At the start-of-the-term dinner, Dolores Umbridge interrupts Albus Dumbledore and gives a lengthy and quite strange speech. As summarized in the book,

Hermione Granger: There was some important stuff hidden in the waffle.

Ron Weasley: Was there?

Hermione Granger: How about: "progress for progress's sake must be discouraged"? How about: "pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited"?

Ron Weasley: Well, what does that mean?

Hermione Granger: I'll tell you what it means. It means the Ministry's interfering at Hogwarts.

Of course Miss Granger is a genius and I am not, but I do not see any way to infer "the Ministry's interfering at Hogwarts" from what Umbridge actually said.

Could you help explain how this was inferred? Is the speech supposed to mean something like "the Ministry's interfering at Hogwarts" to a normal reader, or is it just a Sherlock Holmes-like move to show us how clever Hermione is?

5 Answers 5


Umbridge spoke for a long time, but only small snippets of it are recorded in the book. While it is theoretically possible that she said some stuff "off-screen" that gave away that the Ministry would be interfering, for the sake of answering this question let's assume that we have enough information in the parts that we saw.

Here are the snippets of her speech:

"The Ministry of Magic has always considered the education of young witches and wizards to be of vital importance. The rare gifts with which you were born may come to nothing if not nurtured and honed by careful instruction. The ancient skills unique to the Wizarding community must be passed down through the generations lest we lose them forever. The treasure trove of magical knowledge amassed by our ancestors must be guarded, replenished, and polished by those who have been called to the noble profession of teaching."

"Every headmaster and headmistress of Hogwarts has brought something new to the weighty task of governing this historic school, and that is as it should be, for without progress there will be stagnation and decay. There again, progress for progress’s sake must be discouraged, for our tried and tested traditions often require no tinkering. A balance, then, between old and new, between permanence and change, between tradition and innovation..."

"... because some changes will be for the better, while others will come, in the fullness of time, to be recognized as errors of judgment. Meanwhile, some old habits will be retained, and rightly so, whereas others, outmoded and outworn, must be abandoned. Let us move forward, then, into a new era of openness, effectiveness, and accountability, intent on preserving what ought to be preserved, perfecting what needs to be perfected, and pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited."

I would argue that none of the concepts Umbridge discusses actually indicate Ministry interference. The first paragraph points out the unique mission of Hogwarts, the second paragraph points out that every headmaster changes things up a bit, and a certain balance is necessary, and the third paragraph says that we have to constantly look back and see if we are making things better or worse.

I don't think any of that is particularly controversial. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if other headmasters made similar speeches upon starting at Hogwarts (though I'd expect some of them to at least have the sense to not give the speech to a room full of sleepy, inattentive students).

I think that the entire issue here is with the very first sentence:

The Ministry of Magic has always considered the education of young witches and wizards to be of vital importance.

Everyone agrees that education is important, and should be done properly. So why mention the Ministry here? I would argue that it is this insertion that is the indicator of Ministry interference. By telling us that the Ministry values education, she is saying that whatever follows (e.g. some things need to be reevaluated) will be Ministry-oriented. Had she left out the first sentence there would have been no indication of Ministry interference (though there might have been indication of her own interference).

In fact, we can make an observation based on the reactions of others besides Hermione. During the speech we find the following:

Professor McGonagall’s dark eyebrows had contracted so that she looked positively hawklike, and Harry distinctly saw her exchange a significant glance with Professor Sprout as Umbridge gave another little "Hem, hem" and went on with her speech.

Yet, interestingly, this does not occur after the second or third paragraph, which is where Umbridge actually lays out what the "interference" would consist of. Instead, it occurs after the first paragraph when all Umbridge said is that the Ministry values education. It would seem, then, that McGonagall and Sprout already realized something was up, just from the first paragraph. If so, it was probably from the mention of the Ministry, because as noted above that is entirely superfluous unless the Ministry will be interfering.

Therefore, I would assume that Hermione also figured out right from the start that Umbridge would be initiating Ministry interference. The specific examples mentioned by Hermione (and the other answers here) are just that — examples of how the Ministry will be interfering once we already know that they will be interfering.

