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adults really get in the way: an analysis of education via unsupervised adventure (in The Phantom Tollbooth)

jo's picture

He noticed somehow that the sky was a lovely shade of blue and that one cloud had the shape of a sailing ship. The tips of the trees held pale, young buds and the leaves were a rich deep green. Outside the window, there was so much to see, and hear, and touch -- walks to take, hills to climb, caterpillars to watch as they strolled through the garden. There were voices to hear and conversations to listen to in wonder, the special smell of each day...His thoughts darted eagerly about as everything looked new -- and worth trying. (Juster 255-256)

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is a classic piece of children’s literature, published in 1961. A timeless and revered tale, it is not only enjoyable and educational, it also advocates the importance of appreciating and being aware of the world - the environment - around you. For this reason, and because of its educational nature and narrative, it is a fantastic environmental education tool for young people. Gauged at around a 5th-6th grade reading level (by Scholastic, etc) and recommended for ages 8-12, this chapter book is full of challenging words and word play that must elude most children who read it (many of the expressions went right over my head when I read it in 4th or 5th grade), making it equally enjoyable for adults.
The Phantom Tollbooth tells the story of Milo, a young boy (maybe about 10-years-old) who has no interest in anything, who spends his life wishing he were elsewhere, and when he is there he wishes he weren’t. He is trapped in his boredom and pays no attention whatsoever to the world around him, for he doesn’t see the importance of anything. He is especially apathetic to learning: “I can’t see the point in learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is or how to spell February” he said. “And since no one bothered to explain otherwise, he regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.” (Juster 9) This not only frames the beginning of the story by outlining the central problem in Milo’s life, it is also a critique on education, at least on the education Milo has experienced, which can be assumed to be mainstream and normative. Of course, this could only have been a critique of education at the time (in the late 50’s-early 60’s). Still, this is the first example when Juster shows great ability to name problems with humanity that continue to exist (often more strongly) today.

One day, a tollbooth appears in Milo’s bedroom, addressed to him and with instructions to insert a coin and go through, so he drives his electric toy car through and immediately enters a completely different world. By his map he knows this is a land he has never heard of, with cities and geographical features equally as foreign. He soon embarks on a journey to rescue the exiled princesses, Rhyme and Reason, to restore peace to the Kingdom of Wisdom. Accompanying Milo are a literal “watch”-dog (a dog who’s body is a clock) named Tock, and a large talking Humbug. The three must traverse the Kingdom of Wisdom, at last facing the demons of the Mountains of Ignorance, many of whom wish to ensnare the brave travelers and make them waste time into eternity (some just want to eat them). Throughout this dangerous quest, Milo faces many obstacles, makes many mistakes, learns many lessons, and in the end he has grown a lot as a person, gaining an awareness of the world around him and the importance of his place in it.

According to Katy Mugford in Chapter 5 of Urban Wildscapes: Nature, nurture; danger, adventure; junkyard, paradise, there are certain ingredients which are common of children’s and young adult literature that make this kind of growth and environmental appreciation possible. Most of the elements Mugford describes are present and even central to The Phantom Tollbooth, including absent or unsupervising adults which gives space for children to make mistakes, experience and learn to manage dangerous or risky situations which often include threatening/unknown adults, and overall a sense of adventure and imaginative play.

Absent parents/guardians is one of the key factors in these types of literary “wildscapes”, because it opens the door for the many other components listed above. In The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo’s parents are not mentioned once, although at the end when he is returning home he says “I do hope that no one’s been worried,” since he was gone for weeks (Juster 253). Since he only missed an hour of time in his own world, the issue of parents missing him never comes up, but even so, the story is certainly lacking their presence, especially since Milo travels to a different world alone and with no supervision. There are characters throughout the story who are clearly adults, some of which who are strange and threatening and some of which provide guidance.
Particularly interesting are the two brothers, King Azaz who rules Dictopolis and the Mathemagician who controls Digitopolis. Neither is particularly parental, and perhaps this is important, for both encourage Milo on his quest to save the banished princesses (never mind that he is a child and they are great rulers with armies).

They tell him honestly that it will be very dangerous, but unlike adults in the real world that most children are accustomed to, they do not try to dissuade or forbid Milo from such a risky endeavor, they never tell him that the demons are too much for a boy to handle. This is one of the messages of the story: they only tell him his journey was impossible after he’s already come back. Individually, both brothers are conscious that if they tell him the biggest problem before Milo leaves (that he can’t do it), he will not be able to do it. For, as they tell him when he returns, “so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they are impossible.” (Juster 247) This is one of the most profound lessons that Milo learns on his trip, and it is one that adults and children alike would do well to internalize. Alas, parents are all to ready to point out that which their children are incapable of doing yet, and that which doesn’t fit within reality.

