Scarecrow Syndrome is a culture-induced mental condition that attaches excessive importance to the possession of a college diploma. Sufferers imagine that only college graduates can be expected to speak grammatically or know about “highbrow” stuff like history or literature. They don’t seem to know that anyone who has achieved a decent high school education–or has simply learned to read at an eighth grade level and use a dictionary–can acquire an advanced education without the expense of going to college.
From parents, teachers, reformers, and advertisers, American children are bombarded by the magical thinking of the Wizard of Oz:
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.
SCARECROW: [as soon as he holds the diploma] The sum of the square root of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side. Oh joy! Rapture! I got a brain!
Scarecrow Syndrome is intensified by exposure to the American entertainment media, chiefly television sitcoms and crime dramas that ridicule characters who speak grammatically or use words that are not on the Ayres list of basic vocabulary.
Scarecrow Syndrome in adults is especially difficult to treat. The best remedy is prevention, beginning with infancy and early childhood education.
“A college diploma” and “an education” are not synonymous.
A college diploma is proof of attendance. Its value varies according to the quality and prestige of the college that bestowed it, what the student actually learned in acquiring it, and what it’s worth in the job market.
An education, on the other hand, is the accumulation of knowledge and understanding of the human condition. Its value exceeds practical considerations of earning power. An education exposes a person to the thinking of other times and other cultures, enriching the soul and providing entertainment and solace in moments of loneliness or sadness. Anyone who can read and is willing to explore unfamiliar ideas can acquire an education, even without going to college and being handed a diploma.