A Lesson from Prof. McGonagall

Published October 4, 2013 by A. Featherquill

Professor McGonagall on blowing up the Covered Bridge:

Neville: Let me get this straight, Professor. You’re actually giving us permission to do this?
Prof.McGonagall: Yes, Longbottom.
Neville: Blow it up? Boom?
Prof.McGonagall: BOOM!
Neville: Wicked. But how on earth are we gonna do that?
Prof.McGonagall: Why don’t you confer with Mr. Finnigan? As I recall, he has a particular proclivity for pyrotechnics.
Seamus: I can bring it down!
Prof.McGonagall: That’s the spirit. Now off you go.

Hogwarts must be having a celebration today to remember the birthday of its former headmistress, professor, and student, Minerva McGonagall. To share in this joyous event, I will devote this post to discuss what I find admirable in Professor McGonagall.

In the series, we have seen her as a strict but well-loved professor who is brave enough to protect her students against danger and to stand up for her ideals even against authorities. Her wisdom and magical ability coupled with bravery make Prof. McGonagall a truly powerful witch, a great mentor, a reliable ally and a tough enemy.

When Harry first saw her, he had the impression that she was not someone to cross. Indeed, Harry was right. Prof. McGonagall practiced discipline and would not tolerate stupidity, foolishness, and reckless rule-breaking. She would not hesitate to deduct house points from Gryffindor when her students merited it. This manner earned her the respect not only of her students but also of her colleagues.

Among all the professors, McGonagall may be the best in enforcing laws because she understands well the essence of the rules implemented in Hogwarts. Thus, she knows when to enforce the rules and when to bend them. This attitude will be the highlight of my discussion today.

Often, people are caught between two poles – the daring ones may have the tendency to break the law even when the occasion calls one to follow it while the goody-goody group may end up following rules by the book even when it’s already necessary to break them.

I have to admit that judging when to follow and when to break rules may be tricky. One just has to learn as one matures.

While I believe that experience is still the best teacher, having role models, even fictional ones, does aid the learning process. For the issue at hand, I believe, we can learn from Prof. McGonagall.

Let me begin the analysis by providing examples of her strict enforcement of rules.

Once, when Ron and Harry came late to their Transfiguration class, she jokingly suggested transforming one of the two so that at least one of them can arrive in time for class. She may have often spared Harry and his friends from punishment during life-or-death situations but, in this particular case, there is no urgent threat happening. It may have been more beneficial for Harry and Ron if they have arrived in time for class and have been present for the whole period.

Another instance wherein she punished a foolish act is when Neville Longbottom wrote passwords on pieces of paper which later on got lost. The situation: Hogwarts administrators and staff, believing that Sirius Black is after Harry Potter, are doing everything to secure the school. It is reasonable for her to be alarmed that Neville, by writing down the passwords of the Gryffindor common room, unknowingly betrayed the security of the school. There is no rule saying students must not write down the passwords. However, the school is asking the cooperation of the students in the implementation of security. Neville’s loss of the pieces of paper went against the aim of the security measures. She might have wondered if writing them down was really the last solution available. Most likely, she had thought of other ideas for a solution. This could explain her irritation on Neville’s carelessness.

But, when Harry rode a broomstick without supervision in order to catch Neville’s Remembrall, McGonagall, instead of punishing the boy, recommended him to be Gryffindor’s new seeker. Analyzing the situation, Harry’s action had been motivated by care for Neville. Also, Harry hadn’t damaged anything. Given these facts and the more pressing need of Gryffindor to find a seeker, she has viewed the act as something dismissable.

When Dolores Umbridge, acting under the orders of the Ministry of Magic, tries to control almost all aspects of life at Hogwarts, McGonagall has repeatedly countered the officer. She defended Sybill Trelawney, stood her ground inside her class, and argued that Potter could still be an Auror. She once implied that Umbridge was not being a competent teacher and, in another occasion, openly voiced out her view that Umbridge’s style is “medieval”.

Again, she has attempted to dismiss rules, in particular that of the Triwizard Tournament, when Harry’s name suddenly came out of the goblet. She said, “To hell with Barty and his rules” and later on argued, “What? Offer him up as bait? Potter is a boy! Not a piece of meat.” Sure, the tournament’s rules have to be honored as it involves a contract between three wizarding schools. Yet McGonagall has given more importance on taking care of the welfare of Harry who seems to be a target of an evil plot.

Finally, during the Battle of Hogwarts, she ceased from enforcing measures to take care of the school grounds. In fact, she instructed Neville Longbottom and Seamus Finnigan, along with Cho Chang, to blast the Covered Bridge in order to prevent other attackers from getting further into the castle. The priority here, one can infer, is preventing greater damage and delaying the Dark Forces.

In all the scenes mentioned above, McGonagall’s character remains consistent. As I have argued earlier, she knows when to follow rules and when not to. Yet, the more important challenge is to define what guides McGonagall’s judgment, to dissect her criteria in making decisions, and, finally, to determine what rules are for her.

It seems to me that McGonagall takes the following into consideration:

1. The circumstances. Is it an ordinary day or do the times call for extra care or unusual measures? Is there an urgent issue that needs to be addressed?

Thus, she would scold late comers on a typical school day but will forgive them, even protect them, in life-and-death situations. It makes sense that in The Goblet of Fire she pleads to not let Harry compete in the Triwizard Tournament and in doing so challenges the rules of the game.

2. The nature of the rules. What are the rules in place? Are they reasonable? What values do these rules safeguard?

Seeing the flawed reasoning of Umbridge and the Ministry, she counters their efforts and protects those unfairly discriminated and punished by their unreasonable laws.

3. The motivation of the agent of action. What is the intention of the agent of action? Why did the person react that way?

Also, thinking that Ron and Harry only came to the aid of Hermione who thought of fighting the troll all by herself, she gives the two boys 5 points each but attributes the reward for “sheer dumb luck”. In this scene, we see her chastising her students but at the same time giving them due acknowledgement.

4. The action itself. Is it necessary? Did it solve any problem? Or did it only make matters worse?

I think this criterion is the reason why she scolds Neville for his careless act of writing down the passwords and eventually losing the copies. While Neville had not sacrificed the security of the school intentionally, his writing down of the passwords is not the last and only solution to his problem of forgetfulness. Indeed, had Neville been more focused on remembering the passwords, writing them down may not even be necessary.

5. The parties (to be) affected by the action. How will they be affected by the action? Is it fair for them to be affected in such a way?

When she lets Neville and Seamus blast the Hogwarts bridge, she allows part of the school to be destroyed even before the Death Eaters get to it. Hogwarts as an establishment is the aspect being sacrificed in this situation. But McGonagall seems to be right in this judgment because the school will be turned into a battlefield in just a few moments anyway. Also, by allowing this action, lives will be sacrificed. But these are the lives of those people who want to kill for the wrong reasons. Stopping these people seems necessary. The act then becomes self-defense.

Based on this explanation, what are rules for McGonagall?

It seems to me that, for her, rules are there to safeguard the welfare of people and, to put order in place, so that people will remain safe. Thus, she enforces them strictly in normal days. But, in special cases, she bends them in order to follow the essence of setting up rules. When the rules become a trap that brings harm instead of keeping people safe, she will not be afraid to break them.

I hope we can learn from the wise judgment of Prof. McGonagall because this skill can help us care for the people around us. It can help us be agents of other people’s growth because we will know when we should reprimand them and when to protect them, when we should teach a lesson and when to appreciate their goodness despite the seeming misbehavior.

With this lesson from our birthday celebrant, I will end my post. But, of course, not before I say, “Happy Birthday, Prof. McGonagall! Thank you for another significant lesson you have imparted to us.”

Stay Magical,
A. Featherquill

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4 comments on “A Lesson from Prof. McGonagall

  • Awesome post! I love your analysis of Professor McGonagal. I really like how you list out the areas she considers when deciding how to respond to a certain action. πŸ™‚ That is really what makes her such a good professor, and so different (as you note) from Professor Umbridge. πŸ™‚

    Can I post a link to your essay in my blog?

    ~Aspen

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