  • 7
    I quite like the idea that only the first line actually matters. It is strange that this answer is the last by the number of votes casted. If no changes happen I am going to choose this answer as marked (not now as it looks rude to choose the answer that quick).
    – se0808
    Dec 30, 2018 at 20:06
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    I agree with a lot of what you say but not the conclusion, even the first paragraph had a lot of signalling if you look: "careful instruction", "ancient skills" "passed down" "lose them forever". "amassed by our ancestors" "guarded". This whole paragraph reeks of a backward looking traditionalist fundamentalist worldview saying that new is bad, that traditions and by extension authority figures derived from those traditions is good.
    – Tim B
    Jan 2, 2019 at 13:53
  • @TimB As I argued in the post, those things in and of themselves are probably not controversial in and of themselves to most wizards. It’s considered problematic because it’s the Ministry trying to do them.
    – Alex
    Jan 3, 2019 at 1:01
  • @se0808 Gotta disagree - the book literally has Hermione state which phrases were telling, and they aren't just the first line. The other phrases matter because they indicate that Umbridge (aka Ministry) don't want change, all while Dumbledore is trying to call the wizarding to action by repeatedly announcing that Voldemort is back. It's as simple as that - Dumbledore is trying to shake up the world, the Ministry is trying to stop him, and Umbridges speech plainly identifies her as a Ministry figurehead planted at Hogwarts, hence "the Ministry's interfering at Hogwarts."
    – DavidS
    Jan 10, 2019 at 14:29
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    @DavidS I didn’t say the other phrased don’t matter. What I said was that without the opening line it wouldn’t prove that it’s the Ministry that’s interfering. I explicitly stated that the other phrases are examples of how the Ministry will be interfering.
    – Alex
    Jan 10, 2019 at 15:23

"progress for progress's sake must be discouraged"

Who decides whether an innovation is a good thing or just "progress for progress's sake"?

"pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited"?

Which practices are those, and who are "we"?

Both of these implicitly assume a judgement on what should be discouraged or prohibited. Since Umbridge was appointed by the Ministry it follows that it is the Ministry judgement that will be applied. Presumably in the past the Headmaster of Hogwarts was free to run the school as he saw fit, answerable only to the Board of Governors. Umbridge's speech was a coded announcement that in the future the Ministry would be setting policy directly, which is what Hermione described as "interfering".

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    The answer by @Sarriesfan is interesting, but this is the correct one. Anyone familiar with the way politicians speak and the subtleties of language in general should understand what Hermione means. That probably doesn't include all of the young audience of the books no matter if they are reading it in their native language.
    – Nobody
    Dec 30, 2018 at 18:55
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    More important in your second quote - "wherever we find practices". Who, if not the ministry, is "we"? Dec 30, 2018 at 23:43
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    Symbolically it's also already enough that she (representing the government) interrupts him (representing the school), indicating that she sees herself above him and figuratively directly meddling in his affairs. Dec 31, 2018 at 13:28
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    Also, it's good to point out that the mere notion that "progress for progress's sake must be discouraged" is itself a huge red flag. Progress for progress's sake is, in fact, a very, very good thing!
    – Vikki
    Dec 31, 2018 at 19:05
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    +1. I think there's an implicit pun here on two senses of the word "means". The sentence "progress for progress's sake must be discouraged" certainly doesn't mean the same as the sentence "the Ministry's interfering at Hogwarts"; but the fact that Umbridge is saying it means that the Ministry is interfering at Hogwarts. I think Ron's question is using the first sense, but Hermione's answer is certainly using the second. (I think her preface, "I'll tell you what it means", is intended to signal that transition.)
    – ruakh
    Dec 31, 2018 at 22:55

To understand this you have to appreciate that the Harry Potter series of books were not written in a vacuum, and that JK Rowling is a politically active person. The idea of the British Government interfering in education has been an issue here for a couple of decades and Rowling's works mirror the real world situation in the UK in her Wizarding world.

The words of Dolores Umbridge reflect the typical doublespeak that politicians use in the real word. "Progress for progress's sake should be discouraged" means that you should not do something progressive just because you can, in our world it would be something like the right of gay marriage.

"Pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited" means stopping the schools from teaching subjects that the Ministry did not approve of, such as Muggle studies. In the real world, in Britain, subjects such as music teaching and media studies had reduced funding.

The Ministry is not allowing the staff at Hogwarts to make its own policies about what it should teach and how it should teach them, that's how the Ministry of Magic is interfering.

  • 9
    Context, context, context. This is what my literature professor always hammered on us. People too often detach a work from its cultural roots, or worse, swap it for their own. While a few works suffer little to nothing from this, most do. +1 Dec 31, 2018 at 10:55
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    While this is an interesting look at British school politics, I don't think that this is related to the question. As pointed out in Paul Johnson's and Alex's answers, it's directly understandable without any further context. While your answer could be good supplemental material, it shouldn't state that her meaning was obscure. Dec 31, 2018 at 13:39
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    I agree. This answer might explain why Rowling wrote Umbridge as interfering with schooling (or it might not - Rowling's not limited to real-world or British influences, and might have had something else more firmly in mind while writing this). But Hermione's conclusion is very logical, and understanding it doesn't require the reader to know anything about British politics.
    – Adamant
    Dec 31, 2018 at 18:17
  • 3
    As an analogy, understanding who Aunt Marge represents or why she keeps bulldogs requires a little understanding of British politics. Understanding why she says insulting things about Harry and his parents doesn't.
    – Adamant
    Dec 31, 2018 at 18:19
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    Oh, sorry. I should have explained that in the comment. She's probably based at least partly on Margaret ("Marge") Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister (although Rowling also claims her own grandmother as inspiration). She keeps bulldogs because bulldogs are very "English", and she expresses some conservative social opinions. As a somewhat liberal individual and Labour supporter, Rowling probably doesn't like Thatcher very much.
    – Adamant
    Jan 4, 2019 at 16:35

