An Imaginary Education

The Shaping of Three Generations of Students’ Expectations Through Fiction

 Every fall semester since I began teaching college full-time, I have been struck by how freshmen’s expectations have the potential to set them up for success or failure. In particular, I have seen how students’ understanding of what college can and should be has been defined by the fictional campuses they have encountered in film and television. We children of the 1980s have different expectations than Millenials. Whatever generation comes after them will be equally defined by the presence or absence of engaging fictional places of learning.

The Adventure of Learning

My first paradigm for the college professor was Indiana Jones. Droning through a lecture, pushing past flirtatious students, and ducking out a window to avoid office hours, he taught that learning was an adventure, always worth the risk, however dangerous.

He was not alone. With even greater clarity, John Keating (Robin Wiliams) taught viewers of Dead Poet’s Society (1989) that the only life worth living was one driven by the passionate search for truth. The pursuit of knowledge needed to involve the fullness of one’s mind, heart, and soul. This was no task for the timid. True learning needed to be both planned and spontaneous, willing to make sacrifices for the sake of growth. Never mind that Keating taught in a secondary school. Compared to public high school, it seemed collegiate enough.

Rounding out the fictional collegiate universe of the 1980s, the Cosby Show spin-off A Different World exposed many of us for the first time to the idea of campus as community and idea of the historically black college. Yes, it mattered what happened in the classroom. But life learning also needed to include the vibrant cultural and social experiences involved in friendships and other relationships outside of the classroom, even if there was some drama involved.

I’m sure that there were others (feel free to make note in the comments below), but those particular three dominated my own understanding of collegiate learning being fundamentally defined as an intellectual, emotional, social, and cultural adventure.


The Magic of Learning

No school has dominated the educational imagination of a generation like Hogwarts. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series (1997-2007) reached an even broader audience when it was translated into film (2001-2011). With intramural quidditch, Gryffindor scarves aplenty, and occasional chalk scrawlings that “the Chamber of Secrets has been opened,” there is ample evidence that many members of the current generation of American college students have considered their own residential collegiate experience to be as close to the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry as they will ever get. Again, the fact that their fictional campus paradigm was for secondary (and, in this case, late primary) education seems irrelevant.

While some would-be wizards may be disappointed by their college experience, Rowling has done them a great service by offering some very practical lessons about what schooling is and ought to be like. Classes at Hogwarts are not easy. McGonagal is strict but precise. Snape is demanding and frequently unfair in his demands. Even Trelawney’s classes are difficult, not because the seer or her subject matter involve hard work, but because they are so nebulous. There are no fluff classes. A teacher’s strictness is a sign of excellence. The students study and only the hard workers truly excel.

The great benefit of this is that the students’ learning endows them with the ability to do magical things. And like students anywhere, the students at Hogwarts learn that they need courage, ingenuity, and dedication to overcome problems. Most importantly, they need each other.

Rowling made it cool to like magic and like school. The Harry Potter books and films have arguably been one of the chief instruments in the mainstreaming of nerd-dom. If it is cool to be smart, both for boys and for girls, from elementary school onward, there is hope for the future.


Life After Hogwarts

One can imagine what the future might hold. Will there be barren years, devoid of another clear paradigm for the next generation of students? Will one or many provide examples of how learning can be an adventure or a magical journey? Or something altogether different? Sooner or letter, there will be another. Let us for something than merely another Animal House (1978) or Van Wilder (2002).

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