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Dumbledore's Theory of Early Childhood Education
menchi
catvalente
I was knitting and listening to Harry Potter on audiobook (I should be sleeping! Instead, not.) like a good geek girl tonight, because after seeing the final film I was filled with nostalgia for the first four books, the ones I actually liked. Stephen Fry reads them, and I gotta go with Vonnegut on this one because I was sitting in a plush chair with a glass of wine knitting azure lace and listening to a beautiful British man tell me a beautiful story and if that's not nice I don't know what is.

But it occurred to me, whilst listening to Harry's hilariously over the top horrible treatment by the Dursleys, that this whole plan of Dumbledore's really could have gone very wrong. Because while, yes, it is true that being raised by normal people (albeit awful and they did know the Dursleys were awful, it just fit into a vague handwavey wibbly wobbly timey wimey protection spell sort of thing) instead of in a nonstop fame factory MIGHT create a gentle, humble, sweet-natured boy, it could also, quite easily, create a sociopath.

I mean, seriously. The cupboard under the stairs? This is the kind of shit that makes serial killers. It's the banality of evil, and though Voldemort's childhood was impressively Dickensian/Bret Easton Ellisian, Harry's is pretty much textbook on how to break a little kid. And though many kids come out of abusive homes relatively even-keeled and stable if defensively cynical (I did) just as many come out permanently broken, unable to make meaningful connections or even understand the concept of love, and certainly unable to perform the All Important Magical Feat of Believing in Yourself, which is Required for all Protagonists. In fact, that is kind of a problem with a lot of abused children--the inability to see themselves as protagonists in their own lives and stories, since they were treated in formative personal epochs as NPCs at best, villains at worst, and usually some kind of horrible side character who needs to be put down for the good of the Real People, ie, the abusers and those they deem part of their tribe of worthies.

I certainly see that growing up famous, rich, and adored/believed to be super powerful and important by all is a great way to raise a Gossip Girl-style horrorshow of a person, and often kids who have been raised just couched in comfort and unconditional love with no chance to fail or struggle on their own can be listless and spoiled and generally the worst. Sorrow and trauma is what makes us complex and compassionate, the experience of it personally allows us to predict, empathize, wish to avoid, and desire to protect others from it, and thus most social interaction is made. But that doesn't mean that in order to make the Most Compassionate Child, the Superhero of Being Really Nice, you should just beat down and crush a kid underfoot.

Which is more or less what Dumbledore does, and everyone is horrified that he's doing it, but he is Gandalf the White and None Shall Argue. I get that he is Wise and Male and Has a Job in School Administration, but really? (Don't even get me started on the absurd importance of a single public school in that world--and I honestly think it is a public school and not private, within the wizarding world any child with magical ability can go, there doesn't seem to be tuition beyond basic supplies, and the government is SUPER INVOLVED in the running of the place. Anyway.) Seriously, that is a DICE ROLL, YO. It could have gone the other way. Harry could have made Draco look like a kitten with a daisy in his paw.

File off the names and serial numbers and this could, easily and with great tragic muscle behind it, be Voldemort's origin story.

Now, now, I know that Harry and Voldemort are meant to have a lot in common, there are intended parallels, but the fact that the Dursley Shuffle is done deliberately, pretty much to make Harry not turn out to be a shithead makes it sort of darkly hilarious to me. Yes, you can turn out Ok. I like to think I have. But Not Ok is on the table at all times with this sort of thing. It is always in play.

Because if you lock ten children under the stairs for the first eleven years of their lives, I'll bet you a Time Turner that you'll get four supervillains, three deeply wounded individuals so desperate for love they will do anything they're told to by the first person who hugs them, two completely shattered psyches incapable of meaningful speech, and one Harry Potter, a basically normal, gently dented boy who is good at sports, naturally likeable, and willing to sacrifice himself for the group of your choice.

Them's some long odds, D-man. Glad that worked out for you.


