School Climate & Safety Commentary

Teaching in Oz

By Howard Good — March 01, 2003 7 min read
A classic film offers a wealth of guidance about providing a well-rounded education.

What defines somebody as educated? Is it getting a certain score on a standardized test? Is it passing through a prescribed curriculum? Is it being employable after graduation? If you listen to politicians and educational bureaucrats, you will probably think so. But who in his or her right mind wants to listen to politicians and bureaucrats? We need a better source of guidance in such important matters, and I nominate The Wizard of Oz—the Judy Garland movie, of course, not the original L. Frank Baum book.

It is my theory, based on almost yearly viewing of the movie since I was a kid, that the four companions who skip arm in arm down the Yellow Brick Road each represent an essential aspect or goal of education. When you add what the Scarecrow wants (a brain) to what the Tin Man wants (a heart), to what the Lion wants (courage), to what Dorothy wants (a home), you end up with a fully educated person. There is even a kind of graduation ceremony near the end of the movie, during which the Wizard hands out awards and recognitions: a diploma to the Scarecrow, a heart-shaped watch to the Tin Man, and so on.

Although brainless, the Scarecrow is still somehow smart enough to recognize the value of having one. He complains when he first meets Dorothy about the crows that come from miles around to eat in his field. “Oh,” he moans, “I’m a failure because I haven’t got a brain.” But as useful as a brain would be in helping him do his job, that isn’t the only reason he wants one. He also wants to experience the joy of understanding. As he sings: “Gosh, it would be awful pleasin'/ To reason out the reason/ For things I can’t explain.”

The Scarecrow reminds us that the real purpose of education isn’t so much to prepare students to make a living, as to prepare them to make a life. Today, though, increasingly it seems that the only purpose of education is to prepare students to take tests—diagnostic tests, achievement tests, aptitude tests, state tests. What teacher wouldn’t love to have a student who joyfully sings and dances, as the Scarecrow does, about “the chance of getting some brains”? But what student will feel much like singing and dancing if education becomes ever more synonymous with high-stakes testing? You don’t have to be a wizard to see the threat to the joy of understanding in that.

Even if it were true that harder and more frequent tests lead to bigger and better brains, I’m not sure that braininess should be considered the defining characteristic of an educated person. Aristotle long ago pointed out something that we always seem in danger of forgetting. “Educating the mind without educating the heart,” he observed, “is no education at all.”

Which brings us to our hollow-chested friend, the Tin Man. Although the Wizard warns him, “Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable,” he wants one anyway. Why? Because he is “presumin’” that he could be “kinda human” if he “only had a heart.” Having a brain buzzing with ideas and reasons is a fine thing, just not everything. A heart capable of knowing the great emotions—love, devotion, pity—is also necessary.

Contemporary culture glamorizes technology and treats the human as outdated and inefficient, something to be overcome rather than respected. We are so dazzled by technological breakthroughs that we fail to notice this antihuman ideology, this weird form of self-alienation fostered and circulated by the very media that most profit from it. When we aren’t hunkered down in front of our satellite TVs, we are hunkered down in front of our PCs; when we aren’t answering our pagers, we are answering our cell phones; when we aren’t listening to CDs, we are watching DVDs. We spend larger and larger amounts of time attached to machines of one sort or another. Despite the freedom that new technologies are supposed to afford us, we seem, with each technological advance, to become more robotic, turning ourselves into tin men and women.

Few of us are likely to abandon our pagers and CD burners and Palm Pilots to go back to the garden. The problem, therefore, is how to keep the heart—traditionally seen as the seat not only of feeling, but also of judgment and moral wisdom—from getting lost in the clutter at the bottom of our cultural closet. Some schools try to impart clarity through so-called character education, which draws on the ethos of the world’s major religions and the sayings of philosophers and writers. But can a daily quote from Confucius or Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. reverse the numbing effects of watching all those ass-shaking music videos or playing all those ass-kicking video games? I tend to doubt it.

So what will? Perhaps introducing students to the plight of other youngsters around the world. If students can’t relate to the teachings of ancient philosophers, maybe they can relate better to the suffering of others their own age—to the more than 200,000 children, some as young as 6, recruited to serve as soldiers in government and rebel armies. Or to the 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 who are forced to work for a living. The figures are enough to break your heart—2 million children killed in wars during the past decade, 50 million to 60 million working in hazardous conditions—but sometimes, as the Tin Man himself might say, the heart must break in order to grow.

It would require courage, the trait the Lion so desperately wants, to teach or even learn such stuff—because once students realize, with their hearts as well as their heads, that woven into trendy Gap clothes or molded into the latest Nike Air Jordans may be the agony of children who work 14-hour days in sweatshops, no trip to the mall will ever be the same careless fun again. The realization goes against the whole commercial flow of our culture, which submerges the actual, often intolerable conditions of production beneath bright, giddy waves of advertising. And yet, if school teaches anything, shouldn’t it teach students to be morally and intellectually courageous, to question the culture’s frenzied faith in materialism, and to stake their identities on something more substantial than a bunch of brand names?

“Life,” the writer Anaïs Nin once said, “shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” School life, by this measure, is a dried-up, shrunken thing. In fact, schools as now constituted seem primarily designed to promote not courage or curiosity, but passiveness and conformity. A person with a somewhat skeptical turn of mind might even see character education, with its emphasis on old- fashioned virtues like responsibility and respect, as a device to render students more obedient to authority. Not that there aren’t plenty of such devices already, from dress codes and drug tests to metal detectors, armed guards, and surveillance cameras. The atmosphere at many schools doesn’t come close to addressing what may be students’ greatest need: connection and community, a sense of belonging. Rather, the atmosphere adds to the aching emptiness, like horrible old Miss Gulch trying to take Toto, Dorothy’s closest companion.

Schools as now constituted seem primarily designed to promote not courage or curiosity, but passiveness and conformity.

Dorothy is an orphan living on a dreary Kansas farm with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. Some years ago, the sociologist Peter L. Berger wrote a book called The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness, which argued that modern society has left most of its members feeling like orphans. He noted that the traditions and affiliations—familial, occupational, ethnic, religious—from which people once drew a sense of belonging have been destroyed or degraded by the forces of modernization, resulting in a world that has become a colder, darker, lonelier place. Recent statistics suggest that this is especially true for young people. One government survey, for example, found that nearly 3 million Americans ages 12 to 17 considered suicide in 2000 and that more than a third of those actually attempted it.

As Dorothy discovers, you can go over the rainbow and still not escape your troubles, still not feel understood or appreciated by others. The anxieties that the poor girl suffered in black-and-white Kansas take even more terrifying form after she thumps down into the psychedelic Land of Oz. She must now contend with a wicked witch, crabby talking trees, and winged monkeys. No wonder she wants to get home.

I often hear teachers and school administrators complaining about how tough their jobs have become. They say academic standards have never been so strict, or students so needy, or parents so uninvolved. They may be right, too; their situation may be unfair, though I can’t help wondering whether they could use a little of the Wizard in them. The Wizard is mostly blather, a con man with no special powers beyond his remarkable gift for obfuscation. Nonetheless, he gives Dorothy and her friends a task—"Bring me the broomstick of the Witch of the West"—and, much to their own surprise, they accomplish it.

School should be more like that. Students should cross the threshold of a challenge and, after a series of symbolic adventures, find brains and heart and courage on the other side. It seems to me the only way we’ll ever get home again.

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