Tollbooth to a Liberal Arts Education

Milo and his watch dog

One of my favorite books when I was growing up was Norton Juster’s Phantom Toll Booth, now celebrating its 50th anniversary.   Adam Gopnik in the the latest New Yorker has given me an insight into why I liked it so much: it is a manifesto for a liberal arts education.

Gopnik talks about how unlikely the book’s success was.  After all, it’s an allegory, and Gopnik notes that “it’s a commonplace of scholarship to insist that chldren’s literature came of age when it began to break away from the authoritarian model of the moralizing allegory.”

That being said, many generations of children, including the Bronte sisters, grew up loving Pilgrim’s Progress, the English language’s most famous moralizing allegory. Even Huck Finn doesn’t entirely dismiss it, saying that its about “a man that left his family, it didn’t say why. I read considerable in it now and then. The statements was interesting, but tough.”

But it’s also true that Pilgrim’s Progress doesn’t draw in modern children, and I have a tough time even getting my college students to appreciate it.  Thus Gopnik’s surprise that The Phantom Tollbooth gets aways with having “a symbolic point at every turn.”  As he sums up the book, the tollbooth

is sundered between words and numbers, between the land of Azaz the Unabridged, the King of Dictionopolis, and his brother the Mathemagician, the ruler of Digitopolis. The only way to reunite the kingdoms is for someone—why not Milo?—to scale the Mountains of Ignorance, defeat the demons, and release the banished princesses of Rhyme and Reason from their prison.”


If you haven’t read it, maybe this will give you an incentive to do so.

I particularly like how, for Gopnik, The Phantom Tollbooth promotes liberal learning:

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.

Gopnik then puts the book in its historical context:

Juster was writing a comic hymn to the value of the liberal arts at a moment of their renaissance, buoyed as they were by the G.I. Bill and new cadres of students. . . Juster’s book bears the flavor of those sweet postwar years, when every faculty was growing and every arts course resonating, and war seemed left far behind. . . 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.”

While it makes sense that a future English professor would like the book, I remember that my youngest brother Sam, now a computer software engineer, was even more enthralled by it. Sam is one of the most liberally balanced people I know, a great reader of novels and an artist as well as a very good engineer. The Phantom Tollbooth must have assured him that there was no contradiction between his love of math and his love of stories.

Unfortunately, it failed to work its magic in reverse: I was never reconciled with my own math courses. But as for its celebration of the liberal arts and its dislike of specialization—well, that about sums me up.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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