Oct 14, 2020
Hogwarts Houses: A bad idea that got out of hand
If you’re a member of a nerdy social circle—and, given that you’re browsing a website named after a famously cheesy episode of a famously nerdy TV series, that’s a safe bet—you’ve probably gotten one of these invites:
This is the “official” quiz, written by J.K. Rowling herself, that supplanted the dozens of less reputable ones published by BuzzFeed, et al. You might have clicked on the quiz and taken it, content that your “house” was merely one of the millions of fun little diversions that humans in the internet age dream up so as not to be alone with their thoughts for more than five minutes.
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You might have assumed that you’d end up with a neat little thingy to post on your Facebook feed, maybe a little badge and a set of colors. You might, then, have been a little unsettled to see things like this:
Okay, that’s a little bit… involved, but tumblr’s gonna tumblr, right? But then actual publications start getting hip to the trend and aping it:
Then more mainstream publications pick up this ball and run with it, producing reams of advice on choosing your fashion sense, your romantic partner, your career, or your hobbies, based on your presumptive membership in a fictional house in a fictional school:
It’s very hard to overstate just how enthused people are about the idea of Hogwarts Houses. The House test has become a comprehensive personality assessment for a new generation, just as prominent (and only slightly less scientific than) astrology or the Myers-Briggs. I know several people personally who bring up their “House” frequently, wear House scarves, socialize along House lines, and explain other people’s personalities in terms of their House (including myself, who has yet to take the quiz, but that hasn’t stopped others from speculating).
Far be it for me to judge anybody for expressing their own personality in terms of a pop culture construct. I myself have gotten into more than one discussion about which Star Trek species I’d be that got more heated than it needed to. But that’s kinda my point. It behooves us geeks, who know better than anyone that have a propensity toward irrational veneration of silly ideas from books and movies, to evaluate those ideas with a critical eye before hanging our hats on them. And I, for one, am never going to be on board with the Hogwarts House system. It’s never made sense to me; it seems to be one of those poorly thought-out in-universe institutions that could have benefited tremendously from a couple more rounds of editing (*coughQuidditchcough*). And I think anyone who’s prepared to give the idea more than two minutes’ worth of real-world application should hear why I think so.
For those seven of you who need a quick refresher on the Hogwarts House system: all students in Hogwarts are sorted into one of four Houses, each started by one of the four founders of Hogwarts. On your first night at Hogwarts, the Sorting Hat, a hat bewitched with the wisdom of the four founders, sits on your head, looks into your brain, decides on the spot which House best fits your temperament and character, and announces its choice to the entire school. For the rest of your time at Hogwarts, you live in the area allotted to your House, and you eat, sleep, take classes, do your schoolwork, and participate in inter-House competitions alongside members of your House.
It’s not that the idea of school houses is untenable in itself. Many non-British readers may be surprised to learn that the house system isn’t some kooky fantasy trope, but actually a thing. Real-world houses mainly differ in that the students are put into different houses mostly at random, rather than being sorted by personality after a magic hat performs a brain scan. And there’s the rub.
First of all, we should not be so quick to glorify a system which rests entirely on the whims of an extremely powerful Dark artifact. Dark? Well, obviously, when you look at it. The Sorting Hat is one of the most powerful magical artifacts in the entire Harry Potter series. It has not only intelligence, but free will and emotions of its own. It’s a powerful enough mind reader that it can size up someone’s entire personality, values, and character in a matter of seconds; no human in the series is that powerful a Legilimens (not even that idiotically written character from Fantastic Beasts who can read minds effortlessly at long distances, but somehow still works fetching coffee). It can also conjure specific objects, like the Sword of Gryffindor, instantly, from many miles away, no matter how well said object is protected. The Hat’s powers clearly fit the definition of Dark Magic: “never trust anything that can think for itself, if you can’t see where it keeps its brain” (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, p. 329). In retrospect, it’s pretty fucking rich that Hogwarts throws shade at Durmstrang for being a “Dark Arts” school, when the first thing a student does at Hogwarts is put a powerful Dark artifact on their head and hope for the best.
And what’s more, the Hat being so powerful makes it troubling that its declarations are never questioned. The Hat’s sorting decisions are final. There’s minimal human input, no possibility of appealing a Sorting decision, and no checks of any kind on its power. Given the crucial role the Hat plays in shaping the school’s culture, this seems like a bad plan. It could be running some weird centuries-long social experiment and no one could do anything to stop it.
