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University of Exeter launches a new master's degree in the study of magic

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "HEDWIG'S THEME")

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Magic will soon fill classrooms at a school just a train ride away from London. And no, we are not talking about Hogwarts. The University of Exeter is launching a new master's degree program in magic and occult science. Sajjad Rizvi is a professor and member of Exeter's Centre for Magic and Esotericism, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

SAJJAD RIZVI: Good to be here.

RASCOE: So I have to ask you, how does one study magic? Like, this isn't about, like, you know, learning how to use wands and cast spells, right? This is actual studies.

RIZVI: Sure. Yes. I mean, a lot of people are interested in the announcement that we're launching this MA because they kind of think Exeter's going to turn into Hogwarts, honestly (ph).

RASCOE: (Laughter).

RIZVI: But that's not the case.

RASCOE: Yeah.

RIZVI: It's really about, you know, what is the role of magic in society - the so-called hidden arts, ways in which people see the world and try to manipulate the world, the historical study of how magic, the occult, the esoteric was found in the world - across different cultures as well. I think that's Western traditions but also Eastern traditions, Islamic traditions and so forth.

RASCOE: And many, you know, religious traditions, including, you know, Abrahamic ones, cite descriptions of divine magic. Like, will your program examine that history?

RIZVI: Yes. There were a whole series of what's known as occult arts or occult sciences which are directly associated in the Abrahamic traditions with understanding and using scripture - you know, writing certain phrases down, using them in amulets, opening a page of Bible or the Quran and seeing whether it says something which is positive or negative about an intention that you have, as well as different prescriptions you find in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam about how you use the word of God to combat black magic.

RASCOE: Your program will offer courses in dragons, deception and psychedelics. Can you tell me about some of these courses?

RIZVI: Yeah, so the dragons module is - it's really about, you know, conceiving of a world in which, you know, we can allow for these sorts of creatures - trolls, creatures like fairies, even unicorns.

RASCOE: Like goblins and things like that.

RIZVI: Exactly. Goblins. So...

RASCOE: Yeah.

RIZVI: ...It's really about, you know, trying to understand why it is these figures come up. You know, what function do they play in the sort of narrative we're telling ourselves?

RASCOE: And then, like, when you have things like deception, is that kind of, like, illusion? Because, you know, sleights of hand, and you see it in Hollywood, as well, and storytelling. And it's kind of, like, you get the audience to, like, look over here. You don't look over there. And then, like...

RIZVI: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...You get them to believe.

RIZVI: So that's precisely the connection between performance and, in a sense, the making of the world around us. You know, what is magical is now very much about how we kind of create images, how we create different kinds of reality, even virtual realities, in the contemporary world, how it is we project ideas, put filters on photos and videos on social media and so forth.

So there's a difference between the world that we experience but also the world as we would like to experience it. And sometimes, that can be kind of making ourselves feel a bit better about it, but sometimes, it can also be about projecting images on the other so that we can influence them by seeing things in different ways. And that can be deception for the good but also for something which has negative consequences.

RASCOE: I hear that your program has garnered a lot of interest from prospective students. And there's obviously, like, a strong public interest in magic. Like, why do you think this is?

RIZVI: In many ways, the modern world is all about marginalizing the magical. It's about the rational. It's about the everyday. It's about the economic interests and scientific and technological progress. And in all that, we actually forget that there's elements of life which are very much tied to imagination. The magic, the occult, even the esoteric is really about the powers of the imagination and the way in which imagination makes cultures. In many ways, the interest in magic, the occult, is very much part of a kind of a self-reflection of the way in which we understand religion, philosophy, history. Is there more to this sort of reality than we have really been focusing upon?

So one of the interesting things about those who have been already applying for the program - we've already had a number of applications from China. And that's quite unusual because on the one hand, magic is seen quite negatively in China because of the legacy of communism. At the same time, of course, people in China are not immune to the impact of popular culture. So in some ways, you know, we're quite excited by the possibility that we will actually end up recruiting a student cohort which is quite diverse in that way - you know, students from Europe, from North America, hopefully, and also from China.

RASCOE: I wonder, what is your response to those who will say, well, what type of career could you get with a master's degree in magic and occult science? You know, what about the the economics of this?

RIZVI: I think it will depend very much on the particular specializations they might be interested in. But I think the people who want to do this would be doing it because they really have a passion for the subject. You know, no one's going to do a master's unless they really do have a passion. And, you know, with this sort of background, there's all sorts of possibilities of people going into creative industries of different kinds. They might go into the media. They might go into the nonprofit sector internationally because one of the elements of the degree is to bring an intercultural approach to this. So that sort of critical analytic understanding of different cultures is something which certainly will be an important expertise and skill that potential students can take into the job market.

RASCOE: That's Sajjad Rizvi of the University of Exeter. Thank you so much for joining us.

RIZVI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIAN VON ZIEGLER'S "A CELTIC LORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.