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UC Philosophy Class on Harry Potter Conjures Popular Appeal

The fictional setting of Harry Potter's Hogwarts offers fertile and familiar ground for delving into philosophical theory at the University of Cincinnati.

Date: 2/3/2012 12:00:00 AM
By: Tom Robinette
Photos By: Tom Robinette

UC ingot   It wouldn’t take a philosopher – or a wizard – much thought to discern why a class on the philosophy of Harry Potter would be popular. But so popular the class size was increased and then filled in a matter of days – twice? That’s almost magical.

Associate Professor of Philosophy Thomas Polger managed to pull off just such a feat with his “Philosophical Themes at Hogwarts” class. Originally planned for around 70 students, it now boasts 165 and regularly fills the lecture hall in 601 Old Chem. There have been other classes taught at the University of Cincinnati that address author J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally popular series of books and movies about the boy wizard and his adventures at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But none tied in philosophy. Polger suspected his approach to the topic might be popular, yet he still was amazed at how quickly enrollment surged.

“I was surprised by the immediate response and the rapidity of the class filling up and how much demand there was,” Polger said. “I was getting several emails a day asking to add more spots. You always get a little bit of that for any class. But it’s clear there was a demand.”
Part of the appeal might be attributed to the assumption the class would skew more heavily toward learning about Potter than Plato. That’s not the case. Polger uses Harry Potter as a fun way to approach potentially complex philosophical topics, but the work involved is challenging.

“The students are doing some pretty heavy-duty stuff,” Polger said. “If they get through it, they’ll learn a bunch – not so much about Harry Potter but philosophy.”

First-year students and big-time Potter fans Ashley Palange and Taylor Lovett both said they were drawn to the class because of their love of the books and movies. Neither are philosophy majors, but both have welcomed the new way of thinking presented in class.

“I have never taken a philosophy class, so every idea is a new idea,” Palange said. “Almost every idea in Harry Potter raises deeper thinking. Every concept raises different questions, and many of the questions have more than one answer.”

Give credit to Polger’s wife for making him a Potter fan. When he began watching the movies and reading the books in earnest, he soon found many philosophical references and issues inside Potter’s world. In class, Polger appears almost as if he could be a professor at Hogwarts – bespectacled and bearded, waving chalk instead of a wand. He’ll implore his pupils to participate, calmly sitting upon a table’s edge in a willful display until someone raises a hand. The spells he casts are those of scholarship and introspection.

And it sounds as if Polger’s spells are working. Brad Callahan, a third-year architecture major, has read a few Potter books and seen some of the movies – so he’s not exactly an extreme fan. He took Polger’s class because it sounded interesting and fit his schedule. That’s good for Callahan, because class discussion became deep as quickly as its enrollment filled.

“This class has made me think about what it means for a fictional world to 'exist' and why we are willing to accept the facts put forward about fictional places as true,” Callahan said.

Polger knows throughout academia, and especially the humanities, there’s an emphasis on making theoretical topics more accessible to students. Many times that’s done by relating theory to something in the real world. Polger has taken a different tack by relating philosophical themes to a fictional world. He said that can be a better way of finding something to which students can relate.

“By relating it to the Harry Potter stories, we’re not coming out of left field and just thinking about time travel as something completely silly or just an intellectual exercise,” he said. “We already have some common sources and common ideas provided by the stories about what it would be like and why it would be important and how it would go.”

Lovett said the approach works.

“The Harry Potter theme makes the class more interesting and makes it easier to understand,” Lovett said. “I’m able to relate the ideas of philosophy to something I understand and have an interest in.”

The core concept of the class centers on determining how our world could be different than it is. Polger’s mechanism for analyzing this notion is the fictional world of Hogwarts and its own unique reality. Looking at what’s true in Harry’s world – magic, prophecies, time travel, etc. – and determining what that world must be like for those things to occur enables students to use that world as a lens through which to view what’s possible in our world. From there, students plumb the philosophical depths further by asking questions like, “Could our world be different from what we think?”
A student elaborates on his “wizard duel” presentation in Professor Thomas Polger’s “Philosophical Themes at Hogwarts” class.

Other topics covered in class include “Truth in Fiction”; “Prophecy, Destiny & Luck”; and “Love and the Dark Arts.” Assignments include “scroll” writing, a “Quidditch match” and a “wizard duel.” Some ideas borrowed from the Potter series have also influenced the class’s format. The class is split into different “houses,” just as students are in Hogwarts. And like their fictional counterparts, the students in Polger’s houses will compete against each other for points, which translate to extra credit in class. Polger said the competition adds to the element of fun in class and provides incentive for students to explore some of their own ideas.

The idea of using pop culture to help illustrate philosophical ideas isn’t a new one. Polger said even ancient philosophers discussed Homer’s works. Some recent examples of other philosophy of Harry Potter classes include “Harry Potter & Philosophy: Wizarding & Wisdom” at La Salle University and “Ethics of Harry Potter” at Bridgewater State University.

Fueling the interest, Polger said, are academic publishers who have found financial success producing book series on pop culture works with cult-like followings. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was among the first to gain popularity. Books on “The Matrix,” “Mad Men,” “Twilight” and others followed. But is that low-hanging fruit? Some within academia might view harnessing the allure of pop culture as a gimmick. Polger sees it as a powerful recruiting tool and viable window into students’ minds.

“I don’t care whether I teach intro to philosophy by using history examples or Harry Potter examples,” Polger said. “I think Harry Potter examples are fun. If we can get some people into classes and introduced to philosophy and if a few of them decide that’s something they’d be interested in and they come back, fantastic. If they don’t come back but they learn some basic things about philosophical reasoning or presenting ideas or the history of philosophy, that’s great as well.”

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