For Harry and his friends' fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the stakes are higher than ever. With the Dark Lord Voldemort returned to his body and fifth-year students sitting their O.W.L. exams (standardized tests that determine which classes students can take going forward), Harry finds himself caught between his schoolwork and the turmoil he knows is taking place outside of Hogwarts. Then, with the appointment of Dolores Umbridge to Hogwarts, first as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and then as the Hogwarts High Inquisitor (which gives her power to hire, fire, and control every aspect of life at Hogwarts), Harry is faced with complex questions about the purpose of education and how the education system can be manipulated to promote a government agenda--in this case, that of the Ministry of Magic, which seeks to discredit Harry and Dumbledore's eyewitness testimony that Voldemort is back. The novel proposes that the true purpose of education should be to prepare students for life in the real world--though in reality, the education system is something easily corrupted and put to use for other, less noble purposes.
Up until this year, Hogwarts students' education in most subjects has been primarily hands-on. The fact that this carries across most subjects, from Transfiguration to Care of Magical Creatures to Potions and even Divination, suggests that for subjects that require practical skills, actually practicing those skills in a controlled environment is necessary to learn the material. Dolores Umbridge, however, promotes a theory-based approach in her Defense Against the Dark Arts classes. She assigns a textbook titled Defensive Magical Theory, which concerns itself with detailing the theory behind the spells, discrediting the effectiveness of counter-curses, and teaching non-confrontational methods of handling conflict. In addition, she includes no practical lessons, and on the first day of class, she tells students that there's no reason to learn spells or jinxes because there's nothing out there to threaten students.
This approach appears to go against the goal of Hogwarts and definitely goes against the realities of the outside world on several fronts. Harry spends his summer at Number 12 Grimmauld Place cleaning and battling a number of curses and creatures that infest the house, some of which he learned how to tackle in previous years at Hogwarts. It seems, then, that Umbridge's insistence that there's nothing out there to threaten society indicates that she doesn't take Voldemort's return seriously--and she punishes Harry for pointing out that Voldemort doesn't fight fairly and won't stand around to engage in non-violent conflict resolution. Umbridge's installment at Hogwarts is a very clear way for Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, to weaponize the education system and control exactly what students know and believe about the world. In other words, Fudge understands that the best way to keep up the façade that Voldemort isn't back is to put people in charge who will force this message onto others.
For Harry, who has found himself in situations over the years where practical skills were absolutely essential to his survival, this model of education is offensive and dangerous, and it doesn't prepare students to tackle the very real evil he knows is out there. To remedy this, Hermione encourages Harry to form and lead Dumbledore's Army, a secret student group where Harry teaches the defensive magic he’s learned over the years. Importantly, Harry positions the D.A. as not just a place where students can learn practical skills, but as a litmus test of who's willing to believe the truth about Voldemort's return and do so in public. He realizes right away that what most attendees of the first meeting want is to hear Harry's version of what happened last summer, when Voldemort murdered Cedric Diggory, and those who choose to stay and become a part of the group after hearing that story show Harry that they believe his version of events. With this, Harry positions education not just as a way to prepare students for the real world, but also as a vehicle for spreading the truth, even when the truth is subversive and unpleasant. Similarly, the danger that the D.A. members find themselves in thanks to Umbridge's power and suspicion about their group makes it very clear that while getting a thorough education is extremely important, it does at times become dangerous.
With O.W.L.s looming over Harry and his fellow fifth-years and the more advanced N.E.W.T. tests looming over Fred and George Weasley, it quickly becomes apparent that though Fudge's chokehold over the information passed on to students exclusively furthers his own political goals, depriving students of information and denying them practical skills isn't preparing them for even a Ministry-approved future. The career pamphlets that appear in the common rooms state exactly what grades in O.W.L.s are necessary to pursue a particular career--and for most of them, a passing grade in Defense Against the Dark Arts (which includes a practical exam) is a necessity. By denying students a real education, Fudge is also denying society the next generation of Aurors (Dark Wizard catchers employed by the Ministry), Healers (doctors), and Gringotts Bank treasure hunters. On the other hand, Fred and George make the case that standardized test scores shouldn't be the only assessment of future success. Though the twins earned only three passing O.W.L. grades each, their joke products demonstrate a complex understanding of several magical disciplines, and Hogwarts students' interest in purchasing Weasley products shows that they have the ability to be financially successful, regardless of their test scores.
