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What Fantastic Beasts tells us about educational opportunity

  • Joanna
  • November 28, 2016

There’s a lovely moment tucked into J.K. Rowling’s universe-expanding Harry Potter spin-off, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” that anyone involved in a school rivalry is sure to appreciate.

As the breakneck plot slows for a bit of world-connecting backstory, two heroes on the same side of a battle, but from opposite ends of “the pond,” find themselves tussling over whose magical alma mater is better.

“Ilvermorny!” Queenie Goldstein proclaims of the American school from which she graduated. “It’s only the best wizarding school in the whole world!”

“I think you’ll find,” Newt Scamander replies in defense of the British boarding school he attended, “that the best wizarding school in the world is Hogwarts!”

“Hogwash!” Queenie answers.

What moviegoers might miss in the exchange — and what makes this a tragic scene, rather than a simply amusing one — is how it starts. War veteran Jacob Kowalski, a non-magical cannery worker who had just been turned down for a bank loan for a bakery he wishes to open, had gotten a glimpse of the wizarding world and is trying to better understand his place within it.

“Is there a school?” he asks. “A wizardry school here in America?”

In their rush to extol the greatness of their respective educational institutions, Queenie and Newt don’t seem to even notice the subtext of Jacob’s question. He clearly wants to know if there’s a chance that he could attend.

He couldn’t, of course. In the Harry Potter universe, like our own, educational opportunity is overwhelmingly concentrated among those who are privileged enough to be able to take advantage of it when they are children and young adults.

And those who catch a glimpse later in life? Military veterans? Blue-collar laborers? Entrepreneurial dreamers? Those who simply aren’t born with an innate gift that is recognized and nurtured early on? The problem is not just that their desire to get a foot in the educational door is considered absurd by those who are already inside.

The problem is that it’s not even considered.

Slowly — much too slowly — our nation is coming to recognize the insufficiency of a public education and job training system that provides the bulk of its rewards to those who are in a position to take advantage early on. Legislation like the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act embraces the reality that not everyone is born into the same magical circumstances that promote early literacy, K-12 success, post-secondary opportunities, and the development of the sorts of social-emotional skills that lead to better life outcomes.

The key now is breaking down the barriers that are still keeping the Jacob Kowalskis of our world on the outside looking in.

That means ensuring lifelong access to a high school education for those who were pushed off track as children. 

It means providing accessible job training opportunities to those who wish to build a meaningful path to a stable career.

It means doing everything we can to support individuals who have the audacity to dream about improving their lives.

It means destroying the notion that only those who are gifted, in some significant way, should be able access opportunity.

And that all starts by recognizing that no one — absolutely no one — should be excluded or ignored, no matter what world they might have come from.