Scott Walker and the Isosceles Triangle

“The Wizard of Oz” played an important part in my childhood. It has a place in our family history as the first movie my 87-year-old mother ever saw. As a child growing up in the 1970s, I could only see it once a year when it aired on network television, usually around Easter. We huddled around the TV and were entirely enchanted by the visually stunning fairy tale, despite the poor reception offered by our roof-top antenna in rural Pennsylvania.

While captivated by the story as a child, my appreciation of it grew later in life as I learned what a fascinating and timeless allegory L. Frank Baum had created. My favorite character was the Scarecrow. Despite his mourning of a lack of a brain, he proved himself worthy throughout the adventure by being the voice of insight and reason, and by always keeping his head. As such he naturally assumed the role of leader.

His transformation at the end of the story left a lasting impression on me. Despite having demonstrated himself a man of intellect, the Wizard was compelled to satisfy the Scarecrow’s request for a brain by giving him a diploma. It was, as the Wizard so poignantly stated, the only thing he lacked. Immediately upon receiving his degree, the Scarecrow, with stern face and professorial voice, impressively proclaimed, “The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side.” Of course, his statement of geometry was completely and utterly incorrect.

Much speculation surrounds the Scarecrow’s error. Some explain it away in terms of Dorothy’s visit to Oz being a dream: since it all came from her subconscious, one would not expect a young girl from Kansas to be sophisticated in the ways of Euclid or Pythagoras. I prefer another explanation. While I am not enough of a scholar of Baum to know if this situation played out in the original story, I believe that those who made the movie, in the spirit of Baum, were making a point about higher education. Intelligence, curiosity, thoughtfulness, and common sense are the seeds of success, and while impressive to behold, a college degree does not guarantee success or insightful knowledge of all things. Like everything else of value in life, those must be earned with hard work and dedication.

In subsequent stories we learn that after the Wizard’s unexpected departure from Oz, the Scarecrow is put in charge. He is an interesting choice for a leader, but the citizens of Oz had been fooled before. Once easily swayed by showy displays and grandiose promises, they no doubt selected their next leader based on his accomplishments and paid no attention to a piece of paper that had little to no meaning when held up against his life experience.