The absence of parents throughout Milo’s story also enables him to make mistakes, a necessary part of growing through interacting with the surrounding landscape. As Mugford explains, “Judgement is a learnt skill, not one that can be presented as a package to a child (ironic that the tollbooth which provides Milo all his adventure and growth appears as a package)...It is natural for children to make mistakes, choose companions and identify foes. These choices cannot always be forestalled by adult supervision. Children need to exercise choice and judgement.” (Mugford 88) As described above, Milo is entirely disinterested with learning and therefore does not have much information under his belt. Thus, when he comes into contact with entire cities that revolve around math/numbers and words/spelling, he finds himself unprepared and disadvantaged.

Throughout the story, he reflects on some of the things he wishes he had spent more time learning, and towards the end is distraught that his lack of knowledge caused him to make so many mistakes. The princesses assure him: “You must never feel badly about making 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.” Here again is a critique of mainstream education, which continues when the other princess says “it’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.” (Juster 233) So often, teaching is a process of filling children’s minds with memorized facts that they don’t realize why their learning, using multiple-choice standardized tests as the sole assessment of ‘knowledge’. Children often have no idea of why the things they are learning are important, and this is especially a problem in the case of environmental education. If children don’t see the importance of having knowledge about ecology and their surroundings (both natural and unnatural), they don’t take that information in as strongly or deeply as they need to. Like Milo, they greatly miss out on important lessons their environment has to offer.

In the (supposedly) imaginary world of the Kingdom of Wisdom, Milo is fortunate enough to go through a series of experiences that impress upon him the value of learning. In many instances, Milo gains this newfound appreciation of education and environment through being in a place of great risk or danger. Especially at the climax, when he and his companions must outsmart and escape the Demons of Ignorance, there is so much to be lost. Yet it is a story, and Milo makes it out safe, as we the readers know he must. According to Mugford, this is where not only Milo but any child reader can greatly benefit from this adventure in the Kingdom of Wisdom. “In the security of the fictional realm children often visit unsupervised and risky spaces… the barriers to accessing these places and experiences that are increasingly present in modern childhood are addressed head on.” (Mugford 92) So while perhaps it is true that  unsupervised play and learning from mistakes and risky adventure are all important elements for the growth and education of a child, perhaps it is possible that merely reading about these experiences in fictional stories is a great place to start.

The Phantom Tollbooth illustrates Mugford’s argument of how “protagonists appear to grow within their wildscapes. The real-world fears propagated by the media, of child as vulnerable victim, are countered from childish perspectives of curiosity, learnt judgement and understanding of the world. Engagement with the wildscape surroundings is synonymous with personal growth.” (Mugford 92-94) Throughout his epic quest, Milo transformed from a bored boy who did not care about anything and had no sense whatsoever of the environment or his place in it, to a passionate youth with motivation to learn and know, interest in his surroundings, and the beginnings of an understanding of himself and his role in his world. His path through the Kingdom of Wisdom, drawn on the inside cover of the book, makes it easier for others to do the same.


jccohen's picture

unsupervised journeying


I enjoyed the pleasure you obviously take (and I share) in the wit and wisdom of this text, and yes, its multilayeredness makes it fun - and meaningful, I think - for grownups as well as kids.  Also striking is your reading of book’s strong critique of schooling, which seems not only irrelevant but actually a hindrance to any kind of genuine motivation, discovery, and impact.


Interestingly in this light, one of the most compelling aspects of your paper has to do with the almost complete absence of parents and the “unsupervised” journeying that this supports.  You establish how this enables Milo to make mistakes, a critical aspect of “growing through interacting with the surrounding landscape” and to learn the kind of decision-making that Mugford talks about.  This capacity for assessing and making judgments could itself be understood as a desirable outcome of environmental education, and education generally, and could have larger ramifications: young people may be able to carve a way forward that is truly different from the way we’ve been configuring the “answers,” or even the problems.  The importance of exercising judgment – and risking mistakes - seem to me to apply with equal weight to the individual child growing up and the collective work of communities interacting with environments.


And this connects with the wonderful idea that all is “possible until we know it’s impossible” – true of children’s and perhaps all of our journeys – and also sheds an interesting light on the attitudes we take in relation to ‘environmentalism’ and ‘environmental education.’  This is part of why it feels so important to me that this work capture the potential power and passion of imagination on the one hand and social justice/equity work on the other. 


Such an interesting question about whether/to what extent reading about experiences of risk and so forth can be at least an opening for children who are too often restricted in their own experiences.