Legoland and the Moral Obligation to be Intelligent

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Lionel Trilling

Lionel Trilling (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eventually, this is going to come out, so let me just get it out of the way now. I have an intense man-crush on Lionel Trilling. Isn’t he dashing?I know that most men my age have these sorts of feelings for people like Vince Vaughn, but what can I say? I read The Liberal Imagination and felt the same kind of swoon that other folks had watching Old School.

At any rate, one of Trilling’s favorite phrases was “the moral obligation to be intelligent.” It was coined not by him, but rather by John Erskine in a famous essay. Here is a Wordle of it, compliments of Wikipedia:

At any rate, somehow the phase became associated with Trilling and even provided the title of a recent collection of his essays. I’ve always been drawn to this ostentatious collection of words myself, and I try to instill the concept into my students: being smart is not a gift or a stroke of luck, it is an ethical decision we all make. And education is not a pre-fabricated product you buy, but a messy, unpredictable process of submitting yourself to the best that has been thought and said, and letting it force you to grow out of yourself and into someone better.

So just what exactly does this have to do with Legoland you ask?

Fair enough. I just had the opportunity to take my kids to Legoland for the first time and I was overwhelmed with the desire to blog about it. My girls have only recently “discovered” the joys of Legos and this has been a great joy to me. If one word can define my life’s philosophy, it would have to be “engagement.” This dominates everything from my vacations to my teaching practices, and nothing says “engagement” like a chaotic pile of randomly shaped and colored plastic blocks. Legos just beg their users to touch, feel, and experiment. Central planning is frustrated, romantic exploration is rewarded. This is the joy of Lego-building in its purest form. Culture out of Anarchy.

I am obviously not the first person to find deep meaning in playing with toys. Recently, the great Michael Chabon broached this same topic in his book of essays, Manhood for Amateurs. Chabon’s position about this particular toy’s explosive creative potential is much the same as mine, and like him, I am vehemently against the new trend of pre-organized Lego “kits” that encourage children to follow corporation-approved ideas of, ahem, “creativity.” I highly urge you to read the following interview as Chabon is far more articulate than I am.

The point of this post, however, is not to worry about the dark side of industrialist hegemony. There will be no ranting against the newly-ubiquitous term “job creator” here. (This time at least. I do hate that term so).

I love Legoland.

Having been to more than a few amusement parks in my life, I’ve appreciated some more than others. Cedar Point, in Sandusky, Ohio, is a monument to thrill seeking, and it dares its patrons to conquer both their fear and their propensity for nausea. Its intense emphasis on the rhetoric of challenge makes it engaging and great. It requires something of its adventurers. Disney, on the other hand, is…well…crowded. And not just with people. Its rhetorical goal is to overwhelm the senses and completely immerse its subjects in the fully-enclosed fantasy that finances its multi-national economic interests. I’ve enjoyed Disney, or at least found it interesting, but gaining enough perspective to critically engage with the park’s experience is difficult when one is so fully subsumed into the fantasy. It’s hard to observe the ocean when you are desperately trying to stay afloat in it. There is a terrific mediation on this in E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel that I recommend reading during a visit to that great American cultural institution. It makes for a healthy, subversive moment.

Conversely, Legoland’s genius is, like Cedar Point’s, its daring. No, it doesn’t dare you to conquer your fear of speed and height. On the contrary, it dares you to pause. Do not run, do not even walk. Stop. Look. There are details in these Lego-structures that will capture your imagination and pull you out of yourself. The most impressive section of the park in this regard is Miniland, a collection of famous American urban landscapes. My photos will not do the park justice, but look at this image:

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It’s the White House. Yes, but its more than that. Pausing to note – no stand in awe of – the craftsmanship that went into this model can be, for the engaged patron, a sublime experience. First, look at the accuracy of the architecture. The columns, the windows, the slant of the roof, the steps, the neo-classical peaks. The detail is amazing, but, even more so, the thought of people having taken the time to meticulously reproduce the detail is inspiring. Look at the flags at either end of the entrance. Not only are the flags made of Legos, the stripes and stars are all tiny Legos that come together to spangle the banners. Furthermore, a quick walk past this too-familiar American image might deprive the viewer of noticing that the Obama family is reproduced, in Christmas garb, on the front steps. And that Santa and his reindeer are being held up by the Secret Service on the roof! Clever, no?

I could post dozens of pictures that won’t do the experience justice, but I won’t. I will simply argue that this particular amusement park, like the classic toy that gave rise to it, makes the audacious move to require something of those who explore it. It doesn’t blast the senses with loud music and bright lights; it quietly and confidently sits back and dares the visitor to immerse oneself in the experience. It won’t do it for you. This is also, I think, the goal of education and of living the good life. The park, like the chaotic, random pile of toys my girls received for Christmas, offers the us an opportunity to fulfill our moral obligations: be inspired, dream, think. Be intelligent.

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