In The Phantom Tollbooth, a chronically bored little boy named Milo comes home from school one afternoon to discover a mysterious package in his bedroom. The package contains a kit and instructions to construct a purple tollbooth, and when Milo drives through it in his toy electric car, it takes him to the Lands Beyond. This is a fantastical land where kings fight over whether words or numbers are more important, and the princesses Rhyme and Reason have been imprisoned for years. As Milo travels through the Lands Beyond on a quest to rescue the princesses, he learns important lessons along his journey—such as why it’s important to know how to spell and use words, how to use logic to make a point, and where things like words and numbers come from. In this way, The Phantom Tollbooth becomes a meditation on the purpose of learning. While the novel illustrates that learning to effectively use language and do basic math will inevitably come in handy in life, it also suggests that people are learning things all the time, no matter what they’re doing—and that even if a certain lesson doesn’t seem immediately useful, that lesson will still help the learner become a more well-rounded, interesting person.
When readers first meet Milo, he doesn’t see the purpose at all in learning anything—and this leaves him unable to effectively engage with the world around him. To disaffected Milo, school feels like pointless torture. He doesn’t understand why he has to know where Ethiopia is, and it’s beyond him why he’d ever need to know how to spell or do math. And the novel suggests that this isn’t Milo’s fault—rather, it’s other people’s fault (presumably, his teachers and other caregivers) for failing to explain to him why these things matter. And this, in turn, leads to Milo disengaging and becoming disillusioned with the whole idea of learning and becoming educated. Then, because Milo hasn’t bothered to learn about words or numbers, he’s totally lost when he first arrives in the Lands Beyond. Even the simple act of using his brain to think about anything, even if it’s just birds in the sky, is taxing. And when faced with wordplay, puns, and difficult synonyms and homonyms, Milo is helplessly confused. Because he doesn’t value learning, he lacks the tools he needs to navigate the Lands Beyond—and this severely slows him down on his quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason.
The Phantom Tollbooth shows how, when people realize that what they’re learning is useful and that learning new things can be interesting, education begins to seem far more fun and engaging. Though Milo enters the Lands Beyond content to be bored and not learn anything, he quickly discovers that life is going to be way more fun if he knows what’s going on. As he and Tock peruse the Word Market, Milo becomes increasingly excited and interested in words, attempting to buy three that he thinks sound interesting, with the hope that he’ll be able to learn what they mean and then use them. With this, the novel suggests that learning is more fun when students see how lessons apply to life and believe that what they’re learning is interesting—in Dictionopolis, for instance, Milo needs to know how to use bigger words and decipher others’ flowery language in order to effectively communicate and know what’s going on. It’s also important to note that, while Milo is learning at every point along the way as he journeys to the Castle in the Air, he doesn’t always realize this. When, for example, Milo tries hard to see the world as an adult might so that he can join Alec Bings high up in the air, Milo is learning what it’s like to have an adult perspective—and when he falls back to the ground, unable to sustain the effort, he learns that he prefers to see the world from a child’s point of view. Learning, the novel shows, doesn’t have to take place in a classroom. It happens everywhere, as people try new things and draw conclusions about what they’ve seen, heard, and experienced.
Finally, the novel shows that learning is never useless, whether a person needs to use what they’ve learned to pass a test, accomplish a task, or develop a new point of view. Milo feels lost for much of the novel—but this doesn’t mean he isn’t learning. When he’s able to use what he’s picked up about logic to convince the Mathemagician to let Milo rescue the princesses, the novel makes it clear that Milo has been learning. But he just needed to encounter the right circumstances in order to use what he’s learned. Then, Milo has to use everything he’s learned to evade the demons in the Mountains of Ignorance. What he’s learned about math allows him to calculate how much time it’d take to complete pointless tasks, thereby beating the Terrible Trivium, and Milo’s new appreciation for words and ideas helps him scare away the Gelatinous Giant. His journey through the mountains is, in many ways, a practical test of everything he’s learned in the Lands Beyond—and when he’s able to rescue the princesses, he effectively passes with flying colors. However, The Phantom Tollbooth still suggests that the most important thing Milo learned wasn’t necessarily math, spelling, or critical thinking. The novel shows this most clearly when Milo returns to his bedroom and suddenly knows that he has all he needs to entertain himself without returning to the Lands Beyond. In essence, Milo realizes that he can learn anywhere—and that his life is richer and more interesting when he makes a point to do so.
Knowledge, Learning, and the Purpose of Education ThemeTracker
Knowledge, Learning, and the Purpose of Education Quotes in The Phantom Tollbooth
“When they began to count all the time that was available, (…) it seemed as if there was much more than could ever be used. ‘If there’s so much of it, it couldn’t be very valuable,’ was the general opinion, and it soon fell into disrepute. People wasted it and even gave it away. Then we were given the job of seeing that no one wasted time again,” he said, sitting up proudly. “It’s hard work but a noble calling. For you see”—and now he was standing on the seat, one foot on the windshield, shouting with his arms outstretched—“it is our most valuable possession, more precious than diamonds. It marches on, and tide wait for no man, and—”
“Our job,” said the count, “is to see that all the words sold are proper ones, for it wouldn’t do to sell someone a word that had no meaning or didn’t exist at all. For instance, if you bought a word like ghlbtsk, where would you use it?”