Taken together, Harry's educational experiences in Order of the Phoenix make the case that teaching students practical skills is, within the logic and realities of the Wizarding world, the only appropriate way to prepare them for adult life, whether adulthood entails catching Dark wizards or opening a joke shop. Umbridge's ultimate dismissal from the school and the ways that the novel demonstrates the necessity of practical skills suggests that, in the end, students not only recognize the dangers of exclusively theory-based education but will also, in times of danger and urgency, take matters into their own hands to give themselves the education they know they need.
The Purpose of Education ThemeTracker
The Purpose of Education Quotes in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The fact was that living at the headquarters of the anti-Voldemort movement was not nearly as interesting or exciting as Harry would have expected before he experienced it. Though members of the Order of the Phoenix came and went regularly, sometimes staying for meals, sometimes only for a few minutes' whispered conversation, Mrs. Weasley made sure that Harry and the others were kept well out of earshot (whether Extendable or normal) and nobody, not even Sirius, seemed to feel that Harry needed to know anything more than he had heard on the night of his arrival.
I sort you into Houses
Because that is what I'm for,
But this year I'll go further,
Listen closely to my song:
Though condemned I am to split you
Still I worry that it's wrong
Though I must fulfill my duty
And must quarter every year
Still I wonder whether Sorting
May not bring the end I fear.
"I do not wish to criticize the way things have been run at this school," she said, an unconvincing smile stretching her wide mouth, "but you have been exposed to some very irresponsible wizards in this class, very irresponsible indeed—not to mention," she gave a nasty little laugh, "extremely dangerous half-breeds."
"Is it true that you shouted at Professor Umbridge?"
"Yes," said Harry.
"You called her a liar?"
"You told her He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is back?"
Professor McGonagall sat down behind her desk, frowning at Harry. Then she said, "Have a biscuit, Potter."
"I know her by reputation and I'm sure she's no Death Eater—"
"She's foul enough to be one," said Harry darkly and Ron and Hermione nodded vigorously in agreement.
"Yes, but the world isn't split into good people and Death Eaters," said Sirius with a wry smile. "I know she's a nasty piece of work, though—you should hear Remus talk about her."
"Does Lupin know her?" asked Harry quickly, remembering Umbridge's comments about dangerous half-breeds during her first lesson.
"No," said Sirius, "but she drafted a bit of anti-werewolf legislation two years ago that makes it almost impossible for him to get a job."
"You know, I don't get why Fred and George only got three O.W.L.s each," said Harry, watching as Fred, George, and Lee collected gold from the eager crowd. "They really know their stuff..."
He and the D.A. were resisting under her very nose, doing the very thing that she and the Ministry most feared, and whenever he was supposed to be reading Wilbert Slinkhard's book during her lessons he dwelled instead on satisfying memories of their most recent meetings, remembering how Neville had successfully disarmed Hermione, how Colin Creevy had mastered the Impediment Jinx after three meetings' hard effort, how Parvati Patil had produced such a good Reductor Curse that she had reduced the table carrying all the Sneakoscopes to dust.
A great wave of relief broke over Harry. Here at last was proof that he had not imagined these creatures, that they were real: Hagrid knew about them too. He looked eagerly at Ron, but Ron was still staring around into the trees and after a few seconds he whispered, "Why doesn't Hagrid call again?"
"Herd?" said Lavender in a confused voice, and Harry knew she was thinking of cows. "What—oh!" Comprehension dawned on her face. "There are more of you?" she said, stunned.
"Did Hagrid breed you, like the thestrals?" asked Dean eagerly.
Firenze turned his head very slowly to face Dean, who seemed to realize at once that he had said something very offensive.
"I didn't—I meant—sorry," he finished in a hushed voice.
"Centaurs are not the servants or playthings of humans," said Firenze quietly.
Still pointing her shaking wand at Magorian, she continued, "Law Fifteen B states clearly that ‘Any attack by a magical creature who is deemed to have near-human intelligence, and therefore considered responsible for its actions—'"
"'Near-human intelligence'?" repeated Magorian, as Bane and several others roared with rage and pawed the ground.