Furthermore, since the Hat is so colossally intelligent, it’s surprising that the system by which it chooses students for different Houses is so stupid. Remember, the Hat sorts individually, and announces results on a case-by-case basis. This becomes problematic, however, when you consider that the Houses have to be relatively of equal size. It never says so explicitly in the books, but this would almost certainly have to be the case; if Houses were different sizes, competitions like the House Cup and the Quidditch tournament would get ludicrously unfair. (Houses in real boarding schools are equally sized for this reason, and if you need more convincing, consider the fact that the algorithm for the Pottermore House quiz is weighted to produce relatively equal House membership.)
So here’s a funny thought: how do you make sure Houses are equally sized when you’re sorting people individually? What if the Hat picks the five Slytherins it’s been allotted for the year and then comes across an even better-suited Slytherin who now can’t get in? What happens when the Hat reaches the end of the year’s new students, realizes it hasn’t picked enough Hufflepuffs, panics, and places the final two students in Hufflepuff whether they belong there or not? Unless the Hat can see the future along with all its other godlike powers, it’s sure to have made a goof of this kind at least a few times. The Hat could ensure equitable results by putting the Sorting Hat on everyone’s head and have it make its picks only after it’s seen everybody; it doesn’t, presumably, because some dramatic effect would be lost.
But okay. Let’s put all that stuff to the side. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there are no logistical difficulties in sorting people into Houses. Let’s assume further that the Hat always sorts correctly and never abuses its power to enact evil schemes and stuff. Doesn’t matter. The entire institution is dangerous at its core.
Let me explain. The Hogwarts Houses are no random conglomeration of schoolkids, as would happen in a house in a real-world boarding school. They’ve been picked specifically because they have certain talents and personality traits in common with their House’s founder, and have certain values that their House’s namesake also valued (among other things; Muggle-borns, for example, are not allowed in Slytherin). Did no one stop to question the wisdom of this? Why did the founders of the school think it was a good idea for students to be around people who think alike, all the time? Isn’t that weird? A bit cultish, perhaps? You get established into a certain tribe the moment your education starts (or before, in most cases, since House membership tends to run in families), a tribe that insulates itself from others, inculcates loyalty to itself first and foremost, and instills intense, kneejerk rivalry? How has no one ever addressed this?
“Oh, you’re overthinking things,” you might say. Am I? Name one student from the books who has a significant number of friends from other Houses, or voluntarily hangs out with people from other Houses on a regular basis. The structure of the Hogwarts curriculum and the students’ living arrangements encourage socializing primarily with others of their House and forsaking other Houses. You establish social ties with these people that persist into adulthood, and into your careers, and since nearly every witch and wizard in the British Isles is educated at Hogwarts, this means there’s no escaping these House ties wherever you go. Your House can even hurt or help your chances to enter certain industries; for most of the book series, there’s a grand total of one Slytherin teacher at Hogwarts, while Slytherins seem to be overrepresented in the Ministry of Magic.
The potential ill effects go far beyond simply being limited in your friends group and finding it harder to get a job. I posit that racist beliefs flourished in Slytherin for so long because those beliefs were shored up in a groupthink echo chamber and hardened by intense inter-group rivalry. The Dark Arts and blood purity are perfect examples of prejudices that could have been eradicated, or at least contained, by healthy dialogue with people who are different and have other points of view. Instead, destructive ideologies that would eventually foment civil war found a “safe space” in Slytherin, free to flourish and radicalize students, and all the other houses were too busy writing off Slytherins as irredeemable evil wackos to try to talk them out of it.
In case you haven’t noticed, we do this in the Muggle world, too. Much that is terrible about the state of contemporary politics comes from the fact that we put ourselves in tribes and cliques of people who are similar and reinforce one another’s worldview against outsiders. I don’t know how many op-eds I read in the last election season that decried our growing propensity to live and socialize exclusively among like-minded people. Look at the mess we have in our government, a direct function of how divided our society is. And yet we celebrate exactly such division in our fiction? So much so, in fact, that we have a statistically significant group of people who are labeling and dividing themselves on precisely the same basis? True, I haven’t yet seen anybody actually discriminating professionally or socially on the basis of their Hogwarts Houses, but given the traction the idea has gained already, it’s just a matter of time.
Enough is enough. Millennials, find some other means of ameliorating your identity crises. The Hogwarts Houses system sucks quite enough in a made-up context, and we shouldn’t try to bring it into our real lives, no matter how whimsical it seems.