‘How to Think Like Shakespeare’

Professor discusses his book on the Bard, American education and what Shakespeare can teach us about the coronavirus.

April 21, 2020
 

Scott Newstok's new book, How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons From a Renaissance Education (Princeton University Press), is about more than the Bard. It's a challenge to the ideas that education is strictly about what you can assess or data that will lead to jobs. Newstok clearly believes, though, that an education on Shakespeare will help many people -- and not just English majors -- with their careers.

Newstok, a professor of English at Rhodes College, responded via email to questions about his book.

Q: What was your goal in writing this book?

A: As both a teacher and a parent of school-age children, I’d become dismayed by the way we think of thinking. Many of our educational assumptions are just plain false. Yet I hope that recalling enduring practices can help us -- maybe our institutions, but at least those individuals still interested in thinking. My book explores the educational assumptions that shaped a mind like Shakespeare’s: play emerges through work, creativity through imitation, autonomy through tradition, innovation through constraints, freedom through discipline.

A more basic goal was simply to harvest as many of my favorite thinkers on thinking as possible. As we know from the fight to preserve biodiversity, precious “seeds of time” (Macbeth) enrich the present -- call this “heirloom education”:

For out of old fields, as people say,
Comes all this new grain from year to year;
And out of old books, in good faith,
Comes all this new knowledge that people learn.

Q: Do you fear that the trends in higher education -- an emphasis on training for jobs and skills -- run against the themes in your book?

A:What is the end of study?” asks one of Shakespeare’s characters. The endless call for shortsighted “targets” in today’s educational jargon makes me feel as if we adults have become William Tell, aiming arrows at our own children. Our means (passing the test) have overtaken our ends (human flourishing). And if you talk to any archer, you might be surprised to discover that to hit a target, “aiming is way overrated.” If you create an incentive to hit the target, it’s all the less likely that you will be able to do so. The best way to pass a test is … by not fixating on the test. Instead, you must find ways to become immersed in activity for its own sake, in the company of skilled practitioners.

I believe we can we achieve short-term ends (skills, jobs) by aiming for the long-term end: cultivating an articulate citizen to act in the world, both “a speaker of words and a doer of deeds.”

Our word “school” derives from the Greek word for leisure, which in turn goes back to an older root meaning pause. “Pause” and “leisure” both sound a bit odd to us; we tend to associate school with work. But “school” was a particular kind of activity, one that demanded a respite from necessity -- a place to pursue thoughts in common alongside other people.

Never have I felt this to be truer than in the past months when we’ve all been exiled from that common place.

Q: I was surprised in your book to find a chapter on technology. What does "thinking like Shakespeare" have to do with technology?

A: Our era’s recurrent fable? Presuming that the only kind of technology is digital technology -- and that digital technology invariably improves upon anything that preceded it. This fable amounts to a creed, unshakable in the face of mounting evidence that computers don’t automatically improve learning. Instead, they exacerbate (not mitigate) inequality, as recent weeks have catastrophically confirmed.

When confronted by such dismal results, the “technological bluff” is always “The next version will be better!” I don’t know a single person who’s happy with the shift to remote learning. While all of us, students and teachers alike, are trying our best, it’s become starkly clear how sterile an alternative this is. As one of my own kids quipped the other day, “I even miss my classmates I don’t like!”

Naïve enthusiasm for digital technology often derives from an unspoken hostility toward teachers -- a hostility that seeks to eliminate the human element from education by automating it. If we were content with just “content delivery,” libraries and textbooks would have already made schools defunct. Carter G. Woodson had it right: “The mere imparting of information is not education.” People (and institutions) help guide us (and chide us) to confront demanding material.

Thinkers have always employed “technology” -- like the book, one of the most marvelous devices ever created, or even something as deceptively simple as the practice of sitting together around a seminar table. But it’s technology in the guiding hands of the learned teacher that helps situate us toward meaningful ends.

Q: And on freedom?

A: When Caliban cries out for freedom, he falls for a drunk Stephano, who sings, “Thought is free.” Yet at this moment, Caliban’s not free -- he’s just transferred his bondage to “a new master.” Real freedom would demand not only being slave to no one, but being his own master.

I’ve come to believe that a better translation of the emancipatory artes liberales would be the “crafts of freedom.” These practices cultivate a thinking citizen -- the bane of every despot. Such an educational program presumes that freedom is fragile, demanding endless exertion: “there is nothing more arduous than the apprenticeship of liberty.”

I end the book with the fantastic James Baldwin essay “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” which concludes, “My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past.” At first, Baldwin sought freedom from having to read Shakespeare, yet he came to relish the freedom to make Shakespeare his own. In doing so, Baldwin achieved a mutual recognition in Shakespeare that few of us ever reach -- “an inner freedom which cannot be attained in any other way” than by inhabiting other minds through art.

Q: What do you think your book can offer today, when we are focused on the coronavirus?

A: That’s kind of an up-to-the-minute version of the utility question, isn’t it? We quickly exhausted the “What Shakespeare Did During the Plague” takes. The plaintive cry of Sonnet 65 comes to mind:

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

I’m starting to feel like the crisis has given us a kind of X-ray into everyone’s souls. To cite one of countless examples I’d never thought I’d see laid so bare: Do you think the postal service should be privatized, or are you grateful for its countless daily decencies? In terms of education, would you cheer if half of all universities went bankrupt, or do you cherish close learning? Should we only read contemporary prose, or might poets from the past have something to offer us?

On a more mundane level: my chapters are mercifully short, well suited to “this distracted globe”! And the book’s packed with apt quotations. At the least, they might provide a momentary stay against confusion; at best, an inspiration to seek out “the treasures that prevail,” a handbook for what matters once we emerge from the wreckage.

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