Dumbledore was the headmaster of Hogwarts, whereas Umbridge was just an underling working under the direction of the headmaster. For Umbridge to publicly pass absolute judgements against the policies or philosophies of Hogwarts was not a constructive action but therefore a hostile one. Dolores was able to get away with inappropriate and socially out-of-place comments like that because she had the protection of the Ministry to fall back on, hence the reason for Hermione's comment. It doesn't take a genius to see that, all you have to do is pay attention to what is going on around you, as Hermione often did.


This speech is part of a larger pattern of events between the Ministry and Dumbledore. Hermione has picked up on this context to correctly deduce it's meaning.

The context is vital to understanding what is going on here. Umbridges speech is made far more meaningful when remembering the circumstances in which it is being given.

Consider that for the previous few months Dumbledore has been trying to convince the world that Voldemort has returned, and that the Ministry has been actively opposing him. The world is comfortable, and any hint that the status quo is about to be breaking is regarded as distressing and unwelcome. After all, we see how the Minister of Magic responds when he's told Voldemort is back...

"It seems to me that you are all determined to start a panic that will destabilize everything we have worked for these last thirteen years!"

Harry couldn't believe what he was hearing. He had always thought of Fudge as a kindly figure, a little blustering, a little pompous, but essentially good­natured. But now a short, angry wizard stood before him, refusing, point­blank, to accept the prospect of disruption in his comfortable and ordered world, to believe that Voldemort could have risen.

The conversation continues onwards with Dumbledore and the Minister actively opposing each other, leading to Fudge threatening the autonomy of Dumbledore and the school in general.

"If your determination to shut your eyes will carry you as far as this, Cornelius," said Dumbledore, "we have reached a parting of the ways. You must act as you see fit. And I...I shall act as I see fit."

Dumbledore's voice carried no hint of a threat; it sounded like a mere statement, but Fudge bristled as though Dumbledore were advancing upon him with a wand.

"Now, see here, Dumbledore," he said, waving a threatening finger. "I've given you free rein, always. I've had a lot of respect for you. I might not have agreed with some of your decisions, but I've kept quiet. There aren't many who'd have let you hire werewolves, or keep Hagrid, or decide what to teach your students without reference to the Ministry. But if you're going to work against me ..."

The exchange ends with an indication that Fudge is going to clamp down on Dumbledore's running of Hogwarts.

"I will be in touch with you tomorrow, Dumbledore, to discuss the running of this school. I must return to the Ministry."

Dumbledore, for his part, ignores Fudges threats and starts to spread the truth, starting with Hogwarts.

"Cedric Diggory was murdered by Lord Voldemort."

A panicked whisper swept the Great Hall. People were staring at Dumbledore in disbelief, in horror. He looked perfectly calm as he watched them mutter themselves into silence.

"The Ministry of Magic," Dumbledore continued, "does not wish me to tell you this."

The campaign of information and attempts to rouse the public continues all summer, with the Ministry growing actively more frustrated and devious in their attempts to discredit Dumbledore and Harry and clamp down on the behaviour. Hermione - living at the headquarters of the Order and being friends with Harry (who tells them everything), is well aware of all this, explaining to Harry:

But you see what they’re doing? They want to turn you into someone nobody will believe. Fudge is behind it, I’ll bet anything."

When Umbridge - a known Ministry toady - is appointed to Hogwarts, it's not a huge leap to assume she's there to continue these efforts. Note that Hermione already suspects this from the moment they spot Umbridge at the the feast, before the speech.

"She works for Fudge!" Hermione repeated, frowning. "What on earth’s she doing here, then?"


Hermione scanned the staff table, her eyes narrowed. "No," she muttered, "no, surely not..."

And the actual content of the speech perfectly aligns with these suspicions - the content (as @TimB excellently put it in the comments) "reeks of a backward looking traditionalist fundamentalist worldview saying that new is bad, that traditions and by extension authority figures derived from those traditions is good".

In other words - the Ministry wants to keep things as they are, and so it emphasises the importance of "traditional values" and discourages change...

Hermione Granger: How about: "progress for progress's sake must be discouraged"?

...while casually threatening those who would seek to upset the existing system...

How about: "pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited"?

In Summary

All of this - the rabble-rousing of Dumbledore, the attempts by the Ministry to control him and continue with "business as usual", the installation of a Ministry-appointed teacher at Hogwarts, and Umbridge interrupting Dumbledore to give her own pro-traditionalist speech at the feast clearly indicates one thing...

Hermione Granger: I'll tell you what it means. It means the Ministry's interfering at Hogwarts.

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