Yeah, I always thought of that as one of the least believable parts of this fantasy story full of magic and wizards and things. >.>

Wait, that sounded sarcastic somehow. I'm actually agreeing with you. :)

I love the way your mind works. And now I'm in a litle funk of grieving for young Harry, which was my overarching feeling while reading the first book.

That's the good thing about fiction. It doesn't have to turn out like it would in reality.

I'm sort of puzzled by this comment? Because yes, of course it doesn't. But if fiction is not related to actual psychology and the way humans work, it becomes incomprehensible. HP is half set in the real world. It is meant to be Real Except With Wizards. So it is perfectly legit to apply how actual brains work to the events therein. People say they didn't believe a character's motivation all the time. They say it of my books. So how is this statement applicable to what I said?

It is weird how the vast awfulness of the Dursleys didn't sink in, but I think that's the same reason a lot of stuff that appeared in the early books got away with it so long. The early HP books were gentle and surreal, part of a grand tradition of strange, meandering British children's stories. The Dursleys were there right out of Roald Dalh's affectionate grotesques, and they seemed to belong in the same world as the plucky schoolboy and his friends in a world full of Eva Ibbotson-style monsters and peril. You could accept those strange premises as part of the cheerful, silly dream world of it all. It's only when the books begin to drift and then plummet into the forced "realism" and, uh, "arbitrary, badly organized meanness" of the later three that you think back to the gentle, punning surreality and are confused.

Yeah, this is part of why the latter three books left me cold. They don't fit with the world we've been presented--and yes, I'm cool with dark and gritty and I get (sort of) that the series was meant to age with the reader/Harry (assuming all readers begin at age 11 and read one per year?) but given the realism of those books, the early books become really off.

Also badly organized meanness seems to sum up the villain of HP, which never does seem to age--he's all the bad things, no subtlety, and his bad acts are almost all offstage and "preparations to reveal himself" until an absurdly late date. Also, I guess his master plan was to be Hitler? I don't know.

three deeply wounded individuals so desperate for love they will do anything they're told to by the first person who hugs them

But that's exactly what we GOT. Harry imprints like a baby duck on Hagrid, and Hagrid pretty much told Harry that Dumbledore was God. So Harry came to Hogwarts fully in the belief that Dumbledore was the Greatest Person Ever, and remained utterly devoted to him.

Exactly as planned.

Yes, but Harry is also deeply individualistic and even in the first book goes against Hagrid and Dumbledore and what everyone tells him to do. He is not a good little boy just hoping to be loved. He's plucky and headstrong and all those protagonisty things.

What you'd probably actually get are three kids desperate to GET love, but incapable of GIVING it, manifestly not Harry's problem, on either count, since he is showered with and hands out love at all times. Though a genuinely broken child would make an interesting hero.

See Iva Ibbotson's The Secret of Platform 13. Same scenario *but* she adds a nanny who is determined *one* child in her care will grow up properly.

(it came out several years before HP but shares the same idea for the portal...)

To be fair, I think that "deeply wounded individual so desperate for love they will do anything they're told to by the first person who hugs them" is not far off the mark as far as descriptions of Harry go. If you subscribe to a particularly Machiavellian interpretation of Dumbledore, this was exactly his intention - to make sure that Harry was so starved for love and acceptance that he'd latch on to dear life the minute these were offered to him, which translates into lifetime loyalty to Hogwarts and Dumbledore. It's not a bad way to go about molding the kind of person who will lay down their life when you tell them to, which was of course the endgame where Harry was concerned.

I've also been inspired by the movie to reread the books, and what I'm noticing this time around is how much life with the Dursleys affects who Harry is throughout the books. It's not that he magically emerges from their house a well-adjusted person - his lack of self-esteem, determination to prove himself, and unshakable belief that it is always, at any time, no matter what the situation and who else is around, his job to save the day are all rooted in the lessons they taught him.

