Is Sorting Students a Flawed System?
A question put to the users of MuggleNet is whether the Sorting process is inherently flawed. To look at this question, we must consider the drawbacks and the influences that Sorting has upon the young witches and wizards of Hogwarts, looking at examples of those who have either flourished (for good or for evil) or struggled in the environment the Sorting provided them.
Firstly, we must consider how Sorting works. The Sorting Hat – usually in the space of under a minute – picks out one quality which it perceives to be more important than the rest in an individual, and puts that child with other young people of a similar calibre. People in Hufflepuff could be brave or academically able, for example, but the Sorting Hat would see the individual’s kindness, loyalty or tolerance (qualities it determines as inherently ‘Hufflepuff’) as more significant than these other traits, and would therefore put them in Hufflepuff. This seems a rash way to judge people; asking if this process is inherently flawed means questioning the morality of judging people’s personalities a) in such a short space of time; b) under fairly flimsy specifications; and c) without taking into account other traits they may have. Phineas Nigellus, for example, points out that “We Slytherins are brave, yes, but not stupid” (page 437, Order of the Phoenix), when bravery is generally considered to be the domain of Gryffindor.
There are certain positive influences to be had upon a young person when putting them in one group of people, based on their personality. Imagine the boost an eleven-year-old must get, for example, when they are put in Ravenclaw and told that they are of an above-average intelligence. For a young person, who may have been taken away from an entirely familiar Muggle world and thrown into a completely new environment, to be told that it is an intrinsic part of their personality to excel, this must be a wonderful thing to hear. Similarly, for members of the other houses too, to be told they are cunning or brave or kind would be a lovely start to a new life. We must also consider how much better it is, surely, to learn in one’s formative years to base one’s opinions of people upon the traits of their personality rather than, for instance, their appearance. We should note, too, that when young people are brought together under their personalities rather than looks, we never once observe racism of the Muggle kind (white supremacy) within the walls of Hogwarts. Dean Thomas, Blaise Zabini, the Patil twins, Cho Chang, and others, never once are shunned because they are not white, whereas in Muggle schools, particularly in more rural areas, non-white people are noticed and sometimes ostracised. All these young witches and wizards standing together under the very positive attributes of intelligence, or courage, or tolerance, regardless of race or age or gender, seems to engender a team spirit in the community of young people which embraces all.
Questioning the Positives
However, three things must firstly be considered when speaking of the positivity of treating personality as more important than pretence or looks. Firstly, the Sorting simplifies people’s personalities and whittles them down to three or four core traits, to which these young people are expected to live up to. If you are in Gryffindor, you are brave and noble, and that’s about it. If you are in Ravenclaw, you are smart. The first thing noticed about students is the house in which they belong; for example, when looking at Harry’s N.E.W.T. Potions class, the only thing noted about the students there is that “four Slytherins had made it through, including Malfoy [and] four Ravenclaws were there, and one Hufflepuff” (page 173, Half-Blood Prince). Considering Harry’s internal naration here, students clearly seem to treat one another’s Houses to be of the utmost importance, which, whilst not hindering inter-House relations for the most part, still means that they become used to seeing people as a part of one particular personality group, rather than as individuals.
Secondly, the Sorting does not actually make students any less prone to judging each other based on their looks: observe the behavior of one Ron Weasley when he must pick a date for the Yule Ball: he tells Harry he’ll “take the best-looking girl who’ll have [him], even if she’s completely horrible” (page 344, Goblet of Fire). However, the Sorting Hat cannot necessarily be penalised for this; it is human nature to judge upon appearance, however much we may insist we don’t, and the Sorting Hat can’t exactly be blamed for not stopping people from doing this. Moreover, Ron’s pickiness seems to be mostly unique to him; many other students pick their classmates without too much concern, and seem to enjoy themselves at the Yule Ball with one another. Of course, Padma Patil “[doesn’t] look too enthusiastic about having Ron as a partner” on page 359 of Goblet of Fire but that’s likely due to him being a poor date rather than the fact that he’s a Gryffindor.
Lastly, we must pay attention to this: all social groups break down. This is a fact. People break off into friendship groups, based on age or gender or mental capacity, or sometimes race (in the wizarding world, purity of blood). One could argue that all the Sorting Hat does is speed up the process, and that by entering a particular House the individual is introduced into a ready-made friendship group: a group of people willing to accept them for just being a part of the House, and people with whom they will have to learn to get along even if they don’t immediately want to, due to the sheer amount of time they will be obliged to spend together. The Houses, it could be argued, still spend a lot of time with one another; they have to work together in classes, spend free periods together in the grounds and library, and eat together in the Great Hall. Of course, there are separate common rooms and dormitories, and when they eat they do so at separate tables, but it is not difficult to interact with the members of other Houses, and there are no rules saying the students cannot. But this is a matter of choice; again, notice how freely Harry, Ron and Hermione interact with the Hufflepuffs in Herbology or the Ravenclaws in the DA, and how reluctant the Slytherins are to accept anyone who isn’t in their own House. In the end, not every student will get on with every other student, and although the Sorting doesn’t necessarily help things, you can’t stop social groups from creating boundaries and alliances – whether this is based on appearance, age, intelligence or House.
