What Dorothy Did Before She Went Home: Learning Outcomes on the Yellow-Brick Road

Oct 18, 2013 9:50:10 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

“Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

In this month's column, he revisits the character of Dorothy to examine a few key learning outcomes of the study abroad experience.


There are not many people who have read all 14 volumes of Frank Baum’s novels of Oz. There are not many people who would admit to that if they had. Nevertheless, what Dorothy did and did not do is instructive and relevant to our endeavors. I visited the dramatic scenarios of Dorothy’s life in January to think about homecoming. Since then I have delved a little further....

Dorothy Gale is, in many respects, not a traditional study abroad student. She received little in the way of pre-departure orientation and seems deeply unconcerned about transfer credit but, she was a kid from Kansas (not therefore entirely different from many CAPA International Education students) where “she could see nothing but the great grey prairie on every side” (The Wizard of Oz, 1900). She possessed nevertheless the gift of curiosity, what Baum calls “wondering eyes” (Ozama of Oz, 1907) that enable her to explore and analyze the challenging environments she encounters.

Photo: Dorothy by Jessica Feis

Through those lenses, Dorothy learns that:

1. Power and politics matter more than culture. She encounters imperialism, conflict, political discord, ethnic diversity and division.

2. She learns to be a cosmopolitan in that she understands that similarities matter more than differences. The core of a cosmopolitan consciousness is, after all, a sense that there are human characteristics and, therefore, rights that should be universal and universally respected, and that there is more that unites than divides us. She learns that we are not defined or constrained by cultural difference and that empathy can transcend those barriers. She also learns to discriminate rather than tolerate, that the world is a complex place. Nuanced perspectives allow us and her to make moral choices.

3. She learns independence and courage, and that understanding worlds elsewhere is neither simple nor easy.

4. Her journeys also offer us an ideal metaphor for liberal international education: the point of arrival may be less significant than the path towards that arrival. Processes may be more important than outcomes.

The Wizard of Oz March 26_144
Photo: The Wizard of Oz by Brian Negin

If Dorothy is somewhat atypical of our students, The Land of Oz and its environs is also a non-traditional location. It does not, for example, feature heavily (or at all) in Open Doors but it possesses characteristics that are familiar to us:

It is a profoundly diverse environment in which ethnic conflict is common and where struggles for political control are, at times, intense and prolonged. Dissenting groups frequently challenge the power of Empire and military conflict is a real and present threat. The Nome King is, for example, intending to subjugate and enslave the inhabitants of Oz because he was “a bad man and a powerful monarch” (The Emerald City of Oz, 1910). In addition, the Land of Oz was menaced by the Phanfasms who represent evil (Baum’s North Koreans) and have one key objective: “the chief joy of the race of Phanfasms is to destroy happiness” (The Emerald City of Oz). For a time the location was subject to a State Department Warning but this was lifted because The Land of Oz is “a little ahead of the United States in some of its laws” and after all, as Princess Ozma tells us: “Our Land of Oz is a Land of Love, and here friendship outranks every other quality” (Tik-Tok of Oz, 1914).

Land of Oz
Photo: Yellow-Brick Road by Claire P.

Dorothy learns that what she really needs to know is who has power and what the political realities are. She learns that “an unsuspected enemy is doubly dangerous” (The Emerald City of Oz) and that the world is a complex and difficult place. In that respect, she is better informed than most of our colleagues.

Dorothy’s journeys through complex environments are sometimes dangerous, rarely direct and usually challenging. As Baum tells us: “Life was a serious thing to Dorothy and a wonderful thing too, for she had encountered more strange adventures in her short life than many other girls of her age” (The Emerald City of Oz).

The journeys of Dorothy lead her towards what Baum calls “wisdom” (The Emerald City of Oz) – not a word we hear often enough in the context of education. They also offer a corrective to the utilitarian focus in education abroad that places learning outcomes at the centre of our aspirations. In The Road to Oz (1907), the wisdom of the Shaggy Man teaches Dorothy that the path itself is what matters:

Each of the roads must lead somewhere, or it wouldn’t be here...if we travel long enough, my dear, we will come to some place or another in the end. What place it will be we can’t even guess at the moment but we’re sure to find out when we get there.

Photo: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Rita M

The Shaggy Man offers us a metaphor that conflicts with our current preoccupation with assessment of learning objectives.

Dorothy’s experiences demonstrate that, in Socratic or liberal learning, outcomes are less predictable in that the end is not so easily discernible. Learning is embedded in the journey more than in an anticipated end, and is not an industrial process with predictable inputs leading inexorably to anticipated outputs: the pursuit of wisdom is not along a straight path. We have to reclaim and redefine our agenda, to assert that creative, liberal learning is about the pursuit of wisdom; we cannot necessarily predict the outcome for we do not yet know what we may learn as we meander along the yellow brick road towards the distant mountains that surround the Land of Oz.