Certain trends inexplicably come into vogue every now and then. Take the current one of reading young adult fiction. Whether it’s Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or Three Cups of Tea, it seems people everywhere are turning to fantastical works of fiction, to satisfy their desires for escapism into an unrealistic world.
Cross the line from adult fiction into reading children’s novels however, and you’ll be faced with a different reaction. “What can you possibly gain from a book written for children?” people ask.
The answer is simple. You can learn to think and be like a child again. This is a process that others have dubbed “unlearning” – letting go of what we have already learned or acquired.
Unlearning is a process of liberation, and it’s crucial for helping yourself to learn more. A fantastic metaphor is stripping the existing paint off a wall, so that you are able to lay down new paint over the top of it. Stripping the paint is a more arduous task than painting a new coat, yet we seem to focus more on the latter than the former.
I recently read The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. The story centres around the adventures of a young boy named Milo, who is too bored with life to even look up from the pavement on his way home from school. For Milo, the world is full of facts and figures, which to him seems irrelevant.
However, an unexplained package arrives at his house and inside is a cardboard tollbooth, which when set up, is a portal to another world ruled by two opposing kings. Azaz the Unabridged is the King of Dictionopolis, and his brother, the Mathemagician, rules the kingdom of Digitopolis. Both brothers are embroiled in an ongoing battle over which is more important: numbers or words.
The only solution to the problem is for a brave soul (you can probably guess who that is) to climb the Mountains of Ignorance and rescue the beautiful princesses Rhyme and Reason from their prison in the Castle in the Air. Rhyme and Reason were banished to this place because they refused to choose between numbers and words and thus infuriated both kings.
Along the way, Milo jumps to Conclusions, which turns out to be an island, swims in the Sea of Knowledge, meets the Whether man, who asks him whether or not it will rain, and spends time in jail with a Which, a kindly old lady who turns out to be nowhere near as scary as Milo imagined.When Milo orders a “light” meal during King Azaz’s banquet, he is served a plate of lightbulbs. When Officer Shrift, a police officer who is twice as wide as he is tall, wants to sentence Milo to jail, he asks him if he would prefer a long sentence or a short sentence. Milo replies that he would prefer a short sentence, to which Officer Shrift pulls out a piece of paper, writes “I am” on it, and hands it to Milo.
The heavy moralising tone of The Phantom Tollbooth sets it apart from other children’s books of the time. The message is clear; that the imagination is limitless. That experiencing new things with an open mind is ongoing, no matter who you are.
As you read the book, you cannot help but feel more and more childlike yourself. You want to be imaginative. You want to see the world as a child does. You want to appreciate simplicity.
I couldn’t help but feel how these attitudes are beneficial working in development. Taking a step back, the very concept of working in development is fairly audacious. It is quite bold to believe that you can take resources, whether they be human, financial or knowledge, and bring them to another country and culture to affect change.
We have an obsession with knowledge and learning in development. The much maligned phrases of “capacity building” and “trainings” indicate a willingness to impart knowledge that we have gained on other people. Armed with Masters degrees and limited experience in our countries of origin, we hope to bring what we know for the benefit of others.
But what if we were to approach these situations with an attitude of unlearning? What if, like a child, with eyes and minds open, we were ready to learn?
I was recently asked by some Cambodian colleagues to run a workshop on the social model of disability. This involved talking about how the definition of disability has changed, from a medical model, which highlights the impairments on bodies, to a social model, which emphasises the barriers that society places on individuals. Shifting the focus onto barriers is always an interesting exercise. We start to look towards society to see what barriers are erected by the community at large.
As a “trainer”, the implication is that I impart knowledge onto “trainees”. But if I allowed myself to “unlearn”, to strip back the paint off my own wall, then there was the real possibility that I could learn something valuable myself.
During this workshop, I always ask participants to collectively identify barriers that exclude people with disabilities from society.
When I held this training in China, participants tended to emphasise the physical barriers that such as lack of ramps and railings that prevented access to places for people with disabilities. However in Cambodia, the emphasis appeared to be more on stigmatisation and discrimination. In other words, attitudinal barriers seemed to be more disempowering.
Anyone who has spent considerable time in either of these two countries may not be surprised to hear these differences. But as a relative newcomer to Cambodia, this kind of information helped me to navigate working in a country and culture that I was unfamiliar with.
This is the value of reading children’s books such as The Phantom Tollbooth. They remind you that even as a so-called “expert” in a foreign country, at times, you’re more effective by relinquishing the baggage associated with what you have learnt. That seeing the world through a child’s eyes, and embracing that inner child within can help you along the way.
All it takes is ten minutes to remind yourself of the benefits of this attitude. As a start, I’d suggest heading over to read An Awesome Book, by Dallas Clayton, online via this link (thanks to Julianne Scenna for the recommendation). It’s a wonderful reminder of the power of dreaming big.
Next, you can purchase The Phantom Tollbooth here. I wish I’d read this book decades ago, but I’m thankful that I’ve read it now.
What children’s books have you read recently, and what did you learn?
Latest posts by Weh Yeoh (see all)
- Why I’m stepping back from the organisation I founded - April 8, 2017
- How do we know when to stop helping Cambodia? - June 7, 2016