Dolores Umbridge Syndrome (7-2-15)

I’ve been an ardent Harry Potter fan for many years, and my children’s reading lives  as far as chapter books began with me reading Harry aloud to them from the ages of 4 or 5 until they finally told me they could read on their own half way through Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. A very sad day in my household, at least for Dad. 

My wife, however, was not entirely unhappy when I stopped reading aloud, at least as far as book 5 is concerned. When I read aloud, I read with character voices, and my Delores Umbridge voice gave her the willies. 

Delores Umbridge. Stephen King said of her that she was “the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter.”   

I tend to mull over and ponder the books I love, and the Harry Potter books are no exception. As a cartoonist who has frequently parodied and satirized education reform, I can only sit back and envy the brilliance of the scene is which Umbridge begins her Defense Against the Dark Arts class by announcing “Wands away!” and telling her students that they will not be doing any practical magic, but will instead be using a Ministry of Magic standardized curriculum. At the time, teachers in my district were being asked to use the College Board’s Springboard English/Language Arts curriculum with fidelity, and the scene resonated with me on many, many levels. 

By the time I reached book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, however, something began to bother me about Delores Umbridge. In book 5 she was officious,  and capable of both torture and banning Harry from Quidditch for life, but I thought she still thought of herself as being on the “good side.” By book 7, though, she is working at the Ministry of Magic, which is now under the control of Voldemort and the Death Eaters. Has she changed sides? Is she unaware of who she is working for? What gives?

It was my son who pointed out the explanation: Delores Umbridge is a career opportunist. She doesn’t really stand for anything except her own power and her own promotion. She will work for whoever is in charge and do her best to make sure she rises in the ranks. If the Ministry of Magic is in charge and they want her to turn Hogwarts into a totalitarian state, she’ll do that. If torturing a student with a magic pen will promote her ends, she’ll do that. If suppressing the truth will make her look good, she’ll do that, too. If oppressing non-pure-blood wizards is what the new leadership wants, she’ll do that. If using a dead wizard’s magical eye as a surveillance device will further her power to intimidate, she’ll do that. If working for a dark wizard will get her promoted to Undersecretary, she’ll do that. 

The Harry Potter books are about many things, and one of the things they are about is standing for something, no matter the cost. Harry and his various friends and mentors and even an arch enemy take risks to stand on the side of right. They break rules. They resist. They speak out. They go underground and work against the forces of evil in hiding. Many of the characters die standing up for what is right. 

Delores Umbridge, on the other hand, stands for nothing but her own ambition, self-promotion, and power. 

Which leads me to the other way in which her character reflects real life. There are many Delores Umbridges in our school systems right now. They don’t care who is in charge, or what they are asked to do, they will do what is best for their careers, not what is best for students.

Want them to help institute the education reforms that are killing our schools? They’ll do that. Want them to reinforce the use of standardized curriculum? They’ll do that. Want them to push the idea that teaching to the test is really teaching? They’ll do that. Want them to make teachers stand in the data room and discuss students as if they were data points? They’ll do that. Want them to comply to anything the state says? They’ll do that. Want them to never question, never think, never take risks to do what’s right for students? They’ll do that. Want them to make students put their real reading away so they can practice their multiple choice skills on clickers? They’ll do that. Wands away! 

Some of the Delores Umbridges are teachers, some are administrators. Some work at the district level. Some work at the state and national level. Many delude themselves into thinking their really doing what they do “for the students.” Some never even reflect on why they do what they do. Some of them know exactly what they’re doing. 

Some of us are resisting though. We question. We go out on a limb to do what’s right for students. We want to teach real magic, not the ministry-approved non-practical curriculum. We are branded bad teachers, trouble-makers, the reason we need (or had) to get rid of tenure. We break the rules. We speak out. We stand for what is right. 

These days the “good employees” are the Delores Umbridges of the world. 

The rest of us… well, we’re Dumbledore’s Army. 

Welcome to the D.A.