Literary Merit and Harry Potter
From Londonhua WIKI
Literary Merit and Harry Potter
Photo Attributed to Dave Catchpole via flickr
The aim of this project was to determine why Harry Potter is not generally considered to have literary merit and if it has a place being taught in schools. I have no previous experience in education or in determining literary merit. I had previously viewed literary merit as something a book either has or doesn't have. Literary merit is more of a scale that depends on many factors and is subjected to a lot of bias. Some of those biases include the books popularity and target audience. Looking at the Common Core standards for English I determined that Harry Potter would fit well into either a third or fourth grade curriculum.
The purpose of this project was to determine why Harry Potter is not generally considered to have literary merit. It also goes why Harry Potter should be taught in schools and what aspects of the books should be focused on. I found that literary merit is not absolute and is subjected to a lot of bias. Time is an important factor in determining literary merit because it will filter out works that got attention due to bias. Popularity and target audience can have an effect on whether or not people think a work has literary merit. The literary merit of Harry Potter is debated because of its target audience and instant popularity. Harry Potter does fit into a third or south grade curriculum. There has been a lot of research done on how reading Harry Potter effects both children and adults but limited work has been done in teaching it in the United States. I have had no previous experience with teaching or literary merit so strategies for completing this project where completely new to me.
Section 1: Background
Most people have an understanding of what literary merit means; However, there is no solid definition of what gives a work literary merit. Part of what makes literary merit so hard to understand is that it cannot be judged on an absolute scale. A work can relatively have more merit than another, however there is no standard on judging merit between books. This means that how someone would rank literary merit depends on their background and what they personally deem important. 
There is still some consensus that certain works, like Shakespeare's plays, do have a high amount of literary merit while others, such as something written by a third grader, do not. Three of the factors that affect how people perceive a work's literary merit are how long it's been discussed, how popular it is, and its target audience. Time is one of the most significant factors into determining literary merit. Any work that can last over an extended period of time and still be discussed has its quality slowly proven. Having a work last over time means that it did not become discussed solely due to a particular time periods tastes and filters out judgement that do not have to do with the works quality. 
Despite the modern day definition of popular being a positive attribute, it carries a negative connotation when it is applied to a literary work. When a work is considered to have literary merit it is also considered to be more high class. Since popular was originally used to describe common people as opposed to the aristocracy, it is considered to be of a low class and therefore cannot possess enough artistic credibility to have literary merit. 
Like popularity, target audience of a work can have a perceived effect on how much artistic credibility has independently from the quality of the work. This is most apparent in children's literature. modern day society tends to view children as inept and shallow, causing any books written for children to not be taken seriously. Additionally, many children's book series tend to be mass produced, such as Nancy Drew, which also contributes to the sentiment of children's literature lacking in depth and artistic credibility. 
The academic canon is a collection of literature that have enough value to be taught in schools. There is a lot of controversy regarding canon and what should be included. Some literary specialist feel that the canon is to narrow and exclusive well others fear that the criteria are too broad. Those who support opening the canon to new works feel that having the canon devalues works not included and that the current canon does not include enough diversity and should include more minority authors, such as women and people of different ethnicities.  Those against opening the canon feel that bring in new works would devalue the ones currently included and that the current criteria of including works that are held in discussion over a long period of time and are held in esteem is open enough despite the current lack of diversity.
Based on the previous section about what is generally considered to have literary merit, some of the reasons why Harry Potter might not be considered to have literary merit are its target audience and its immediate popularity. Harry Potter was written for children, which means that scholars do not take it as seriously as other works. Additionally the fact that a lot of young children do read Harry Potter makes it unappealing towards older audiences. Overall it is considered to be to childish to have literary merit. It's immediate popularity also contributed to its apparent lack of literary merit.  Neither target audience nor popularity truly has an effect on a works literary merit. J.R.R. Tolkien and Dickens both wrote for children and their work have lasted and are considered to have literary merit despite their target audience. The Lord of the Rings was immediately popular like Harry Potter and still get attention from scholars and had merit. 
Harry Potter does have a lot of value in the themes it covers and what it teaches. Seeing Harry, a child like them, gives children a sense of power over their world increasing their confidence. Harry Potter is much larger than most children's books giving them a sense of accomplishment when they can finish it. The characters are presented as humans who make mistakes making them easy for children and adults to relate to despite the fact that they can use magic. Children can learn morals by living vicariously through Harry while reading the book as he comes up with his own moral challenges. Even for older audiences the book has lessons about self-reliance, perseverance, self-discipline, reason, empathy, and accepting diversity.  The themes about growing up, dealing with life's uncertainties and belonging to a collective desire resonate strongly with children. The book is able to present topics like good verse evil in a way that children can understand the world is not black and white along with covering topics like personal and collective responsibility. Harry Potter teaches a lot of the same strength and perseverance as darker books such as Mans Search for Meaning but does so in a much gentler manner making it easier for someone with depression who might need those messages. 
