The melting cauldron: How America teaches magic
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire gave us a tiny glimpse into the magical world outside of Hogwarts and British wizarding communities. We got informed impressions of Europe’s other wizarding schools—Beauxbatons and Durmstrang—as well as glimpses of other pockets of wizarding society at the Quidditch World Cup, notably the Salem Witches’ Institute.
America is arguably the largest group of consumers of the Harry Potter series, and what young (or old, for that matter) American reader hasn’t wished for their very own experience at a magical academy a la Hogwarts?
This essay proceeds from a place that combines amateur cultural anthropology with pure fan speculation (as all the best headcanons do). The US is massive and has a distinct cultural footprint, depending on the region you find yourself in. In investigating those regions, some obvious imagery, traditions, and stereotypes emerge. As Hogwarts is a twist on any British prep school, this take will hopefully offer a peek into what magical education may be like all over the United States.
Firstly, the magical community at large has to have certain things in common. Magic requires a set of rules, just like any other force. For instance, Golpalott’s Third Law applies to all witches and wizards, regardless of culture, practice, or skill level. There are limits to what magic can and can’t do, although traditions and cultures may have differing approaches to doing whatever falls within the limits.
Another constant? The concept of an item that channels the innate magical talent within a witch or wizard. That is usually a wand (clearly commonly used throughout Europe), but I wouldn’t be surprised if some regions used staves (Africa), or fans (China), or swords (Japan).
However, the historical basis of magic—the legends and figures that surround it—would be very different from the British curriculum. Schools in America wouldn’t talk about King Arthur and Merlin except in a class that concentrated on European magical history. Americans would talk about Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan. Perhaps even Bigfoot, or the Jersey Devil, or some of the legends they brought from their own countries when they immigrated.
In the case of immigration, the sorts of problems that plagued non-magical people and prompted them to immigrate probably didn’t reach magical people in the same way. For example, magical people—especially those who lived remotely—probably weren’t affected by wars and famine the same way non-magical people were.
In terms of exploration and the New World, magical and non-magical people alike probably explored out of a sense of daring and adventure (plus, magical people would have a much easier time avoiding disease and death and rough travel). Then, later on, magical people surely crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower with the rest of the settlers, assuming they were seeking religious freedom—and perhaps more land in a remote place where it was far easier to maintain secrecy. And, even later, left England in search of freedom from the monarchy; depending, of course, on how entwined the magical community was with the monarchy. I’m inclined to guess that the Kings and Queens—like the current world leaders—knew that wizards existed. Many had court magicians, after all!
Fast forward to now: schooling in America is quite different than in the UK; our school experience is typically broken up into three distinct stages: elementary, middle, and high school. American culture places a large amount of value on the high school experience in particular, and most prep/magnet schools are established at the high school level, so it wouldn’t be surprising if our magical education started later than our British counterparts. However, we’re also obsessed with the college experience, so it might make sense for our magical education to start later, but last longer—a full eight years rather than seven, to mirror the amount of time the average person spends in high school and college combined.
Naturally that poses the question of what happens for the three years or so that a child wouldn’t be spending at a school set up to start just before puberty, like Hogwarts. I feel community schools would probably sprout up, not to mention homeschooling; this is already relatively popular here in the States. Considering the way our government works (as well as the Ministry, considering all magical children there also have tabs kept on them from the moment they’re born), I’m sure that a magical government representative would be sent along to any non-magical home with a magical child once the child starts exhibiting uncontrollable signs of magic, and points the family towards the nearest community school.
These independent schools would teach things of regional importance. Obviously, we can’t be sure there isn’t more than one “proper” wizarding school in the United States, but we’re so vast that I would be amazed if there weren’t at least three, and that each of those would have a distinct teaching style and cultural focus. Let’s have a look at what it might look like if each region had its own school:
The Northeast/New England/Mid-Atlantic:
Considering the stereotype of preppy, yacht-owning Ivy Leaguers in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, I would guess that this area has the most in common with Hogwarts: it’s an old area with a ton of tradition and prestige that’s heavily focused on academic excellence and a sort of elite pride.
Considering the history of the Ivy League and Seven Sisters, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Salem Witches’ Institute (located in Salem, Mass., of course) had originally been a single-sex school that had a brother school (Salem Wizards’ Institute, perhaps). Over time, like the actual Ivy Leagues, the schools would eventually expand/combine to be co-ed (think Vassar), but considering the history of witch-burnings (or, far more typically, witch-hangings) was an endeavor that largely persecuted women, it makes sense to maintain the Witches’ Institute title out of respect and tradition.