The Problem of Slytherin
However, it is also highly relevant, considering the specifications of one of the Houses – (and you all know which one I mean) – to question whether the exchange of one brand of discrimination for another is a gain at all. Slytherin prides above all else purity of blood. Yet, with two hundred Slytherins in the school at a time, and pure bloods occupying only a small portion of the wizarding community at large, it is unlikely that every single one is completely pure-blood; most are probably half-bloods with more wizarding heritage than normal. Slytherine thus teaches its students to loathe and look down upon people who are Muggle-born or have significant Muggle heritage, and encourages this attitude for seven years. To have just one figure in a young person’s life who actively encourages intolerance or hatred can exercise a massive effect upon a young person; to have two hundred of these, including teachers to whom they are supposed to look for guidance, must create a racism against Muggle-borns that eventually gets embedded so far into their personalities that it can never quite be eradicated.
Not only does Slytherin teach its students to place purity of blood above all other personal attributes, but it seems to enjoy setting these students apart from the rest, teaching them to dislike and scorn those who do not have the ‘privilege’ to be a part of the house. We see, time and time again, how Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw can put aside their differences to come together (in Quidditch, during the Triwizard Tournament, during the Battle of Hogwarts: notice how in the Hogwarts Resistance “the silver and green of Slytherin alone were absent” (page 465, Deathly Hallows), indicating that Slytherins wanted no affiliation with the other Houses – and how, if they did, they seem too ashamed to admit this); Harry forges friendships with people from Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, such as Luna Lovegood and Ernie Macmillan, readily, and romance between Gryffindors and people from these two Houses are frequent too: notice Neville (Gryffindor) and Hannah Abbott’s (Hufflepuff) marriage; Percy (Gryffindor) and Penelope Clearwater’s (Ravenclaw) long relationship; Harry (Gryffindor, of course) and Cho Chang’s (Ravenclaw) brief affair; Ginny (Gryffindor) and Michael Corner’s (Ravenclaw) dalliance. And yet no bonds, either of friendship or romance, are known to have been forged with members of Slytherin – there are at least none that Harry can see. How can Sorting young people, whose minds and ideologies are so malleable, and then teaching them to hate those dissimilar to them really be justified in the eyes of the wizarding community?
Preconceived Notions about the Houses
Moving away from the issue of accepting people for their personality rather than superficial things, there are other issues we must discuss before deciding whether or not the Sorting is, indeed, “inherently flawed”.
We must look at the impact being Sorted has on the individual and on wider society. We have already highlighted how comforting the familiar can be; to be welcomed into a House full of people similar to yourself must be deeply reassuring for an eleven-year-old. However, with this comfort comes a pressure: to live up to the expectations of that House. A Gryffindor, for example, who shies away from danger could be mocked, or have their position in that House questioned. We see Malfoy torment Neville with the idea that he’s “not brave enough to be in Gryffindor” (page 160, Philosopher’s Stone). Clearly this is, at times, a mode of bullying which students at hogwarts may exploit to cause harm. Although there may not be a lot of ammunition with which to bully a Hufflepuff, it’s not hard to imagine that a Ravenclaw who does poorly in exams without a very good reason would be under an enormous amount of pressure to rectify their academic failure. Ravenclaw Tower even goes to the extent of locking people out of the common room if they’re not clever enough to solve riddles: not a big deal for a first or second-year, perhaps, but surely mortifying for a N.E.W.T. student. Being put into particular Houses creates particular expectations of the individual, even if their own unique traits are accepted. Luna Lovegood, for example, has her things stolen and hidden because she does not adhere to the especial brand of rational intelligence which Ravenclaw demands. Although one could argue that her quirkiness would have been condemned regardless of the House in which she was put, being placed in a House full of people who are supposed to be highly intelligent would have made people believe she should be intelligent in a ‘Ravenclaw’ way – that is, academically brilliant, rather than astute and open-minded. Moreover, Hufflepuffs, who as we all know are generally viewed as mediocre, could be the target of some dismissive discrimination, considering people don’t expect them to be especially worth their time as they are neither courageous, cunning nor intelligent.
However, this low-level bullying (for although it is certainly present, we do not see an awful lot of it during Harry’s time at Hogwarts. This general expectation of people, whilst undoubtedly irritating and on rare occasions spiteful, is in a student society where bravery, kindness and intelligence are considered to be very positive things to be. Creating students who believe that the more daring someone is, or the more academic or loyal, the ‘better’ a person they are is an endeavour which encourages people to look for admirable traits in a person, rather than simply believing that superficial things such as appearance or purity of blood are important. Slytherin, of course, regards purity of blood as the most important thing, which should definitely be questioned.
Preconceived expectations of an individual would also be relevant in Slytherin. A Slytherin who does not openly condemn Muggle-borns and racial diversity could be encouraged to do so, or at least be desensitised to believe it is alright, considering how they grow up in an environment which promotes racism so vigorously. Whilst in Gryffindor it would be considered abhorrent to be racist against, say, Hermione, in Slytherin this seems almost compulsory. A student would surely parrot these views of the House rather than suffer seven years of their peers treating them as an outsider.
There are an immense number of factors to take into account when considering the Sorting process, and whether it’s appropriate for society and the average student of Hogwarts, and I personally think that most of the minor issues could be tolerated if only Slytherin’s lenience of such awful racism could be diminished. All opinions should be considered important, because we need schools which teach us how to look at all views and opinions, but racism shouldn’t be a foundation for social and academic learning; and the Sorting Hat is, essentially, the cause of such intolerance. Therefore, although I don’t believe Sorting is “inherently” a bad thing, there are some attitudes which have developed seemingly because of it that McGonagall should definitely take under review.