The goals of the current Common Core English standard are to heave students demonstrate independence, be able to build context knowledge, respond to varying demands, comprehend and critique different forms of writing, value evidence, use technology, and understand a variety of perspectives and culture. These goals are supposed to promote overall college readiness by the time the students graduate. The English standards are broken up into four sections: Reading, Writing, Listening and speaking, and Language. The reading standard is then further broken down into Key ideas they should understand, understanding craft and structure, integration of knowledge and ideas, and reading complexity. At a third grade level for literature, for key ideas, students should be able to understand are the ability to ask and answer questions based on the text, retell the story and be able to identity main theme and lessons and explain how it is conveyed, and Describe characters, their motivations, and how their actions contribute to the sequence of events. For craft and Structure, they should be able to distinguish literal and non-literal text, be able to identify different parts of the text, such as different chapters in a book, and distinguish their point of view from the narrator. For integration of knowledge and ideas the students should be able to Explain how different aspects of the text contribute to what is being conveyed, and compare and contrast themes, settings, and other aspects between books written with the same author about the same characters. For reading complexity students should be able to read grade 2-3 text complexity independently.
Section 2: Deliverable
Since I feel that Harry Potter does have literary worth in my background, for this section I analyzed the current standards for English also described in the background to see if Harry Potter could fit into a school curriculum and what aspects of the book would be taught.
How Harry Potter Fits into Education
Looking at the standards for English, Harry Potter would best fit into a third or fourth grade curricula. The characters in Harry Potter are very easy to relate to so students would have a easier time of learning how to describe the character's motivations and the consequences of there actions. There are many themes for the children to analysis, such as good versus evil and doing what is right over what is easy. The themes are presented in a way that is easy to understand at a more complex level so the students would be able to identify the different themes and lessons. Learning criteria such as asking questions, identifying different parts of the book, distinguishing their point of view, and explaining how different aspects of the text contribute to mood can be done with almost any book. Harry Potter is a series so by reading the first two books students would be able to compare and contrast themes between two books with the same author. Harry Potter is slightly above the grade 2-3 text complexity required by third graders, however, Harry Potter tends to appeal to children more the other books and was intended for that age group so they should be able to handle it. The standards are set as a minimum requirement Harry Potter could be used to encourage students to achieve more than the baseline. If not, it fits the fourth grade criteria as well.
What Aspects of Harry Potter to Focus on
Harry Potter and the Philosophers stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of secrets should be taught at either a third or fourth grade level. The focus should be on recurrent themes such as accepting diversity, and trying to do what is right. These themes show up in the Philosophers stone when Harry Ron and Hermione have to use their varying skill sets to overcome different obstacles, trying to get to the stone and in school work, that they would not have been able to do alone. Doing what's right can be studied when Ron and Harry rescue Hermione from the troll, when Neville tries to stop them from going after the stone, and Harry's determination to protect the stone from Voldemort. There are similar themes in the Chamber of secrets. They use teamwork to discover what is harming the students and aim to protect everyone regardless of their birth status. Harry's dark skill of being able to speak parseltongue ends up being essential to finding the chamber of secrets. Additionally, since the students need to learn Latin prefixes they can study some of the Latin in the spells. In the fourth grade Charlotte's Web is taught by giving questions on the important aspects of each chapter. Harry Potter could be taught in a similar manner to ensure understanding despite it being slightly more complex than their other books
Most people know what literary Merit is, but the conditions a work must reach to have literary merit are vague a subjected to a lot of bias and judgement. Three factors that can affect how the merit of a work is perceived are time, popularity, and target audience. The longer a work can be discussed by scholars after it has been published, the more merit it has. If a book is instantly popular it is perceived to have less merit due to the negative connotations associated with literature being popular. Target audience can affect how a book is perceived due to how the audience is judged. In the case of children's literature, books can be taken un-seriously due to the fact that children are viewed as shallow. Harry Potter was both instantly popular and is aimed at children, casing a perceived lack of literary merit. However, Harry Potter does have a large themes and a lot of complexity. It has a lot of valuable lessons for children and can boost their confidence. It can even be useful to adults who need since it covers themes of strength an perseverance in a way still relatable to adults but in a much gentler fashion than most adult books. Harry Potter does fit within a third or fourth grade curriculum. Students would be able to study themes such as valuing diversity and moral obligation. Further research could be done on why Harry Potter got so popular as resonates so well with both children and adults
- Graves, C. (1928). Measuring Literary Merit. The English Journal, 17(4), 328-331. doi:10.2307/804038
- Graves, C. (1928). Measuring Literary Merit. The English Journal, 17(4), 328-331. doi:10.2307/804038
- Anderson, E. (2001). Defining the Canon. PMLA, 116(5), 1442-1443. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.wpi.edu/stable/463548
- Bridge, D. (2014). The Greatest Epic of the Twenty-first Century? In Elliott A. (Ed.), The Return of the Epic Film: Genre, Aesthetics and History in the 21st Century (pp. 188-200). Edinburgh University Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.wpi.edu/stable/10.3366/j.ctt9qdr2s.15Copy
- Common core state standards for English language arts (pp. 98-103). (2012). Madison, WI: Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction.
- Archipelago, W. (n.d.). HARPERCOLLINS CHILDREN'S. Retrieved June 21, 2017, from http://www.readcommoncore.com/book/paperback/charlottes-web/9780064400558