The SWI would be a typical New England prep school—lots of brick and ivy and a grassy quad. They would have uniforms and study American magical history on top of their general History of Magic course (probably called ‘History of European Magic’—presumably the History of Magic curriculum at Hogwarts is already concentrated in European history).
SWI would probably focus more on research and furthering magical possibilities far more than Hogwarts does. (I’m sure all of America would. In fact, I bet American witches and wizards figured out how to make computers and internet connections work with magic way back in the late 80s.)
On a lighter note, the Malleus Maleficarum is one of the school’s inside jokes—an original copy is kept proudly on display in their library. Students touch the plaque beneath it for luck before their final exams.
Outside of the Salem area, the most obvious evidence of magical activity is right on display for anyone who would care to look: the hex symbols on farmhouses in Pennsylvania Dutch country.
The northeast has oceans, forests, and mountains—all areas where magical people can embrace nature and collect magical items and ingredients. (There’s a definite “great outdoors” mentality for people who live near those places, and I’m sure witches and wizards would use those elements in their magical practice.)
The Midwest, a huge stretch of corn and cow pastures sprinkled with major metropolitan areas every three or four states, would arguably be the easiest place to live a solitary, rural “wizard’s” existence.
Most wizarding families in the Potter books tend to live rurally (the Weasleys, Lovegoods, and even the Malfoy’s—to an extent—on their remote estate), and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the more traditional types made their home on the prairies and lived a mostly self-reliant life where they could practice magic in the open with very little fear of being spotted. If any of these families did want to hit the city for a vacation, the cultural centers of the Midwest would probably be Chicago and Kansas City.
This area definitely has the biggest differences in climate within one region, from eastern rains to Tornado Alley to blizzards as the plains stretch west and north and the land crumples into mountain ranges. Midwestern witches and wizards would be very adept at spells that repair broken windows or warm up freezing fingers, not to mention spells that fortify their homes and storm cellars against high winds.
Agriculture and livestock in particular would be magically monitored. Farmers and breeders would be held in high regard, because it takes more than magical skill to be successful. Sure, magic can help ease the way, but you can’t just Accio a calf out of a pregnant cow or else you’ll harm the cow. Cow-tipping (typically super-difficult, but magic takes out much of the effort) would be considered a serious offense.
“The South” is a tricky concept, as it’s one of the most vast and diverse areas of the States. It stretches from Maryland to Florida, across to Kentucky and down to Louisiana, encompassing several cultures, faiths, and surroundings. You’ve got your Bible Belt (if they aren’t railing against magic as “demonic”, perhaps they see these powers as “spiritual gifts”), your French and Voodoo influence on the Bayou (perhaps Beauxbatons has a study-abroad program here?), and Santeria in Florida (a mystical West African/Caribbean religion loosely based in Catholicism and widely practiced among Cubans).
Much like anything else in America, magic probably isn’t separated from religion (unless, of course, you don’t participate in one). After all, Jo has indicated that magic comes from a magical gene, and doesn’t—strictly speaking—contradict any religious beliefs. (That is to say, the presence of magic doesn’t indicate the absence of God/gods, etc.) In that vein, I mentioned American legends earlier: southern children would idolize John Henry and his magical feat against the muggle-invented steam hammer.
It’s likely that, like the UK, wizard governments operate in the same cities as their non-magical counterparts; the South includes DC, so there’s a strong government presence here as well.
I can’t imagine that it would be easy to live in secrecy and isolation in the modern United States, depending on where you live. There’s almost always a major city nearby, not to mention the spread of retail and restaurant franchises. Granted, there’s a lot we don’t know. If magical children are born to Muggles, they still have a Social Security number, but what if you’re born to a magical family? Do you pay taxes? Do you just forge your documents if you ever want to travel or work? Or do you use purely magical means? (Is it even possible to Floo or Apparate across oceans or countries?)
Our country relies on the ability to record and track our movements and preferences through our names and Social Security numbers—not just to forward our mail or get paychecks, but to prevent crime. Granted, magical communities deal with very different sorts of crime, and probably a different sort of tracking. It seems most likely that our government is a blend of Muggle and magical, with a secret wizarding branch that works as a small-scale mirror of our own government and a figurehead that acts as a Presidential liason to the wizarding world (I wonder how many, if any, of our Congressmen and Senators are magical). The Muggle president himself would remain the country’s leader for both magical and non-magical people. (And who knows? Perhaps we’ve even had a magical President once or twice!)
Make no mistake, Texas is quite distinct from the South. (Hi, Caleb!) Even international folks know the Texas stereotypes—everything’s bigger, especially the guns.
Obviously this is an overstatement, but there are elements of this that could ring true in a wizarding community. For example, dueling is already somewhat acceptable in the wizarding world. I wouldn’t doubt that Texas’ stance on dueling is very relaxed. One must wonder if the Killing Curse is illegal except when used in self-defense.
