Lots of media with magical characters feature magical education as a means to show how engrained magic is in their society and establish a system by which magical folks learn their craft. But these magical schools mirror many of the same faults as real world schools, leading to characters repeating their forefathers mistakes, disenfranchisement, and, often, danger.
The Harry Potter book series, The Worst Witch TV series, Mary and the Witch’s Flower anime, and American Horror Story: Coven each center a magical institution that takes on pupils just as they realize their inherent magical abilities. These works also share a nebulous projection of the inner workings of educational institutions which, perhaps unwittingly, reflect societal views of education. In the real world, many schools are governed by boards who are there to provide checks and balances to the actions of the school’s administrations. In these magical worlds, these boards (or lack thereof) are ineffective systems for keeping magical children safe. And this, unfortunately, isn’t too far off the mark for Muggle real world schools.
In the Harry Potter series, Albus Dumbledore, as Headmaster of Hogwarts, seems to wield absolute power over the decisions made for the institution. As a former professor and pupil, Dumbledore’s experiences seem valid for understanding what the institution needs most. Yet, the real issue in this presumption is that his reputation as ‘the greatest wizard of modern times’ precludes any real involvement from Hogwarts’ Board of Governors. When members of the fandom (and the murmurings we get from some in-universe characters) blame Dumbledore for the lack of teacher certification, rules around involving parents in student issues, and direction of strict guidelines around student activities — ahem, 14-year-old Harry participating in the Triwizard Tournament — it’s rightful for the most part. However, these transgressions would not have occurred had the Hogwarts Board of Governors actually taken their roles seriously, and not as just another title to add to their resumes. The few times we do hear of the board getting involved, it is because Lucius Malfoy wants to play a show of force against Dumbledore after the Chamber of Secrets is reopened — a feat he orchestrated. What qualifications, beyond money, do these board members provide Hogwarts? What levels of expertise? Are they voted in? Are there term limits? These are questions Hogwarts parents should be asking in determining if Hogwarts, one of the only “accredited” options for magical education in Britain, is the best fit for their student.
This display of power has real world influences and parallels as we reckon with the idea of checks and balances seeming ideal but proving to be harmful to students mentally and sometimes physically. We often see school boards overstep their powers, from developing racist and sexist dress codes, to devaluing facts in textbooks, and enacting discriminatory carceral policies in the detention of students for normal adolescent behaviors.
In American Horror Story: Coven, the school leaders are so wrapped up in vying for power and immortality that the education of their waning pupilship is neglected and the headmistress even murders a student. Similarly to Hogwarts, Miss Robichaux’s Academy is governed by a wizarding body, the Council of Witchcraft, that is responsible for policing witch crimes, the concealment of witchcraft to the uninitiated, and for the welcoming of potential students to Miss Robichaux’s Academy. The council only visits the Coven on very important cases, such as the death of another witch and thus doesn’t ensure the education of the students meet any real standards. Both the Hogwarts and Robichaux Academy examples show us that governing bodies are often led by people who have amassed power over time and take on these positions to influence future generations with their own beliefs. This is a paternalistic structure that assumes that adults who may or may not have vested interest in furthering students’ dreams are the best people to structure learning institutions.
This paternalism is not limited to schools whose boards play peripheral yet powerful roles (via their neglect) in the education system. During The Worst Witch TV series, we see the professors and headmistress fall prey to the machinations of a witch who lays claim to school ownership due to it being familial property. This concept is very imperialistic and is more a show of power than a concern about the institution’s ability to work well for its students. We see a more drastic case, in the anime Mary and the Witch’s Flower wherein Mary discovers a magic plant in the forest, travels to a magical school, then learns that it is led by two corrupt teachers who selfishly assault students for additional magical abilities. In this case there is no oversight for the running of the school and we learn that the original students have all been turned into creatures at the behest of these two unscrupulous professors. The free-willing nature of these professionals reflect the general idea of many adults that when traditional and historical systems remain unchecked, students become victims.
Truly each of the aforementioned stories reflect what many people believe: because they were once students, they know exactly how schooling works and what the issues are. While personal experiences can make people experts for issues that they may have personally faced, if they have not worked behind the scenes or within different aspects of an arena, then they cannot be trusted to provide well-rounded feedback. This is why each of these institutions need more reliable teams. We need teams of teachers from different departments, administrators, custodial, medical and office staff, parents, and students to have equal power in planning and designing the path forward at schools. As the old adage goes, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ In a patriarchal system, there will always be someone who gains power that believes they know best. In a matriarchy, power is shared. Perhaps we have yet to see this system in a major magical school series because as a society, we have not had the vision nor the range.