Taking 'Harry' Higher
With "Harry Potter and Philosophy," Tufts graduate Shawn Klein bridges the gap between pop culture and philosophical thought.
When Shawn Klein first started reading J.K. Rowling's phenomenally popular "Harry Potter" series, the 1995 Tufts graduate - now a PhD student and part-time philosophy professor - did so reluctantly. "My wife started to read Harry Potter first," he recalls. "I put off reading it, thinking, 'Oh, it's a kids' story.' Finally, she said, 'No, Shawn, you have to read this.'"
Klein soon realized that taking his wife's advice was the right thing to do: He was hooked just a few pages into the first installment of the best-selling series, which follows a young, orphaned wizard as he attends Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, making friends and enemies as he uncovers his past and confronts his destiny.
And now, with the recent publication of "Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts" - a collection of 16 Potter-themed essays - Klein has blended his appreciation for the Potter series with his love of philosophy. The book, which Klein co-edited and contributed to, is the latest in Open Court Publishing Company's well-reviewed "Pop Culture and Philosophy" series. (Previous volumes include "Seinfeld and Philosophy" and "The Simpsons and Philosophy.")
Indeed, Klein has come full circle since his days of viewing the "Potter" books as "kiddie lit."
"I suspect that people who say that these are just stories for kids haven't read the books," Klein says. "At first, I think [the series] really was intended more for a young adult audience. But I think Rowling understood that she had an adult audience, and that the kids who were reading the books were growing up. One of the clues there is the language: There are a lot more five-dollar words in book six than there were early on!" he laughs, referencing the recently released "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."
But it's not only the increasing sophistication of the books' language that makes them more than just kids' stuff: the adventures of Harry & co., Klein says, provide ample fodder for serious philosophical inquiries. In fact, they explore what Klein describes as "pervasive philosophical questions": What are the natures of good and evil, and what makes a person one or the other?
"Dumbledore talks about that a lot," says Klein, referring to Professor Albus Dumbledore, a wise and powerful wizard who is a key figure in the moral as well as magical development of the books' title character. "[Dumbledore] says it's our choices, it's what we do - what makes us 'good' is not that we have great ability or that we come from a particular family tree, and what makes us 'evil'? Again, it looks to be our choices.
"Rowling is raising these questions of what it means to be 'good,' and what happens if we choose to be 'good,' and our enemies use what's best in us against us," Klein continues. "Is goodness worth it? That's a very real question in philosophical ethics, and I certainly think Dumbledore would say yes."
"Tufts' Experimental College set me on the course that I'm on, and I wouldn't have had that experience anywhere else," says Klein. "I don't know of many college programs where undergraduates can really teach - not just sit in a class, but do the syllabus! Do the course planning! Grade the papers! It was an incredible experience - it influenced the rest of my career and life."
Several of the essays that comprise "Harry Potter and Philosophy" focus specifically on the relationship between good and evil. The rest explore other issues, including racism, feminism, self-deception - and yes, magic. "We have essays on metaphysics and the nature of reality, asking, 'Could magic exist?'" Klein smiles.
He adds that striking the proper pop culture-philosophy balance for the book was a tough task. "[Co-editor David Baggett and I] approached it as if most of our audience were philosophy neophytes, although we also knew that there would be people reading it who weren't familiar with Harry Potter, but would know philosophy," he says. "So we knew we had to explain the story, and we also had to make sure that, in terms of the philosophy, we were speaking on a level that people who weren't familiar with philosophy would understand.
"But we also wanted to take care not to simplify the philosophy - we didn't want it to be 'philosophy for dummies,'" Klein continues. "And that's one of the virtues of the whole series from Open Court: The goal is never to 'dumb down' the philosophy, but really to use philosophy to engage the pop-culture issue, and vice versa - to have pop culture as a prism through which to look at philosophy. The series is trying to bring together both audiences."
In Klein's opinion, the Potter books are ideal vessels for bridging that gap, as well as the gap between pop culture and high art. "Some people say that they're not as good as the classic stories, like 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Narnia,'" he says. "But they haven't been around as long. We have the same thoughts with music: Mozart and Beethoven were the rock-and-rollers of their day. We think of their work as high art now, and it is, but it was also popular!
"I think a lot of times those people who are critical of Harry Potter are introducing a false distinction between pop culture and high art," Klein goes on. "I think the best high art is stuff that's also popular, and speaks to really important issues in our lives, and that's something that Rowling has done so well."
As a philosophy professor at Arizona's Mesa Community College (as well as the undergraduate advisor of the philosophy department at Arizona State University, where he's currently working on his PhD), Klein has found the Potter books - and popular culture in general - to be valuable tools for engaging students in intellectual discussions.
"One of the things that draws me to this 'Pop Culture and Philosophy' series is that it's using philosophy to understand our culture and how we live. It shows the importance of thinking philosophically about these issues, and how [doing so] can really improve and better our lives," he says. "That's what I want to do through my teaching as well: to impart the importance of philosophical thinking, so that students can then go and live better lives because of that."
According to Klein, that ambition was first realized when he was at Tufts. "Tufts opened my mind to philosophy. My senior year, I took a couple of philosophy courses, and really enjoyed them a lot," the English major says. "But the single most important experience for me at Tufts was teaching an Explorations course through the Experimental College called 'The Philosophy and Literature of Ayn Rand.' Ever since then, I've known I wanted to teach," says Klein, who hopes to eventually return to the ExCollege as an adjunct professor.
"It set me on the course that I'm on, and I wouldn't have had that experience anywhere else," adds Klein. "I don't know of many college programs where undergraduates can really teach - not just sit in a class, but do the syllabus! Do the course planning! Grade the papers! It was an incredible experience - it influenced the rest of my career and life."
Profile written by Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006
Patrice Taddonio, a native of Holland, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Currently the Tufts Daily's head features editor, she interned with the Improper Bostonian magazine during her sophomore year, and worked as a temporary text editor with the Associated Press at this July's Democratic National Convention. A member of the Class of 2006 and a songwriter, Taddonio has also performed on guitar and vocals at on-campus venues and at Boston-area benefits.
This story originally ran on Aug. 1, 2005