Considering the affinity for all things gun, I’d love to see Texan wands decked out in engraved metalwork in the style found on old-West pistols. Perhaps the broomsticks have tooled leather saddles (although I imagine horses are still very popular with magical people and Muggles alike).
Two words: desert magic. Think stones, sand, and bones. (Can you imagine a wizarding home in New Mexico or Nevada: always cooled to the perfect temperature and decorated all over with well-picked carcasses of little-known magical reptiles; shiny turquoise set into their skulls like eyes?)
The southwest is probably the smallest region, in terms of wizarding population. This area wouldn’t just be Native American-influenced—all of the old, experienced wizards and witches would be Natives; that culture of ceremony, hierarchy, and respect would be a major cornerstone. I’d love to see the use of vultures instead of owls
There’s an oasis in the Southwest region: Southern California. SoCal has a surfeit of sun, sand, and surf—not to mention horrific traffic. Witches and wizards are pretty lucky when it comes to Southern California: they can buy magically-enhanced sunscreen (or make it themselves) and they can avoid the terrible traffic jams whenever they want.
Salt and water are both pretty powerful magical symbols, and the coast certainly has plenty of both to work with. I could see coastal wizards and witches using ocean water in place of fresh water for whatever potion they happen to be making, or even boiling or evaporating the water in order to get a supply of sea salt.
You may know that this region’s Hispanic/Latino population has recently equaled the white population. There would be plenty of Mexican, Dominican, and South American influence here, which would undoubtedly affect the way magic is practiced on a cultural level.
(On a related note, can you think of any other country that’s as obsessed with culture as America? Considering our culture is essentially borrowed, we talk about ourselves as “Italian” or “German” when, to actual Italians and Germans, we’re simply American. Imagine a young American witch of Italian descent—think third or fourth generation—who holds on very tightly to the strega tradition in order to have a sense of culture. Or, more accurately, to the superficial trappings of a strega tradition. After all, the guido types and their ilk are hardly a shining example of ‘real’ Italian culture—whatever that is/was!)
Pacific Northwest/Northern CA:
I know it’s a popular headcanon that the Salem Witches’ Institute is actually in Salem, Oregon, but I would bet money Jo was referring to the one in Massachusetts. However, I think it would make sense to have a sister campus in Oregon. One that is far more relaxed, earthy, and “touchy-feely” than her preppy counterpart. (Perhaps nearby Canadians decide to attend SWI’s Oregon campus instead of traveling to Toronto or Quebec.)
The Pacific Northwest is more remote and lush and has a Native American influence that surely affects the study of magic and mysticism. Perhaps some of the students even do an intensive “study-abroad”-type curriculum where they live and work in a native community and study their belief systems and personal magical practices—like using ravens instead of owls, for example. (Perhaps this would blur the line between who can use/access magic and who can’t—after all, is every native medicine man or shaman a witch or wizard?)
Having visited this area, I can tell you I’ve never seen greener leaves anywhere in my life. The thick forests would be a great place to study herbology using indigenous plant life, and undoubtedly house at least a few magical creatures to be studied in their natural habitats. I wouldn’t be surprised if the students of this school had the tendency to become nature conservators or [magical] animal activists. Perhaps part of the curriculum would be to study wand woods, and even fashion their own wand from local trees.
This region also encompasses wine country; fertile, sprawling vineyards everywhere. Could casking and aging a magical wine itself be considered a branch of potioneering? Can wine be magical? (For example, what distinguishes the distilling of firewhiskey from that of regular whiskey? Is it a magical element?) Perhaps vintners are considered master potioneers/concocters in their own right.
Being the last states to join the Union, Hawaii and Alaska had the longest time to construct and practice their native cultural traditions. Their large populations of native peoples already base much of their beliefs in mystical lure, and surely the residents approach their magic the same way. (Do Hawaiians wax their wands the way they wax their longboards?)
Magical people living in Hawaii or Alaska would have a more limited ability to get the kind of supplies that the mainland has so readily available, and the climates are so distinct that the difference in wildlife and vegetation are bound to have adjusted how certain potions are made or how transfiguration affects an elk or a sea lion as opposed to a deer or a cow. Maybe Alaskans (particularly natives) know the secret to making an amazing frostbite-repelling salve out of seal blubber. Both Alaskans and Hawaiians would have evolved the most efficient magical means to fish and would definitely conjure the best, most powerful fires!
This is the opinion of one fan, but I would love to hear any divergent opinions, or any ideas that build on what I’ve written here. Feel free to reach me on Twitter or at firstname.lastname@example.org.