Actually, I'm not sure that the latter is--the Dursleys don't think Harry is capable of anything, much less that it's his job to save the day. See my above comment about how willing H is to go against authority in all sorts of ways (they turn out later to have been often manipulated, but from Harry's POV he chooses to disobey A LOT) rather than being desperate to fit in and avoid punishment.

This has been a realy great and thoughtful essay. You're totally right.

As a kid (I was 8 when the first three books were given to me) I really bought Dumbledore's awesomeness line, and even when the final book came out (17) I was a staunch defender against the defamation of Albus Dumbledore. I totally went along with the blind trust of everyone else in those books.

With years and rereads, though (and I confess the films helped), I've begun to realize that Dumbledore is a bit of a dick. Because all that "keeping Harry safe" business is really doing quite the opposite. Let's look at facts:

-on Halloween '81, he sent a one-year-old child away to Bad People (though Petunia Dursley had the opportunity to redeem herself, she really... didn't) and didn't even bother to check in-- it's rather like he was storing a beloning he didn't carefor too much. My mother ensures better care is being taken of her piano at her cousin's house.
-in the 1991-1992 school year, he allowed a group of eleven-year-olds to skulk about and investigate seriously dangerous business; he even gave Harry the Invisibility Cloak, which any responsible adult should know was giving him free reign for mischief. AND. HE WAS ELEVEN. WTH?
-in the '92-'93 school year, he wasn't all that proactive about keeping students safe, and he certainly didn't take it easy on the indoctrination (that Dumbledore will be here if you carry him in your heart thing?) Again willingly let preteens put themselves in danger, didn't even make a PSA or, seemingly, put staff on alert
-in the '93-'94 school year, he put SERIOUSLY DANGEROUS creatures "guard" the school from a psychopathic madman who was known to be after it. Note that Harry's security detail was not at all difficult for his thirteen-year-old self to shake. When he went missing, it doesn't seem anyone was out looking for him.

And that's just the first three books, ignoring the parts about the deadly Triwizard Tournament and the fact that OH YEAH, he was "saving" Harry only in te sense of "saving him for later." Which still comes off as funamentally sick, even if my moral code is nuanced enough to get that there weren't a lot of other options.

Let's not forget that Invisibility Cloak was DEATH'S RAINJACKET.

HP really is more like Ender's Game than anything else.

This is the basis for roughly %50 of all consistent themes in Harry Potter fanfic, actually.

But I think that it was done quite deliberately (if not extremely well,) by JKR. I think her intention in making the Dursleys as dreadful as they were to Harry, was to reach out to kids actually IN such awful living situations, and to give them someone with whom to identify.

It doesn't pay to forget that, first and foremost, until she was laid off, JKR was a teacher of young children, and a lot of her characters were culled from her experiences in the school systems as she was working there.

Now that said, of course, I absolutely concur that the reasoning for leaving Harry unmonitored in a clearly abusive situation is inadequately supported by the plot. I have never been a fan of JKR's *writing*, or of her storytelling, particularly. What interests me has always been the world she created -- even where it does not make sense. Because it is in those gaps of common sense and reasoning that some of the best story ideas have room to put down awesome roots.

Still, as a Tool For Reaching Youngsters goes, I can see what she was trying to do, at least a little bit. And more, I can commend it. Feeling abused and alienated as a kid is really hard (as you well know,) and so having this heroic character who seems 'just like you'(!!) is so, so powerful.

(Mine was Menolly. I know, I know, but I was eleven. It was less hinky at that age!)

It's not that I don't get that. It's just impressively long odds for coming out with a nice kid.

I completely agree. I had a student last semester wanting to write a paper about why Harry didn't turn out super fucked-up from his childhood and ascribing it to the good values his parents somehow imbued him with prior to his turning 1, and I had to gently point out that the reason it didn't fuck him up has nothing to do with psychological realism and everything to do with Rowling wanting to get Harry the sympathy of a Cinderella figure but not wanting to deal with the psychological fall-out that would naturally ensue.

