Did Umbridge Have a Point: Punishment and Safety (Conclusion)
Umbridge is the character we love to hate. She is most readers’ most hated character, with her subtle brand of cruelty far outshining Voldemort’s classic villainy. And we love rooting against her in Order of the Phoenix, when she takes over the running of Hogwarts from Dumbledore.
However, does Dumbledore do such a great job at running the school? Sure, we’re told he’s the greatest Headmaster the school’s ever known. But looking at some of the things Umbridge did while in power… while they were done horribly, she may have had one or two good ideas.
Educational Decree No. 25
“The High Inquisitor will henceforth have supreme authority over all punishments, sanctions, and removal of privileges pertaining to the students of Hogwarts and the power to alter such punishments, sanctions, and removals of privileges as may have been ordered by other staff members” (OotP 416).
The above is Educational Decree No. 25, which Umbridge used to ban Harry and the Weasley twins from playing Quidditch. This is an awful thing to do, and we see it as Umbridge’s attempt to undermine the teachers of Hogwarts. However, looking at the disciplinary record at Hogwarts, perhaps having somebody in charge of discipline isn’t a bad idea (as long as that person isn’t Umbridge).
The idea of having every single teacher dole out discipline as he or she sees fit is an incredibly flawed system, a problem that is compounded tenfold when considering the professors of Hogwarts. Most of the professors are either partisan when it comes to houses, or they just have favorites.
The best example is Snape, who delights in punishing Gryffindors and turns a blind eye toward Slytherin’s faults. The examples are plentiful, and listing them all would be redundant. But in Prisoner of Azkaban, the double standard is displayed clearly for all to see.
“Malfoy didn’t reappear in classes until […] halfway through double Potions. […] ‘Settle down, settle down,’ said Professor Snape idly. Harry and Ron scowled at each other; Snape wouldn’t have said ‘settle down’ if they’d walked in late; he’d have given them detention” (PoA 123).
“‘This lesson began ten minutes ago, Potter, so I think we’ll make it ten points from Gryffindor. Sit down.” (PoA 170).
Here it is plain to see that two students commit a similar offense (or arguably, Malfoy’s is more severe since he arrives halfway through the class instead of a little late). Yet, Snape docks Harry an unreasonable amount of points and ignores Draco’s transgressions.
Of course, as an aside, the entire point system is ridiculously arbitrary. Lupin gives the Gryffindors a total of fifty points for tackling a boggart (PoA 139). Snape regularly threatens to take fifty points from Gryffindors. McGonagall docks fifty points each from Harry, Hermione, and Neville for wandering around late at night (SS 244). There needs to be an accepted standard for awarding and deducting points (minus five for lateness, plus five for a correct question, etc.). Is it any wonder that Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs are always the bottom two in terms of house points when they had the misfortune to have professors treat them fairly?
McGonagall is just as culpable as Snape when it comes to favoritism – she just hides it better. The most blatant example is how Harry got onto the Quidditch team. Madam Hooch informs her flying class that they are not to fly as she escorts Neville to the hospital wing. Harry disobeys her and is seen by McGonagall. McGonagall decides to recruit him for the Gryffindor Quidditch team, disregarding the fact that first years are not allowed to play. She “speak[s] to Professor Dumbledore [to] see if we can’t bend the first-year rule” (SS 152).
As Hermione so eloquently puts it, this is “a reward for breaking rules” (SS 166). And what kind of message does this send to the student body? Other than the reward-for-rule-breaking aspect of it, there are a thousand ways in which this is unfair. It is unfair to Harry’s classmates, who obeyed the rules and didn’t get rewarded for it. It is unfair to the other houses, who might have brilliant players among their freshman classes as well but are not allowed to play them. It is also unfair to the older students in Gryffindor House, many of whom probably were hoping to join the team and most of whom likely never got the chance to play (since the team is all third years and under except Oliver Wood, that means that the entire team graduated in 1991 or 1990, and the students graduating between 1992 and 1995 are now out of luck).
In short, just about everyone in Hogwarts is gypped in order for Harry to play Quidditch his first year. And my question is, would it really have been so terrible if Harry had to wait another year to join the team like everyone else? He would still have had six potential years of playing Seeker that way.
