Philosopher’s Stone ‘Trigger Warning’

I’ve been looking for the right time to post this and yesterday’s charting of parallels between the first Harry Potter novel and the first Cormoran Strike mystery seems as good a prompt for a Philosopher’s Stone news story as I’ll get anytime soon.

The word is that the University of Chester, the “fifth oldest higher education establishment in the United Kingdom” (not as impressive as you might think with their start being 1839 rather than the Middle Ages…), offers a course called ‘Approaches to Literature’ for first year students. According to this piece in The Daily MailOnline,Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is one of the course’s three set literary texts alongside Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights.”

That college students were being taught KidLit as their introduction to literature might have been newsworthy twenty years ago. Today the headline is that the course listing for this module of ‘Approaches to Literature’ comes with a trigger warning, that is, a notice that the content of the text may be disturbing to some readers. It reads:

Although we are studying a selection of Young Adult texts on this Module, the nature of the theories we apply to them can lead to some difficult conversations about gender, race, sexuality, class, and identity. These topics will be treated objectively, critically, and most crucially, with respect. If anyone has any issues with the content, please get in touch with the Module Leader to make them aware.

My guess — and this is pure speculation based only on some familiarity with prevalent critical theories for interpreting literature used in university classrooms today — is that they will reading Potter, Hunger Games, and Northern Lights through the various lenses of ‘Critique.’ The books, in other words, will be ‘deconstructed’ to reveal their inherent colonialist, sexist, racist, and classist foundations or their more praiseworthy vilification of these thought crimes. This process of relatively mechanical litmus strip testing certainly can (because it is the whole point) “lead to some difficult conversations about gender, race, sexuality, class, and identity.” When I first read the article, I thought this warning was an just exercise in being up front with students that the course was really going to be indoctrination into postmodern morality and Puritanism rather than the books themselves, i.e., something admirable at least in its honesty.

The MailOnline, however, didn’t read it that way. They noted this module for the course was the only one to come with a trigger warning. They attributed this to Rowling’s 2019 Maya Forstater Tweet and the subsequent transgender twitterati explosion with the unsuccessful demand that Rowling be blacklisted by all Thinking People (TM). Do read the whole article for critical responses made by two MPs and an explanation from the University of Chester about the warning.

I want to note only one thing. When Harry Potter was dismissed by William Safire in The New York Times as being “unworthy of adult attention” and Harold Bloom made even more ridiculous remarks in The Wall Street Journal, the thing they hated about Rowling’s writing was what James Thomas called it’s three ‘Deathly Hallows:” they were “too juvenile, too popular, and too current” to be any good. Culture warriors such as Michael O’Brien and Richard Abanes condemned the books — and urged parents to protect their children from exposure to them — because they were “gateways to the occult” and spiritually dangerous. The Potter Panic’s principal partisans argued against a serious reading of the books by adults or even casual entertainment to be had through them.

Both the academic snobs and religious cranks, uniformly in my experience non-readers or readers with an agenda, were countered by careful and sympathetic appraisal of the books (the movie adaptations helped, too, of course).

Now we have arrived at the opposite end of the spectrum where a new group of academics, fundamentalists of the secular woke Puritanism in vogue today, is saying the Harry Potter texts are somehow dangerous. The good news is that at least they are being discussed in university classrooms, however profoundly inappropriate Critique tools to understanding them (in brief, the Harry Potter stories work as spiritual allegories with anagogical meaning and postmodern literary criticism only works at the surface and moral levels of understanding, there being no greater reality than political power).

This is good news because the books are of sufficient quality that, though as with all books they can be tortured and neutered in the classroom of an ideologue, the experience they deliver to a thoughtful reader will subvert their conventional ideas and any professor’s indoctrination agenda. Trigger Warnings I have to think create rather than diminish curiosity and attentive reading, so bring them on!

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