College: The Wizard of Oz?
Because I'm starting a new job tomorrow that will test my ability to speak a multiple of languages, I decided to pick up a copy of an old childhood fantasy The Wizard of Oz (in this case I picked up a French version) to hone my skills. I have come to realize there's perhaps an important and underlying metaphoric message within the book that I simply overlooked in my childhood/early teens years. I would go on to say that most adults have missed this underlying message in the story and view the work by L. Frank Baum as simply a childhood fantasy.
The Wizard of Oz: A Metaphoric Rebuttal Against the American Ivy League College System?
I won't bore people with summarizing the story line. I’m certain we all know it. What tells the tale are the main characters. We have the Scarecrow, a character who feels he isn't intelligent enough and seeks to have a brain. We have the Tin-Man, a man made of metal who requires an oil can in order to function. He seeks to have a heart. We have the lion. A character who feels he's a coward and seeks courage. Then we have Dorothy, a girl who has lost her way and is trying to get back home. We have the Wizard of Oz himself, a character who in many ways acts as a deity to the land, who can apparently deliver what these characters desire. We have the Wicked Witch of the West, a character our heroes must defeat in order to prove themselves worthy. Finally, we must take note of the two important symbolic objects in the story: The yellow brick road and the Emerald City. The yellow brick road is often mentioned. It's seen as the path to direct the characters to the Wizard and thus prosperity. The Emerald City is a city made of emeralds where the Wizard resides, renown for it's architectural wonder and wealth.
As I read through the story, I could make many connections between these characters and the people I knew as I struggled through college. For example, let's take the Scarecrow. He believes he isn't intelligent enough and that he needs the Wizard's blessing in order to prove his intelligence. Of course, all throughout the book, there exists several passages where he demonstrates he's actually fairly clever in a street smart sort of way. He dismisses such arguments though, believing he must see the Wizard to be considered intelligent. I would go on to say the character is a good interpretation of a person who grew up in rural areas, perhaps his parents were farmers, and I saw many like him before when I went to college. Nova Scotia, Canada, is still mostly a rural province. I knew many rural kids who felt the need to go to college in the city just to prove they're smart. They didn't care for the major. They didn't care for the finances it cost to get that degree. They had to follow the yellow brick road laid out by society, go to college . . . ugh I mean the Emerald City, and get their blessings from the Wizard, ugh, I mean the professor? The irony is in the end the Wizard hands the Scarecrow a diploma, as we say in Canada, cute eh?!
Next we have the Tin-Man. Poor sap, he reminds me of the many humble artists who feel they must go to college. Many artists feel they have to go to college to gain the prestige and to have the heart in their work. Some of them may have even made a living, although a modest one, before they went to college because they were already talented artists. Some may even scorn their work because it was a bit too industrial or commercial. They feel by going to college they can become a "true" artist rather than a glorified manufacturer. The sad result is in the end most of these people lost their ability to become modest artists by going to college. They have to pay off the debt, and the pay someone gets from art isn't enough. In the end, they lost their profession completely and had to sell out in other fields. The Tin-Man reminds me so much of a friend I once knew who was a wood carver and earned decent money selling the material on E-Bay. The similarities made my eyes bulge. Throughout the story we see many cases where the Tin-Man shows a lot of compassion and heroism toward people. Often the Tin-Man goes out of his way for others using intuition and creativity. Still, he's convinced he must follow the yellow brick road and get the blessing from the professor, ugh I mean Wizard, in order to prove to the land of Oz he has a heart.