The only thing I disagree with you about is that I really do think that Hogwarts is a private school. Rowling is writing into the English school story tradition (as you know! I don't mean to imply that you don't), which is so deeply invested in the tradition of the English boarding school, which is such a heavily class-based institution. Add to that the fact that we read of no kids at Hogwarts with working-class accents beyond Hagrid in his youth, even though Rowling is clearly capable of representing working-class accents (think of Ernie, who drives the Knight Bus).

I know it's meant to be a private school. But the apparatus seems so much more public to me--inside it is obviously an english private (public) school. But the way it is treated and run by the government is different and strange. Also, JKR doesn't show a lot of kinds of kids at Hogwarts. Doesn't mean they weren't there.

Anyway, BAH, values taught before 1! Whatever! At 1 you haven't figured out talking, let alone nebulous values.

What bothered me the most was Tom Riddle had a pretty much better upbringing in a somewhat decent orphanage. There were trips to the sea side and Mrs. Cole seemed like a decent woman as much as possible, and Tom Riddle was given a nice life. Yes, it was grim, but this is during the depression and the start of a War, I guarentee all of London was grim.

Harry's upbringing was played for lolz but as a little 13 year old girl myself reading it in London before it came to the states, I was horrified at Harry being kept under the stairs, being viciously chased and bullied, treated like a slave, mentally abused and Dumbledore did nothing to stop it.

And then you give a kid a wand and make him super powerful? I'm shocked his first summer, he didn't accidently poison them. "How would I know they would drink my deadly nightshade homework?"

Yes, I know, many kids feel like they are mistreated and identify with Harry, but that was graphic child abuse.



Yeah, the moral compasses of eleven year olds do not always/ever point due north. That he never acts out in that way (wants to but doesn't) is maturity way out of proportion to his actual age.

Perhaps I am due for a re-read, but I did not see the "Dursley method" as a deliberate choice to create a super wizard, but as the only choice available to protect his life. As I recall, as part of the spell that protected Harry's life and made him into "the boy who lived," he needed to be with blood relatives.. and there was a fairly short list who a) qualified and b) could protect him. It is the old security through obscurity theory and it worked for a while.

As for the psychological effects, yeah you're probably right. Harry beat the odds to not be a psychopath - see, he's amazing! ta-da! It all feeds back in once you accept the central premise, that Harry, the narrator (aka you the reader) are unique and special.

I, too, always saw the removal from his fame as more of a side-effect than anything. Certainly Hagrid seemed horrified by his lack of knowledge of himself/his history/the wizarding world. Dumbledore seemes unruffled, but, well, DUmbledore is cool and implacable and A SOCIOPATH, so.

Add in Dumbledore cutting off all forms of emotional support for Harry after Sirius's death during the summer holidays, then bringing him back to school only to be mindraped by the guy who hates him almost as much as Voldemort, and you have yourself a handcrafted, self-sacrificing hero.

Yeah, I have a lot of issues with Dumbledore. He is not a fluffy bunny, he is a general fighting a war, or, if you like, playing a game he is determined to win with the best weapon he has to hand.

Edit: Sorry, that should have been Cedric, not Sirius. V. tired.


Harry could have made Draco look like a kitten with a daisy in his paw.


Actually, in the end, he did. Which was very cool.

As far as cruelty and hate? I might be misremembering the end...

Have you read "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality?" It basically posits a Potter raised by a scientist instead of a self-important capitalist, and it amuses me greatly on a primary level. On a secondary level, it irks me because of the degree to which it is Freudian; on a tertiary level, it just pisses me right off, because of the degree to which it makes Petunia into a cipher. Mother figures? Pshaw! But it sounds like it's going into territory that might give you a chuckle.

I tried, but it was...I don't know, smug in a weird hipster way, and Harry was still the Specialest, just in a different way. A smug athiestgeekhipsterxkcdreader way. I kind of bounced off.