kids develop asynchronously. How could anyone who has met more than two or three people in their life think that everybody will develop the same skills at the same pace? Schooling (at home, ps, or anywhere else) tends to punish asynchronicity by taking you away from areas where you are good and making you work on the areas where you are not. This can kill self-esteem and interest.

12 07 2007

And make you fat. . .

12 07 2007

Here’s another one in the NYT today, this is fun!:

1. Take up regular running, walking, rollerblading to be healthy and protect your cardiovascular system
2. The more you exercise outdoors, the more particulates you suck into your body, clogging your cardiovascular system and doing cumulative damage to your health.
3. So the harder you try to do the right thing, the worse you make it on yourself.
4. The main cause of this conundrum is cars, trucks and buses
5. To teach kids about healthy living and make the community a better place to live for all, we drive them to and from “school” everyday, thereby making the community a less healthy place for all of us.

12 07 2007

And speaking of asynchronicity, teaching is like feeding and learning is like eating:

Incredible Disassembling Meals

When my first son was little, I fed him puréed chunks of whatever my husband and I had for dinner. I congratulated myself when he showed a precocious affection for capers. The trick, I explained to friends who were amazed at his willingness to eat chopped broccolini, was to resist the child’s capricious demands for separate meals. Fortitude, I counseled.

Then, of course, came No. 2.

My second son has stubbornly adhered to a diet of mostly white foods for nearly six years: pasta, rice, cheese, bread, potatoes, chicken. He also eats red meat, baby carrots and chocolate. Recently, in what is being regarded as a green revolution, he has added edamame and string beans.

I refuse to cook to suit him, yet I cannot not feed him. What we have learned together is that no meal is greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, I plan each meal with the thought that it will be consumed in pieces. Some of every pot of pasta never gets sauce. Mushrooms or pickled things are added at the table and only for volunteers.

If everybody eats something, I call it a victory. . .

12 07 2007
Rolfe Schmidt

That is a great observation. I live near a large high school and it is amazing how much traffic it generates. They complain that they don’t have any space for more classrooms, but can’t touch the acres of student parking.

Yes I’m an oddball — I homeschool, I like math, and I walk to do my errands whenever I can — but it seems to me that having more small schools that kids can walk to would have tremendous advantages for kids, parents, and the environment.

But I guess it would be hard to pull together a state champion football team that way, so never mind.

12 07 2007

Rolfe: But real kids develop asynchronously.


I’m picturing the t-shirts! 🙂


13 07 2007
Stanley-Fishing for Evolution of Faith Specimens « Cocking A Snook!

[…] professor and NYT blogger Stanley Fish wasn’t just writing about Clarence Thomas and BongHits4Jesus at school this summer. He also posted about religion versus science as articulated by atheist critics such as […]

18 07 2007

We just saw the new Harry Potter movie and the huge theatre was almost empty (1 pm on a Wednesday was a good call!) — Dolores Umbridge was exceedingly creepy as a one-track-minded bureaucrat AND she had a fitting hint of religious extremism in her performance, that I didn’t quite process reading it years ago. Very, very creepy.

I actually think this movie was better (more satisfying and enjoyable) than its corresponding book, because it didn’t dwell on the coming-of-age angst like FavD says the latest Spiderman movie did.

19 07 2007

Back to BongHits4Jesus and whether or not students have constitutional rights:

Student Free Speech Still an Issue
By The Associated Press

Hartford, Conn.

A Burlington teenager sued two top school officials Monday, saying they violated her constitutional rights by removing her as class secretary because she used offensive slang to refer to administrators on an Internet blog.

. . .She acknowleged Monday she regrets using the offensive slang.

“It really was an unsavory term,” she said. “I’m definitely going to be really careful from now on.”

But the teen said she believes her rights have been violated and that she’s been singled out by school administrators.

“This is something that I felt was really necessary to stand up for, because you really have to stand up (for) the little things about democracy, the little things that make democracy really work in the big world,” she said.

Several weeks after Avery Doninger posted the message in April, Niehoff demanded she apologize to the superintendent of schools, tell her mother about the blog entry, resign from the student council and withdraw her candidacy for class secretary, the lawsuit alleges.

She was the only candidate running for class secretary.

While Doninger apologized and reported the incident to her mother, she refused to resign. Niehoff then “administratively removed” her from the post, the lawsuit said.

Besides being banned from running for re-election, Doninger was barred from giving a speech to her school class, the lawsuit claims. Doninger and fellow students were also prohibited from wearing printed shirts supporting her free speech rights. . .

Niehoff told WVIT-TV in May that school leadership positions are a privilege, not a right. . .

23 07 2007
The 8th Country Fair is open!! | The Country Fair

[…] JJ Ross of Cocking A Snook shows us how his “other” life focus works to connect the books, movies and popular culture his family enjoys with their life as unschoolers in his post School Rule From Bong Hits 4 Jesus to the new Harry Potter Movie. […]

23 07 2007

LOL – maybe I should’ve made my “mom” status clear in that submission?

No matter, the Fair is up! Go see — and I’m off to do a separate post for the front page.

23 07 2007
Crimson Wife

I realize you wrote this post before book #7 came out, but in it, there’s a reference to the Ministry of Magic (now under Voldemort’s control) outlawing homeschooling of witches & wizards and mandating attendance at Hogwarts. There was also a reference to parental choice of schools in book #4, where Draco talks about Lucius wanting to send him to Durmstrang (sp?) rather than Hogwarts but Narcissa said it was too far away.

23 07 2007

Quite right! 🙂

But it was two other parts that jumped out at me:
1) the dangers of learning only things that one thinks will be profitable and eschewing all the rest as worthless, instead of loving to learn everything just for the sake of it, like children’s stories and the ways of house elves, and

2) a brief part close to the end about Hogwarts being “home” for so many lost boys, how that was what made it so central to their lives, not that it was “school” teaching them useful skills but that it was where they felt they could belong and build an identity

8 08 2007

Homeschool advocates might enjoy what the Advocacy Guru reads into it. 🙂

“Wizarding Your Way to Advocacy Success: Five Rules From Harry Potter

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