And then there is the matter of detentions. When they are assigned (justly or unjustly, as the case may be), these detentions are quite a mixed bag. Detentions like answering Lockhart’s fanmail are the most sensible because they are both punitive and productive (Harry may not have viewed it as such, but fanmail does need to be answered!). The most popular detentions seem to be cleaning ones – scrubbing bedpans or shining trophies. These are effective as a punishment, though they are not as efficient as a simple Cleaning Spell would have been. (I suppose they do at least compensate for Filch’s lack of efficiency since he’s a Squib and has to clean without magic.)
However, a few of the detentions toe a fine line between punishment and torture – and Umbridge’s detentions leap across that line. She tortures students by having them write lines in their own blood, etching messages into their skin. Were someone else in charge of discipline, this would never have been allowed to go on as it did.
But at least everyone acknowledges that such brutality is out of the ordinary even by Hogwarts’s standards. But a detention that people at Hogwarts seem to find extremely ordinary – “that’s how it is at Hogwarts” (SS 250) – is even more shocking. I am referring, of course, to the punishment in Sorcerer’s Stone Chapter 15: “The Forbidden Forest.”
After the hullabaloo with Norbert is over with, McGonagall has caught Harry, Hermione, Draco, and Neville wandering around at night. And this is the punishment prescribed: The four eleven-year-old kids will venture into the Forbidden Forest at night to look for what has been killing the unicorns, with Hagrid and Fang for company.
The absurdity of this is almost hard to contemplate. Sure, fear can be a powerful tool, but sending kids into the forest at night (why not daytime?), when the forest is teeming with every monstrosity known to wizardkind, seems downright dangerous. Add in the fact that their only protection lies in a cowardly dog and Hagrid, who is not the brightest guardian they could ask for. And finally, that they are searching for something powerful and evil enough to kill unicorns, and this suddenly looks more like student slaughter than detention.
Just when you think the situation cannot possibly be worse, it naturally gets worse. Hagrid has the brilliant idea of splitting up into two groups, which results in two eleven-year-olds wandering the forest alone at night, with only a dog for company. If things are done like that at Hogwarts, I think I’d rather go to Beauxbatons, thank you very much.
And the cherry on top is that the two eleven-year-olds in question, at first, are Draco Malfoy and Neville Longbottom. Any teachers who have paid the slightest attention know that Draco is a bully and Neville is one of his favorite targets. So the idea of two eleven-year-olds going into the forest alone, where one is a bully and the other is his victim, is nothing short of preposterous. Things like this should not be permitted to happen.
In all of the schools I attended, there was always a dean (or several) in charge of discipline. Whenever a student misbehaved, that student was sent to the dean and admonished accordingly. The whole point of these deans was their impartiality – not teaching classes of their own, they do not have existing favorites among the student body.
I suppose the Heads of House thing is intended as an imitation of that, though it is more of a mockery. The Heads of House are often biased toward their own house and having all the students in their classes, have their favorites already (especially considering how partisan Hogwarts professors are). But if all the professors have the opportunity to punish students, and to choose these punishments at their discretion, you get abuses of power like the ones present in the series. And while Umbridge is the last person anyone would want in charge of discipline, the idea of having one person in charge is a good one.
Security at Hogwarts
Dolores Umbridge’s regime at Hogwarts was characterized by the restriction of student freedom above all else. This is most keenly felt when she cuts off Harry’s methods of communicating with Sirius – she monitors the Floo network and goes through everyone’s mail. However, in this case as in many others, I believe she had the right idea and just executed it awfully.
Security at Hogwarts is, quite frankly, abysmal. For all the alleged protective enchantments (anti-Apparating Charms, etc.), the students don’t seem particularly safe. This is perhaps best exemplified by Chapter 14 of Sorcerer’s Stone, “Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback.” The trio hatches a plan to get rid of Hagrid’s new pet dragon, and it goes something like this.
