In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, the scarecrow, the lion and the tin man all seek something of particular value and importance from the wizard. Dorothy wishes to go home, the tin man wishes for a heart, the lion wants to be courageous and the scarecrow would like to have a brain. In the end, [and for those who haven't seen this iconic film, spoiler alert] the wizard “grants” these requests. However, in a rather dissatisfying fashion, he bestows upon everyone but Dorothy mere symbols of the virtues they desire.
As the wizard notes in distributing these tokens to the seekers, they have all demonstrated the virtues they sought ten fold. A lion who believes he is without courage, all the while behaving with “meritorious conduct, extraordinary valor, [and] conspicuous bravery against wicked witches”. The tin man, who pined poetically for a heart to beat in his chest all while sacrificing himself for Dorothy and his new friends; a true “good-deed-doer”. And the scarecrow, who sang clumsily about all of the wondrous things he would think if he only had a brain, all the while plotting complicated strategies to obtain the wicked witch’s broom.
What makes this scene all the more disappointing is the joy each experience as they are presented with such tokens.
Wizard: “Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the earth — or slinks through slimy seas has a brain! [...] Back where I come from we have universities, seats of great learning where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts — and with no more brains than you have…. But! They have one thing you haven’t got! A diploma! Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitatus Committeeatum e plurbis unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th.D.”
Wizard: “Yeah — that…that’s Dr. of Thinkology!”
Scarecrow: “The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side. Oh joy, rapture! I’ve got a brain!”
This is something I have been referring to for some time as the Oz fallacy; this is the reasoning that the possession of a symbol representative of a virtue equates possession of the virtue. Conversely, the notion that the lack of such symbols would allow one to necessarily deduce the lack of the virtue.
Having worked as instructor for a few years in higher education, and having been a student for ages, this fallacy seems readily apparent to me. Of the few hundred or so students I have had these past few years, quite a few (I’d argue a majority) appear to believe as if the goal is to obtain the document, the “paper”, the diploma. The diploma equals more and better opportunities. The diploma means that one is an upstanding individual. The diploma is simply magic, as if somehow obtaining it, will immediately result in knowing the Pythagorean theorem.
For awhile now I’ve had a wall next to my desk where I did prominently display my undergraduate and graduate degrees. A student once remarked, “I want to get me one of those”. When I asked why and he said, “Because when people see that, there is no question, they know you’re smart”. I laughed to myself, because I recalled some of the people I had gone to school with, some of my former classmates and peers, even faculty, and there were many of whom that I might not necessarily conclude were “smart”.
In the years that followed, not only did I encounter many more who held this view, but I also began teaching in the classroom and I encountered a new interpretation of this fallacy; “what’s the least amount of work I can do to pass this course?” College courses work like the frequentist method of statistics; credits, like significance, are awarded all or none. A student who completes all of the reading, studies the material diligently, writes elegant term papers and demonstrates a strong understanding of the course concepts on exams will earn the same number of credits for the course as a student who eked out a passing grade. In some time, they will both have earned the same diploma. And according to the logic proposed by by the student previously mentioned, the diploma will mean they are both smart.
All too often I have encountered students who sought the diploma, and not the education. Likewise, I have known great thinkers who sought education and knowledge, and possessed no diploma. Higher education, in this way, isn’t comprised of “seats of great learning where men go to become great thinkers” – it is a validation offering facility. And what seems sometimes validated, is at times far from what should be.
In The Wizard of Oz, all three of Dorothy’s companions demonstrated, and with great might, that they already possessed the attributes they sought. In the end, what they gained from meeting the wizard, were the trinkets of such accomplishments. I worry, however, that the trinkets themselves are now the objective, as I watch student after student march down that yellow brick road to be awarded their own symbols, even despite that they might signify nothing.