Edmund Kern poses for a photo on Main Hall Green.
Portrait on Main Hall Green: Edmund Kern (Photo by Aaron Lindeman '27)

About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member each time — same questions, different answers.


Edmund Kern, a specialist in early modern European history, drew national attention two decades ago for his insights on Harry Potter.

The associate professor of history at Lawrence University has focused much of his research on the history of witchcraft and religious culture. That led to him teaching a course on Harry Potter, which led to his 2003 book, The Wisdom of Harry Potter: What Our Favorite Hero Teaches Us About Moral Choices, which drew wide attention as popular media sought him out amid the phenomenon of J.K Rowling’s book series. He continues to teach Thinking about Harry Potter, a course in contemporary history focusing upon Harry Potter as a cultural phenomenon.

Speaking of the intersections of history and pop culture, Kern also was tapped as a consultant in the making of Pentiment, a historical role-playing game that was named one of the best video games of 2022. It was created by a team of video game designers led by one of Kern’s former Lawrence students, Josh Sawyer ’98. In late April 2024, the game was nominated for a Peabody Award. Kern was brought in during the game's development to help assure the details were right as Sawyer and company built a game centered on life in 16th-century Bavaria.

Immerse yourself in different times and places to develop important perspectives on the world past and present. 

Kern holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and a bachelor’s degree from Marquette University. He has been on the history faculty at Lawrence since 1992.

We caught up with him to talk about interests in and out of the classroom.

In the classroom

Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?

I often tell my students that my life has been one characterized by becoming more and more comfortable with less and less certainty. I’m careful to make clear that I embrace uncertainty in both life and scholarship, not because life or history are meaningless, but because they present us with an overabundance of meaning, endless opportunities for thoughtful interpretation or analysis.

Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?

I find a lot of things rewarding, so it’s difficult to single out only one. Forced to choose, I think that those opportunities that allow me to combine my research interests with teaching continue to excite me the most. In practical terms, this means that two of my courses, Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Thinking about Harry Potter have proved the most rewarding. It’s a special challenge to take topics about which, in a sense, I know too much and find ways to communicate that depth of knowledge to students encountering a systematic approach to them for the first time.

Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional, or spiritual) that took you by surprise?

My work on the Harry Potter books as a cultural phenomenon to be sure. In 1998, students, and even visiting parents, began to ask me what I thought about Harry because of my interest in the history of magic and witchcraft. These questions led me to the U.K. editions of the first three books and some thoughts about the ethic or moral code presented in them. I decided the best way to describe the books’ ethics was as an updated Stoicism, with which I was familiar due to my reading in both ancient philosophy and early modern Neo-Stoicism. In conversations, both Rik Warch and Brian Rosenberg encouraged me to pursue this idea, which eventually turned into a book, The Wisdom of Harry Potter (Prometheus 2003). Never would I have imagined that I’d end up writing one of the first academic books about a major twentieth- and twenty-first-century cultural event.

Out of the classroom

This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing?  

History really was the only choice for me by the time I finished high school. I considered law school as an option, but I can also imagine myself having had a career in carpentry or furniture making, two activities that I really enjoy. After hearing that I was considering working for my dad’s construction company, my eighth-grade teacher, Carol Wiesinger, whose son is an LU alumnus, said, “You can do that, but you, Mr. Kern, are first going to college.” She was right.

Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?

I’d have to say the spot overlooking the river between the fitness center and Memorial Hall. Seeing bald eagles, cormorants, seagulls, and so on while at work still surprises and delights me.

One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?

Remember, I’m comfortable with uncertainty, so I reserve the right to change my mind. When I was still young, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Brian Eno’s Another Green World, and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran all got me seeing things differently.

Find more faculty features in the On Main Hall Green With ... series here.