The Scarecrow Effect

September 4, 2020 Updated: September 9, 2020


One of the all-time great movies, and one of my all-time favorites, is “The Wizard of Oz.” In the tear-inducing final scene, shortly before Dorothy is returned home, the Wizard addresses the self-assumed shortcomings of her companions.

To the Scarecrow, he says: “Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of deep 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!”

The Wizard hands a scroll in a ribbon to the Scarecrow, who immediately pontificates with a wide, proud grin, “The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side.”

As a young math student, I was always bothered by this scene. The equation that the Scarecrow recites is wrong. It would have been easy to consult any mathematician, or even high school math student, to get a correct and similarly impressive-sounding statement. It bothered me for years, slightly tarnishing an otherwise perfect gem of a movie.

But recently, I’ve come to see it as perhaps prophetic.

Is it possible that its screenwriters or directors did this on purpose? Could the message be not that the Scarecrow is intelligent but that university graduates are not? Could it be that a degree really has no meaning, that degreed men are no more deep thinkers and no less mistake-prone than others? In the 1930s, that message was probably understood easily by moviegoers. But that message is lost today.

This modern reliance on credentials, while ignoring actual ability, is what I call the Scarecrow Effect. I noticed it perhaps first when I graduated with a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Stanford.

I had mixed feelings about my education. I had met with some great minds among professors and students, but many of my classes lacked any personal interaction. Some professors were excellent at research but obviously had no interest, or skill, at teaching.

However, when I left Stanford and looked for a job, interviewers rarely inquired about much beyond my degree from Stanford. Even years later, when I tell people I attended Stanford, their reaction is to remark on how impressed they are, without asking what I’ve done or accomplished in the nearly 40 years since then. My degree was all that mattered.

This is the Scarecrow Effect.

I saw the same attitude when California passed a law to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Since 2015, illegal immigrants in California have been able to apply for a driver’s license. Fifteen other states and the District of Columbia have passed similar laws. The theory is that the license will make them good drivers and law-abiding people, despite a history of disregard of immigration law. The license was all that mattered.

This is the Scarecrow Effect.

For years, test scores of California high school graduates have been dropping, so that now half or less meet the requirements, while graduation rates have been climbing. There has been a push to get kids a high school diploma, without actual life skills or college preparation.

In college, many California students have to take remedial classes on subjects they were supposed to have learned in high school. The high school diploma was all that mattered, not the skills it’s supposed to represent. Getting a college degree is all that matters, not the knowledge that’s supposed to be learned.

Then-University of California President Janet Napolitano assembled a blue-ribbon panel of leading experts to look into bias of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which has been used for decades as a factor in college admissions. The panel came back this year with a report, unanimously agreed upon by the panel, that the test wasn’t biased—it actually increased minority enrollment and was highly correlated with success in college.

Not meeting her predetermined decision that she had hoped would be supported by the facts, Napolitano threw out the report and decided to eliminate standardized tests for admissions. After all, it’s not a student’s intelligence, knowledge, capabilities, or effort that matters, but only the eventual degree that confers wisdom on the student. The logical conclusion is actually that colleges and universities are unnecessary other than to print degrees and hand them out.

This is the Scarecrow Effect.

In the latest example of such Wizard of Oz thinking, California has lowered bar exam passing scores in order to “increase diversity” in the legal profession, while other states have eliminated it altogether out of “fairness” to students who didn’t complete their courses due to the COVID-19 pandemic or who are concerned about taking the test in close quarters. California lawmakers even want the score lowered retroactively, to allow those who failed the exam to practice law.

The thinking goes that by handing these students a law degree, these schools have fulfilled their purpose regardless of whether those students actually know and understand the law. Will the same be true soon of doctors? As you go under on the operating table, will you hear the surgeon say, “I never saw this thing before, but I have a medical degree, so I’ll figure it out”?

This is the danger of the Scarecrow Effect.

Along the theme of the Scarecrow Effect, many schools like to post banners of the following quote from Albert Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Misunderstanding the phrase, and taking it out of context, many teachers use it to justify the Scarecrow Effect, as if children, and adults, don’t need to learn things, they just need to imagine things.

Unfortunately, these teachers are products of the same Scarecrow Effect, not understanding or bothering to research the context of his statement.

Einstein had as much knowledge of our world as any scientist at the time. He was speaking not to today’s society, but to people in his time that took learning seriously. The people of his time accepted knowledge as critical to discovery, something we seem to have forgotten. He followed his statement with the explanation, “For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”

It’s time for reasonable people to pull back the curtain and expose the fraud behind the Scarecrow Effect. Our civilization needs skilled, competent workers in all fields, from construction to auto mechanics to engineering to medicine. People need real knowledge to excel in their careers and to be functioning citizens of our society. Unqualified, unknowledgeable people need to fail, despite the damage to their self-esteem.

It’s time for parents, teachers, and employers to encourage our children to learn actual skills and obtain actual knowledge, and not worry just about some title or piece of paper.

Bob Zeidman has a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science from Cornell University. He is an inventor and the founder of successful high-tech Silicon Valley firms including Zeidman Consulting and Software Analysis and Forensic Engineering. He also writes novels; his latest is the political satire “Good Intentions.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.