A Fortnightly Review.
How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education
by Scott Newstok
By ANTHONY O’HEAR.
IN PLATO’S PHAEDRUS (274c-275c) Socrates tells the tale of Theuth, the inventor of writing, who comes to Thamus, the king of Egypt, boasting of what he has done, that it will provide a ‘recipe for memory and wisdom’. But Thamus is not impressed: your invention, he says, ‘will implant forgetfulness in (men’s) souls… they will call things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks… they will be filled not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, and they will be a burden to their fellows.’
A lovely story, containing much truth. But how do we know about it? Socrates himself wrote nothing. We know about it only because Plato wrote it down. One wonders what Socrates would have made of that. An air of paradox hangs over the whole matter.
A similar tension, to put it no stronger, accompanies Scott Newstok’s well-meaning little tract, How to Think Like Shakespeare, which advocates face-to-face classroom teaching, a type of teaching which is alive to every moment and every individual in the classroom, as things happen, as against pre-packaged lessons, particularly those with pre-set ‘outcomes’ and ‘targets’, and even more if they are ‘delivered’ on-line, via the internet. He also inveighs against what he calls ‘assessment-driven reforms’, and up to a point one can sympathise with his agenda, particularly if ticking off the pre-determined outcomes against a schedule of measurable targets is taken to be all that matters.
But what Newstok gives us is not the life of face-to-face teaching or conversation, but a pre-packaged book, and, it has to be said, a book that at times reads like a list of half-thoughts and clichés, filled out with the obiter dicta from all sorts of celebrities and authorities, from Einstein (inevitably, in these matters, Einstein), to Martin Luther King, to Maya Angelou, to Seamus Heaney, to E.M.Forster, to Nietzsche, to Aristotle, to Dewey, to Gramsci, to Rousseau, to Bob Dylan, to Cicero, to… — and so the list goes on. Stravinsky gets in: ’Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength’, and this from the composer of The Rite of Spring! ‘Come off it, Igor,’ one feels like saying, ‘you don’t really believe this, or you only half-believe it; much more needs to be said, much more.’ (And there are those who find some of Stravinsky’s later works too dry, too formulaic, thin because too constrained by the limits the composer then in musical combat with Schoenberg encased himself with.)
But more isn’t said, not by Newstok anyway. To take one example of where more is needed, in correctly emphasising the need for structures and rules in creative activity, Newstok doesn’t say enough about constraints that free and those that bind, or how constraint and freedom inter-mingle and transform each other (though there is a rather sentimental passage about teaching Shakespeare sonnets to prisoners in prison, where clearly an oppressive form of constraint is operative). A book can’t be a live tutorial, admittedly, but it needs to be more of discussion than we get from Newstok, especially if it is dealing with complicated and difficult topics, such as the relationship of constraint and freedom in education. A Platonic dialogue, perhaps?
Newstok’s aims are admirable, and he is probably an inspiring teacher. He is strongly alert to anything which would militate against the humanity of teaching, and against responsiveness to what happens in the actual moments of teaching. Teachers, for Newstok and for me, are not to be seen as franchisees of some educational hamburger chain, simply paid to delivering what is laid down from some central authority or bureaucracy, as is all too frequent in 2022, particularly where governments and well-meaning business leaders take it on themselves to ‘raise standards’. Standards, even of basic skills, are low, even disastrously low in many places in Britain and the USA, a point Newstok does not emphasise enough.
But the remedy is not to focus exclusively on pre-set targets or, even less, to see pupils in terms of organisms to be trained in reproducing certain learnable skills, or to reduce success in education to what can be assessed in measurable ways. Here one can agree with Newstok on the life-denying and anti-educational reductivism of much current practice, but we should not engage in simplistic dichotomies. Can there be education without some aims (against which success is to be judged)? Without some sense of where the lesson might lead, even if we as teachers should be prepared to adapt the goal in the light of what happens as we teach? Can there be teaching without assessment of some sort? Isn’t assessment an integral part of teaching (as opposed to uncommunicative lecturing)? Have my pupils actually learned what I want them to learn? Are they picking up on the points I am so pleased with? Is my teaching any good? And while talk of targets in education is often overdone, to put it mildly, is Newstok right in targuing that the best way to hit a target is to aim above it? Don’t we say that the arrow went truly to its target (and not above it)? Odd if our aim was not the target. We need a much more nuanced discussion of all these matters than Newstok allows.