“[Charlie’s friends] mustn’t be seen carrying an illegal dragon. [Harry and Hermione will] get the Ridgeback up the tallest tower at midnight on Saturday. [Charlie’s friends] can meet [Harry and Hermione] there and take [Norbert] away while it’s still dark.” (SS 237)
This is all terribly exciting and clever from an eleven-year-old point of view. But looking at it from a more adult point of view, this is appalling. Let’s disregard the fact that two eleven-year-olds are carrying an illicit dragon through the school – we can assume that situation is not one that’s planned for. Apparently at this point in the series, the enchantments that stop people from flying into Hogwarts are not yet in place, which means people can just fly into the school willy-nilly. (I assume the enchantments were put up in light of the Quirrell and Chamber of Secrets situations since they are in place by Prisoner of Azkaban).
The plan that the trio enacts goes something like this: two eleven-year-olds meet up with a group of adult men they’ve never met, in the middle of the night alone on a tower, to smuggle illicit goods out of the school. Am I the only one who sees something terribly wrong with this picture? It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this could end very badly indeed.
Everyone is horrified when Umbridge almost catches Sirius in the Gryffindor common room fire (OotP 372). Some months later, a “Floo Network regulator is keeping watch over every fire in Hogwarts — except [Umbridge’s], of course” (OotP 631). This is seen as a gross overstepping of bounds, this monitoring of the Floo Network.
But is it really? Having anyone who so pleases just Flooing into a school seems rather dangerous. Looking at the situation from an outside perspective, no one knows Sirius is innocent at this point. So to an outsider, a grown man who is a known mass murderer is teleporting into a school. Again, one does not need much imagination to think of horrible things that could result from such an event.
I’m aware that Sirius does not actually get into Hogwarts, only his head pops in for a chat. But if his head can get into Hogwarts, so can the rest of him. Even if Sirius was known to be innocent, having adults getting into the school undetected is a huge security risk. Be it by air or by fire, the people getting into Hogwarts should be closely monitored.
Umbridge goes one step farther and actually monitors everything going in and out of Hogwarts – namely, the mail. The “Inquisitorial Squad is opening and reading all owl post entering and leaving the castle” (OotP 631). Of course, the execution here is dreadful – the idea of certain students (let alone the Slytherins) reading other students’ mail is reprehensible. That is a violation of privacy, and in any event, it’s a bad idea to have students responsible for enforcing security.
But screening mail is a necessity, considering the kinds of stuff people are capable of sending in the wizarding world. For example, Hermione never should have gotten envelopes of bubotuber pus delivered to her in Goblet of Fire (541) – it’s dangerous.
In fact, even Dumbledore sees the merits of this because he keeps a diluted form of this security measure when he is restored to Hogwarts the following year. “[A]ll the owls were being searched” (HBP 306). Everyone is at liberty to write whatever they please, but no Dark artifacts are allowed into the school, which makes sense (love potions notwithstanding).
We hate Umbridge when she says, “All channels of communication in and out of this school are being monitored” (OotP 631). And indeed, she goes several steps too far. However, it should be noted that Year 5 is the only one where no unwelcome guests manage to infiltrate Hogwarts (the ones who did are Voldemort on Quirrell’s head, Voldemort in a diary, Sirius and Peter Pettigrew, Barty Crouch, Jr., Draco’s Death Eater goons, and lastly, Voldemort and his army). Book 5 is also the only book whose climax does not take place at Hogwarts.
So say what you will about Umbridge’s tyranny, but she made the school far more secure than Dumbledore ever did. Alas, she was so evil that staying in Hogwarts became just as dangerous in a different way due to internal foes.
Having spent a series of essays looking at how things are run at Hogwarts, I have determined that “things at Hogwarts are far worse than I feared” (OotP film). The teachers are substandard, the security appalling, the discipline erratic… it’s just one big mess.
To be clear, I am not advocating for Umbridge. I love to hate her, and she is clearly horrible. I am just saying that some of her ideas, guided though they were by corrupt motives, do have some merit. The only problem is that Umbridge’s implementation of these good ideas was still a bad thing because they put Umbridge in charge of everything, which can only be considered a step backward. But if objective outsiders assumed the roles Umbridge had in Order of the Phoenix, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Of course, this does not go for all of Umbridge’s schemes. The disbandment of clubs and teams is a dreadful idea, as is forbidding teachers from talking to students about topics other than their subject. This is why the school is better off once most of her measures are repealed.
Still, if Dumbledore is “the greatest headmaster Hogwarts ever had” (SS58), I shudder to think what the school must have been like under his predecessors. So Umbridge did have a good point or two, after all.