“It would be difficult,” thought Milo—but there were so many words that were difficult, and he knew hardly any of them.
“But we never choose which ones to use,” explained the earl as they walked toward the market stalls, “for as long as they mean what they mean to mean we don’t care if they make sense or nonsense.”
“Innocence or magnificence,” added the count.
Milo had never thought much about words before, but these looked so good that he longed to have some.
“Look, Tock,” he cried, “aren’t they wonderful?”
“They’re fine, if you have something to say,” replied Tock in a tired voice, for he was much more interested in finding a bone than in shopping for new words.
“‘Words and numbers are of equal value for, in the cloak of knowledge, one is warp and the other woof. It is no more important to count the sands than it is to name the stars. Therefore, let both kingdoms live in peace.’”
“Everyone was pleased with the verdict. Everyone, that is, but the brothers, who were beside themselves with anger.
“‘What good are these girls if they cannot settle an argument in someone’s favor?’ they growled, since both were more interested in their own advantage than in the truth.”
“In this box are all the words I know,” he said. “Most of them you will never need, some you will use constantly, but with them you may ask all the questions which have never been answered and answer all the questions which have never been asked. All the great books of the past and all the ones yet to come are made with these words. With them there is no obstacle you cannot overcome. All you must learn to do is use them well and in the right places.”
“Oh no,” said Milo seriously. “In my family we all start on the ground and grow up, and we never know how far until we actually get there.”
“What a silly system.” The boy laughed. “Then your head keeps changing its height and you always see things in a different way? Why, when you’re fifteen things won’t look at all the way they did when you were ten, and at twenty everything will change again.”
“I suppose so,” said Milo, for he had never really thought about the matter.
“Carry this with you on your journey,” he said softly, “for there is much worth noticing that often escapes the eye. Through it you can see everything from the tender moss in a sidewalk crack to the glow of the farthest star—and, most important of all, you can see things as they really are, not just as they seem to be. It’s my gift to you.”
“But it’s all my fault. For you can’t improve sound by having only silence. The problem is to use each at the proper time.”
“What a shame,” sighed the Dodecahedron. “[Problems are] so very useful. Why, did you know that if a beaver two feet long with a tail a foot and a half long can build a dam twelve feet high and six feet wide in two days, all you would need to build Boulder Dam is a beaver sixty-eight feet long with a fifty-one-foot tail?”
“Where would you find a beaver that big?” grumbled the Humbug as his pencil point snapped.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” he replied, “but if you did, you’d certainly know what to do with him.”
“That’s absurd,” objected Milo (…)
“That may be true,” he acknowledged, “but it’s completely accurate, and as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong? If you want sense, you’ll have to make it yourself.”
“How did you do that?” gasped Milo.
“There’s nothing to it,” they all said in chorus, “if you have a magic staff.” Then six of them canceled themselves out and simply disappeared.
“But it’s only a big pencil,” the Humbug objected, tapping at it with his cane.
“True enough,” agreed the Mathemagician; “but once you learn to use it, there’s no end to what you can do.”
“But that can never be,” said Milo, jumping to his feet.
“Don’t be too sure,” said the child patiently, “for one of the nicest things about mathematics, or anything else you might care to learn, is that many of the things which can never be, often are. You see,” he went on, “it’s very much like your trying to reach Infinity. You know that it’s there, but you just don’t know where—but just because you can never reach it doesn’t mean that it’s not worth looking for.”
“I hope you found what you were looking for.”
“I’m afraid not,” admitted Milo. And then he added in a very discouraged tone, “Everything in Digitopolis is much too difficult for me.”
The Mathemagician nodded knowingly and stroked his chin several times. “You’ll find,” he remarked gently, “that the only thing you can do easily is be wrong, and that’s hardly worth the effort.”
“I’m the demon of insincerity,” he sobbed. I don’t mean what I say, I don’t mean what I do, and I don’t mean what I am. Most people who believe what I tell them go the wrong way, and stay there, but you and your awful telescope have spoiled everything. I’m going home.” And, crying hysterically, he stamped off in a huff.
“It certainly pays to have a good look at things,” observed Milo as he wrapped up the telescope with great care.
“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.”
“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 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.”
“I think I understand,” Milo said, still full of questions and thoughts; “but which is the most important—”
“That’s why, said Azaz, “there was one very important thing about your quest that we couldn’t discuss until you returned.”
“I remember,” said Milo eagerly. “Tell me now.”
“It was impossible,” said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.
“Completely impossible,” said the Mathemagician, looking at the king.
“Do you mean—” stammered the bug, who suddenly felt a bit faint.
“Yes, indeed,” they repeated together; “but if we’d told you then, you might not have gone—and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”
And, in the very room in which he sat, there were books that could take you anywhere, and things to invent, and make, and build, and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything he didn’t know—music to play, songs to sing, and worlds to imagine and then someday make real. His thoughts darted eagerly about as everything looked new—and worth trying.
“Well, I would like to make another trip,” he said, jumping to his feet; “but I really don’t know when I’ll have the time. There’s just so much to do right here.”