Against much contemporary thinking, including that of Sir Ken Robinson, whose lamentable TED talk he criticises, Newstok strongly urges us to see the importance of imitation, of craft, and of learning from our (great) predecessors in any humane education, particularly if one genuinely wants to be creative. To great effect, he quotes the Russian émigré Joseph Brodsky as saying of his American pupils’ complete ignorance of Ovid, ‘You’ve been cheated’. Here one feels that nothing more need be said, though to see why one would have to be aware not just of Ovid himself, but also of the way much European art and literature derives from Ovid, especially in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare indeed quoted a long passage from Ovid in The Tempest (Act V), which no doubt counts straightforwardly as imitation, though adapted from Arthur Golding’s translation (so double imitation), but here again we need more nuanced discussion.
There is tradition, but there is also the individual talent, as Eliot, a great modernist as well as a traditionalist, taught. You can’t just imitate, you must bring something to what you do, but how do you balance the two? It is in making judgements of this sort that what is needed is not just the words, the principles, but the experience and sensitivity to make the right balance. It is precisely this which Wagner explores to such profound and enlivening effect in Die Meistersinger, and which Eliot illuminates so clearly in his famous essay. In comparison, a chatty and quotation-laden book like Newstok’s is all too likely to seem preachy and flat-footed. It is at points like these that Socrates’s animadversions against writing seem much to the point, and the same applies in the world of education more generally, where judgement and experience are of the essence rather than words, even well-intentioned words like those of Newstok and of the multitude he quotes.
Finally, to Newstok’s title. His book does not really tell us how to think like Shakespeare, and only en passant and rather impressionalistically about Renaissance education (pupils sitting at desks, etc., but not much about the curriculum at the Stratford Grammar School). As Newstok quite correctly observes, Shakespeare was, for the most part, a playwright, and we cannot infer what he himself thought from what his characters are made to say. We can, of course, deduce something about the range of his experience and the flexibility of his mind from his writing, though whether that would help us to emulate his brilliance and poetic conjoining of ideas is another question.
On the question as to our knowledge (or rather ignorance) of what Shakespeare the dramatist actually thought himself, early on in the book Newstok does make a valid and salutary point. He mentions the number of times people quote Polonius’s speech to Laertes as a model for our own behaviour. Jumping over the blather in the speech about borrowing and lending, about being familiar, but not too familiar, about being costly in one’s apparel but not expert in fashion, to-day’s commentators tend to hone in on its closing exhortation ‘this above all, to thine own self be true’. How many times have we heard this in degree ceremonies, commencement addresses, prizegivings, speeches from eminent big-wigs, and the rest? None of them realise that the whole speech, and especially the peroration about being true to oneself, is an expression of worldly cynicism in a corrupt court, the type of behaviour which men (and women) like Polonius have made careers out of, with wealth, acclaim and college masterships the reward.
Yes, indeed, to thine own self be true; and forget all other selves, forget the imperfections, weaknesses and self-centeredness of thine own self. Forget one’s own sinfulness. Do whatever is required to promote one’s own self, while trimming and tacking in the calculating journey through life which Polonius has been advocating. Newstock speaks here of ‘moral entrepreurship’, which I think is good, but I wish he had developed this point more. If he had, he might have said more about the way a true education will take one out of one’s own petty self, giving us aspirations, ideals, thoughts and perspectives which take one beyond not just self, but also beyond one’s own time and its prejudices and fashions. In Dante’s Paradiso, the blessed do not look at themselves or even at each other. They look at the divine light, which the purification of self in Purgatory has enabled them to endure. Poetry, says Eliot (in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’), is not ‘the expression of personality, but an escape from personality’.
And so education should be, whether Shakespearean, Renaissance, or contemporary. This is why craft, imitation and constraint are all, in due measure, essential to it, and why self-expression and ‘personalised learning’ are antithetical to it. Newstok, to his credit, is on the right side here, and laments that in to-day’s classroom focusing with one’s whole attention on a common worthwhile object – beyond oneself – has become a forgotten skill. But his book gives at most a hint of what is required, not the deeper reasons for it, nor the reason why education, being in Plato’s terms, a care of the soul, requires human interaction, with all the uncertaintly, unpredictability and unformalizable knowledge that entails.