For me, reading has always been a route out of a chaotic world. That doesn’t mean that I read “fluff”. Far from it. (Anyone familiar with The Iliad or Beowulf, knows that neither Sam Peckinpah nor Akira Kurosawa invented the specificity or depiction of violence.) But whether sitting with my children and reading aloud, or better still, sitting with my children while we all read individually, books bring an intangible into our lives by opening doors that remain available to us indefinitely.
Frequently the educational systems in many parts of the world pressure students into making choices that seem almost binary; the “science track” or “business track” for example, setting them on an educational road that is fundamentally an express lane highway, with little chance of turn offs and detours. These systems produce very smart people in their fields, but it doesn’t easily provide opportunities for reaching full potential.
Norton Juster, the author of The Phantom Tollbooth, which celebrates its 50th anniversary of publication today, exemplifies just the opposite. As a young architect, Juster had received a grant from the Ford Foundation to write a children’s book about “urban perception”, or how we experience cities. When months of work produced few results, he changed course and began to write the story of a bored boy named Milo who must effectually complete the Herculean task of ending the feud of two kings over whether words or numbers are the apex of education.
In this week’s issue of The New Yorker Adam Gopnik writes:
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. (Juster…spent most of his career as an architect and as a teacher at Hampshire 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.
and he continues with Milo’s gripe…
“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.”
Out of the innumerable approaches to learning, for me the most powerful is that which pushes us to explore, to go beyond expectations, to think. Rational thought is the goodly goal of the liberal arts education…and a quick look at the chaos around the world makes me wish more people believed that. And when Milo posed his questions, [Princess] Rhyme offers her additional advice to [Princess] Reason’s:
And remember, also, added the Princess of Sweet Rhyme, that many places you would like to see are just off the map and many things you want to know are just out of sight or a little beyond your reach. But someday you’ll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.
–Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth