Sunday, April 20, 2014

The best book written on education in the late 20th century

is The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. It describes deep issues that thoughtful educators wrestle with daily: wisdom, friendship, trust, relationships between children and adults, and most importantly, knowledge.

I remember it as one of my favorite books growing up, but I hadn't reread it in years. Lately, I've taken to reading to my daughter again before her bedtime, and I decided that I would read her books I thought she should know about but might not pick up on her own. I started with Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass, and then began on Phantom Tollbooth. As I've been reading it to her, I've found myself fighting the temptation to stop and underline everywhere. It's that good.

Let me just quote you a part, at length, from the latter part of the book. The protagonist, Milo, and his companions, Tock the watchdog and the Humbug, have just arrived at the Castle in the Air to rescue the princesses, Rhyme and Reason:
"It has been a long trip," said Milo, climbing onto the couch where the princesses sat; "but we would have been here much sooner if I hadn't made so many mistakes. I'm afraid it's all my fault."
"You must never feel badly about making mistakes," explained Reason quietly, "as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons."
"But there's so much to learn," he said, with a thoughtful frown.
"Yes, that's true," admitted Rhyme; "but it's not just learning things that's important. It's learning what do do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters."
"That's just what I mean," explained Milo as Tock and the exhausted bug drifted quietly off to sleep. "Many of the things I'm supposed to know seem so useless that I can't see the purpose in learning them at all."
"You may not see it now," said the Princess of Pure Reason, looking knowingly at Milo's puzzled face, "but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way. Why, when a housefly flaps its wings, a breeze goes round the world; when a speck of dust falls to the ground, the entire planet weighs a little more; and when you stamp your foot, the earth moves slightly off its course. Whenever you laugh, gladness spreads like the ripples in a pond; and whenever your sad, no one anywhere can be really happy. And it's much the same thing with knowledge, for whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer."
"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."
The Phantom Tollbooth, chapter 18

That's pretty much it, isn't it? The answer to "why do you teach?" A partial answer to "why should I learn this?" Partial, because specifics do matter, but a partial answer is better than what we often have now.

I think, if I were interviewing teachers for a new school, I'd ask what 3 books influenced them the most as a young person. I'd hire anyone listing this book in a heartbeat. It is a humane plea for the centrality of both knowledge AND wisdom in a life of meaning. It is a work of depth disguised as a children's book. It is a book that cries out to be reread. And I am truly grateful that Norton Juster chose to write it more than 50 years ago.


  1. Mike, you would hire me if we talked, I'm pretty sure. We see eye to eye on a lot. But I hate The Phantom Tollbooth. It doesn't work as a story for me because it's too didactic.

    1. Sue -

      I think that is exactly WHY it worked as a story for me. For someone like me, growing up in a somewhat-less-than-intellectually-engaging part of the country, being told that there really was value to knowledge, understanding, and wisdom was critical. À chacun son goût :)

      (And yeah, I'd hire you on the spot too :)


  2. Certainly one of the best books for children, teens, and adults. I had it introduced to me by my high school girlfriend. I read it to my son when he was eight or so and he adored it. I've read it at least a dozen times on my own. Jules Feiffer's illustrations are timeless.

    Juster's THE DOT & THE LINE is also fun, and there's a video of it you can watch on YouTube (I think) that captures it perfectly).

    1. Michael -

      I am expecting to return to the book frequently. Too much good stuff in there to miss. My daughter (almost 9) is really enjoying it. And yes, Feiffer is the absolute perfect illustrator for it. Like Tenniel and Carroll - it's impossible to imagine anyone else illustrating the book.

      As for the video of The Dot & The Line - I love it! Here it is for everyone else -