Emily Articulated: Lessons of the Sorting Hat

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

When things get hard to process in the real world, I often escape to fantasy worlds for respite, coming out on the other side of a magical book, podcast or movie with a renewed sense of clarity or lightness to my experience.

Emily Erickson.

As the complexities of our world are often too difficult to sort through in real-time, fantasy, as a genre, takes us to a new world with a different backdrop, allowing us to explore the same social structures, moral complexes and internal struggles we face every day, but from the safe distance of metaphor and whimsy, instead of reality.

There hasn’t been a world to which I’ve escaped more for exploring such things than the wizarding world of Harry Potter. Steeped in metaphors about good, evil, and the murky middle ground between the two; with heroes full of darkness and villains with shreds of redemption and light; and a perpetual exploration of the power of fear, division, community and love — the Harry Potter series has lessons in every character, on nearly every page.

One character and his role within the wizarding world worth contemplating is the Sorting Hat. The Sorting Hat is a bewitched, free-thinking hat that has the unique responsibility of sifting through the minds of young witches and wizards at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. In its role, the hat learns about each new student entering the school by sitting on their head, and places them into one of the four Hogwarts houses: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff.

Each of the four houses are characterized by guiding principles, with Gryffindors being courageous and daring, Slytherins as ambitious and resourceful, Ravelclaws with cleverness and intellect, and Hufflepuffs as champions of fairness and loyalty.

When sorted into a house, that house and all of the other witches and wizards within it, becomes a student’s family, with living quarters, classes, meal times and extra-curriculars being segregated from, or sparingly shared with, students of other houses.

The Sorting Hat is commonly thought to sort students based on their dominant character traits, placing like-minded children into houses based on where they’d find the most camaraderie in their personality type.

The benefit of this homogenous-style of sorting would be to help students adjust to their life away from home and find fast friends, feeling comfortable in sharing their experiences with people who think and act similarly to themselves. 

But, if putting like-minded kids together was the Sorting Hat’s only criteria for sorting, there’d be danger in this method as well. If students were assigned to houses in an attempt to exclusively surround them with other kids just like them — the opportunity to be challenged, to expand their thinking, and to practice tolerance — would be lost. As the Harry Potter series is a never-ending lesson about the danger of division, and the corrosiveness of being stuck in a single perspective, this version of the Sorting Hat has never quite made sense. 

There’s another way to think about the Sorting Hat, and the criteria it might be using to sort students. First introduced to me on the Imaginary Worlds podcast, by Eric Molinsky, the other school of thought on the Sorting Hat is that it looks at a student’s mind, not only seeing their existing character traits, but also, the potential they have for personal growth.

With this method, the Sorting Hat would place students into the house that would most enable them to foster the aspects of their character necessary for reaching their highest potential. Instead of simply separating kids into groups with others most similar to them, the Sorting Hat would recognize the benefit of putting students into a house alongside kids that could make them better (i.e., Hermione Granger, a clear Ravenclaw, and Neville Longbottom, a total Hufflepuff, both being placed in Gryffindor, and becoming a better witch and wizard because of it).

By surrounding students with other young people possessing complementary strengths and weaknesses, different ways of viewing the world, and aspects of character from which they could all learn and grow, the Sorting Hat was creating an environment in which everyone was able to become higher-functioning, more balanced versions of themselves.

That idea — that personal growth and a well rounded perspective cannot be fully reached with a homogenous sorting of beliefs, character traits, and ideas — might just be an idea that transcends fiction, and can find its home in our current reality.

Mischief Managed.

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