Then we have the lion, a character that made me had to swallow a lot of pride, because he was a good interpretation of my former self. The lion was convinced he lacked courage, and perhaps he did, however he overlooked that courage comes from within. In many cases throughout the story, we see the lion insert his leadership skills to help the group prevail through obstacles. He's a good judge of character and is able to see the attributes in other people. He's a jack-of-all trade who doesn't really have any weaknesses other than his own self-doubt. The lion used the same faulty reasoning I used when I felt forced into college. The fact of the matter is at age 16; I was already able to get jobs that most 16 year olds could only dream of getting. When I was 18, I worked for a government agency position, all be it just part time, that often required college while most of my friends were still working at Burger King. Despite struggling all throughout High School, there were some indications my other attributes were being seen and slowly acknowledged. Still, I felt incomplete without college. My lack of college prevented me from searching for full time positions normally reserved for people who were older and with college degrees. I knew I could do the work, but I didn't have the courage to apply. I kept on saying they would just reject me anyway because I didn't have college. So I went to college. I followed the path laid out before me that is the yellow brick road. The path led to a subsequent mental illness diagnosis as I struggled. This was quickly followed by a loss of life, opportunity, and potential. In the end I didn't get any diplomas and I became unemployable for a long time. My past young successes made it difficult for me to qualify for welfare and I had to come up with unorthodox methods to sustain myself. There was even a stint of homelessness. I may never recover from that point and 16 may have been the highlight of my life in terms of income once adjusted for inflation. To this day, I still have some savings in my bank account from the time I was 16 . . . Today I now have the maturity to realize you don't need the approval of others to be courageous. You don't need college to tell you "I can do this . . . " Courage is a choice people make and it's an easy choice to make. In fact, I would go on to say today I'm now running into problems for being far too brave, outspoken, and brutally honest.
We have Dorothy. She’s a girl from this world who randomly gets dropped off in the Oz World. She's struggling with her surroundings and wants to find her way back home. Ultimately most of her problems are solved by her simply being herself. There are a lot of Dorothy's in college. Kids randomly deposited into the mysterious college world for god knows whatever reason who feel the need to navigate this world in order to "find themselves." All this without realizing that the answer to find themselves is literally right from under their own two feet. Yes, finding yourself can be as simple as clapping your heels three times. It's up to you to find yourself and your way home when you're lost. Still, Dorothy is convinced she must follow the yellow brick road laid out before her and meet the professor, ugh I mean Wizard, so he can show her the way.
Eventually our characters find their way to the Emerald City, which conveniently enough, illustrates a lot like a fancy university coloured in green. Green being the colour of money. Finally they meet the Wizard, who rather than helps our heroes immediately, feels the need to send them off on a quest to kill the Wicked Witch of the West. This is of course seen with some suspicion. Why would an all powerful and all-knowing Wizard need others to kill the witch for him? And why is it this Wizard finds it amusing to send our heroes on such a difficult quest that could possibly destroy them? The Wicked Witch of the West is a metaphoric representation of the exam. A tedious and long venture students must go through in order to "prove themselves worthy" to be handed knowledge by the all-knowing professor, ugh I mean Wizard. Indeed, when I grew up, many kids referred to an exam as a witch. Mostly because if we returned back with horrible grades to our mothers that’s indeed what they became. The Witch of the West is defeated by water. Metaphorically, I believe this is Baum's way of explaining exams have truly no meaning or power. Yes, they're big and scary like the bad witch, but in the end they're useless pieces of paper that can simply be washed away.
Once our characters defeat the witch, they find out they've been led on the biggest scam ever conceived. They discovered they already possessed the attributes which they sought. That the journey through Oz, the witch, seeing the Wizard, etc. was all in vain. It was a huge waste of time and resources. Rather than accepting responsibility, the professor, ugh I mean Wizard, floats off in a giant air balloon leaving our heroes to their own devices. He condescendingly waves good bye to our heroes and figures this isn't his problem any longer. Our characters would have been lost if it were not for the Good Witch of the South (perhaps this is a metaphoric interpretation that America should return back to an apprenticeship system?) that simply shows the characters how they can do what they already possess. Once the Good Witch shows our characters the methods and the ways to best use the abilities they already possess, their goals are surprisingly easily accomplished and in the end they're happy.
Last but not least, I will give an honourable mention to the symbolism of the yellow brick road, as I feel this helps explain my metaphoric interpretation on a whole level. The yellow brick road represents the linear pattern, one pathway method, we throw at kids that's the college system. The book includes several warnings from secondary characters not to divert from the yellow brick road. Simple lines such as "don't go there" suffice. Nobody questions what they see as the one path to enlightment. If you want to succeed in your goals, you must follow the lesson plan, ugh I mean yellow brick road, in order to reach college, ugh I mean the Emerald City, so you can then get the advice of the wise sage known as the professor, ugh I mean Wizard, who will solve all your problems. Never once does it dawn on you that you have the ability to solve obstacles yourself, because you're just a kid after all, ugh I mean an outlander, or without a brain, or without a heart, and/or without courage.
-Donovan D. Westhaver
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