My mind has been on education a lot these days, as we take our fifth-grade daughter to visit middle school after middle school, analyzing and comparing notes, trying to decide which ones to apply to next year. It’s funny — though not all that surprising, I suppose — to see how all these presentations and open houses and tours help you refine in your mind what you think education is for. And so it was interesting to be in that frame of mind when I came across Adam Gopnik’s meditation on the fifty-year-old classic The Phantom Tollbooth (which I’d read to my daughter last year) and realized how Norton Juster was slyly writing about the point of learning itself, without ever saying that’s what he was up to:
As with every classic of children’s literature, its real subject is education. The distinctive quality of modern civilization, after all, is that children are subjected to year after year after year of schooling. In the best-loved kids’ books, the choice is often between the true education presented in the book — say, Arthur’s through animals at the hands of Merlyn, in “The Sword in the Stone” — and the false education of the world and school. The child being read to (and the adult reading) is persuaded that self-reliance is a better model for learning than slavish obedience. [...]
[Milo's] epiphany is that math and reading and even spelling are themselves subjects of adventure, if seen from the right angle. The point of “The Phantom Tollbooth” is not that there’s more to life than school; it’s that normal school subjects can be wonderful if you don’t have to experience them as normal schooling. [...]
For “The Phantom Tollbooth” is not just a manifesto for learning; it is a manifesto for the liberal arts, for a liberal education, and even for the liberal-arts college. [...] What Milo discovers is that math and literature, Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, should assume their places not under the pentagon of Purpose and Power but under the presidency of Rhyme and Reason. Learning isn’t a set of things that we know but a world that we enter.
Juster was writing a comic hymn to the value of the liberal arts at a moment of their renaissance [...] In “The Phantom Tollbooth,” the real moral sin is knowing too much about one thing: the Mathemagician who obsesses over quantities; the unabridged Azaz who lives off his own words. Against those who worried that the liberal arts could not help us “win the future,” Juster argued for the love of knowledge, and against narrow specialization. “The Phantom Tollbooth” was for learning, against usefulness. “Many of the things I’m supposed to know seem so useless that I can’t see the purpose in learning them at all,” Milo complains to Rhyme and Reason. They don’t tell him to listen to his inner spirit, or trust the Force. Instead, Reason says, “You may not see it now, but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else. . . . Whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer.”
Read the rest of Gopnik’s excellent piece here.