Planning epistemologies and Harry Potter: Trelawney versus Umbrage

I have a student in my planning theory class who is focussed on finding one, unifying theory for planning. He’s of the “If planning is everything, then it’s nothing” school, and it’s bugging him. I think the whole “if it’s everything” logic applies to any topic, and I’ve never needed a unified theory of anything, let alone planning.  But it’s important to him, and far be it from me to discourage somebody from trying something ambitious. You never know where they’ll get to, and it could be very interesting. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and re-watching the Harry Potter movies, and I have insights, y’all! Sybll Trelawney versus Dolores Umbridge pretty much captures the conflict.  Sybll is kinda useless—until she isn’t. She’s presented in a very clever way, and in the hands of a lesser actress than Emma Thompson, she wouldn’t have the charm along with all the irritating aspects of her personality. One of her most irritating traits is to force predictions that are utterly wrong. At the same time, she does make real predictions, but she has no control over when it happens, and she doesn’t remember doing it when she does it. 

Dumbledore has given her a job a Hogwarts not because he believes divination can be taught, but because he wants to protect her from the Death Eaters and Voldemort, as she has made predictions about him he would very much like to get out of her.  The result is a rather useless and boring class she teaches on divination.  But it’s clear Dumbledore wants her close, not just to protect her, but because he sees some value in her whitterings and full prophecies. 

I have a great deal of sympathy for Trelawney.  First of all, as Yoda tells us, “Always in motion, the future is.” Sybll’s tendency to fake predictions that turn out wrong happen, at least in part,  because the rest of the us demand the impossible of her: to be a vending machine of info about the future.  Modernist, instrumental approaches to knowledge want future states nailed down, and nailed down *now*.  Humans crave predictability.  If she were a stronger and more principled person, she could just say “Hey, it doesn’t work like that, goddamnit” but I get it: she’s afraid.  If she’s not a vending machine of knowledge about the future, she will get shoved aside, and it’s hard to make a living as an itinerant practitioner of an art that you can’t command and can’t teach. 

The series’ other big faker, Gilderoy Lockhart, is another commentary on fakery and self-promotion. Sybll is trying to stay alive; she has nowhere to go besides Hogwarts.  Lockhart, by contrast, is a celebrity via relentless self-promotion and the willingness to take credit for others’ accomplishments.  As bad a teacher as Trelawney is, she’s nowhere near his level of fakery. 

And she’s often *right* even when she’s wrong. The tea leaves exercise to me epitomizes so much. If you remember, she asks Ron to read Harry’s tea leaves. Ron says he sees a cross (Where??? Look at the picture below; there’s nothing even remotely cross-like). But there is a very clear image of a black dog.  Black dogs are all over lore as being harbingers of death, and so, Trelawney, in her usual, overly dramatic way, tells Harry that she sees….”The Grim!” 

The real story behind the black dog is coming, however, and it’s actually accurate. A black dog is coming into Harry’s life. And everything else about the black dog is unknowable from tea leaves. Our desire to *overknow*, *overinterpret* and *overthink* is apparent here.  These leaves are supposedly signs and portents rather than literal images, but instead, it’s a literal image: it’s a dog, it’s coming, it’s important, and that’s all you get to know right now. Anything else you say at this point is likely embellishment or projection. Period.  Our thirst for knowing more than we can know is what gets us into trouble as we fill in details we can’t possibly know. Sybll is very, very susceptible to this because it’s her trade to know what’s coming, and nobody is going to do backflips over “A dog is coming.” (And our world requires backflip-level revelations from professionals.) 


The grim Google Search

So the question becomes: are we better off with Sybll than we are without her? What’s the point of trying to divine the future if we can’t?  Dumbledore, who is pretty wise, thinks he’s better off with her; I don’t think he’s made space for her at Hogwarts merely to protect her. 

Perhaps the best way to see Trelawney’s value is in contrast with Dolores Umbridge when she arrives. Brilliantly embodied by actor Imelda Staunton,  Umbridge is a public manager of the very worst kind.  Now, in fairness, some of my best students over the years  have been public management students who honestly believe in good government. But for all of those, there are pettifogging little bureaucrats who, like Umbridge, never grew up from being the nasty little tattletales they were when they were little children and who, once they get a taste of power, become even nastier martinets taking power and control over other people wherever they can. 

And that’s the rub. For Umbridge, knowledge is only useful insofar as it is *controlled*.  Umbridge epitomizes the idea that “nobody will give you the education you need to overthrow them.” She simply refuses to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts because doing so might empower students as individuals, thereby suggesting that the government doesn’t have all threats handled, and if all threats aren’t handled, what’s the point of the government?  And what’s the point of her power over others—the thing Umbridge cherishes most—then? 

There are two Hogwarts faculty members that Umbridge has her knives out for: Hagrid and Trelawney.  Part of the reason she hates Hagrid is that she’s a racist, but Hagrid and Trelawney have a lot in common.  In particular, Hagrid doesn’t understand his gifts the way Trelawney doesn’t really understand hers. In his case, Hagrid is such a simple, good soul, and so unusual, that he doesn’t realize his gifts are actual gifts that other people don’t have: Hagrid has a facility with animals and monsters that come naturally to him because of who he is.  Now, he’s a pretty good class instructor except for boneheads like Malfoy, but the truth is, most of what Hagrid knows is uncontrollable and thus, not sufficiently instrumental for the managerial mind. 

That is, you can’t wrap into neat little statements about course objectives: 

—handle a hippogriff without getting your face ripped off; 

—learn to fly with a hippogriff and have a fabulous time exploring Hogwarts from the air. 

Those are magical experiences that students can only dream of—transformative experiences. But they aren’t reproducible in the modernist, managerial sense.  And thus, Umbridge hates it. 

Just like Umbridge hates Trelawney, for the same reasons. Umbridge is the most obvious in her desire to treat Trelawney like a cosmic vending machine, obnoxiously so, and Trelawney tries, in vain, to satisfy the rapacious need that Umbridge has for instrumental knowledge.  She can’t, of course, and Umbridge knows that more than anybody. She never asks a question she doesn’t know the answer to (demonstrated in the brilliant scene between Umbridge and Snape. Umbridge:  “So you originally sought the Defense Against the Dark Arts post, but you were unsuccessful in this attempt.” Snape: “Obviously.”) She’s just interacting with Trelawney in order to get “the documentation she needs” to get rid of Trelawney. There is no room in Umbridge’s world for the unpredictable, the visionary, or the imperfect because those might emancipate instead of control, and Umbridge only wants knowledge insofar as it secures her control. 

So whither planning?  Umbridge-style: it’s good to make the trains run on time in a managerial way,  but not if it involves horrible treatment of workers or the environment, or other important things.  Trelawney style: the future is largely unknowable except through vision and imagination, and it’s important not to conflate imagination with knowledge. And it is also important not to demand knowledge where imagination, disciplined by context and the past, serves us better. Imagination requires humility that knowledge does not, and humility is not something professionalized activities accommodate well. 

But future vision might be, like the black dog, just what it is, with all the rest that has to be taken on faith.