Newstok: How to Think Like Shakespeare

June 20, 2022

How to Think Like Shakespeare
Lessons from a Renaissance Education
Scott Newstok
(Princeton, 2020)

208 p.

The first thing I’ll say is that in my case this book did not deliver on its title. I read it, then tried to write some dramatic verse, and it turned out badly. But authors, I believe, often cannot title their books, so let’s not be dismissive. What we have in How to Think Like Shakespeare is a feisty, multifaceted critique of contemporary education in which Newstok uses pre-modern education as a foil, and an effective one. In education, he writes,

We now act as if work precludes play; imitation stifles creativity; tradition stifles autonomy; constraint limits innovation; discipline somehow contradicts freedom; engagement with what is past and foreign occludes what is present and native.

Shakespeare’s era delighted in exposing these purported dilemmas as false: play emerges through work; creativity through imitation; autonomy through tradition; innovation through constraints; freedom through discipline.

He dives into each of these contradictions of prevailing assumptions to discover what we might learn. The argument is not so much about what to teach, but how. “Education must be about thinking — not training a set of specific skills.”  Along the way, we get critiques of standardized testing, of technology (which, quoting Thoreau, he calls “improved means to an unimproved end”), of attempts to deny the canon (which, citing Wendell Berry, he says undermines one of the central purposes of education, which is to become “the heir of a cultural birthright”), of non-judgmentalism, and of aversion to tradition. And we are introduced to practices designed to teach craft, appropriation, and attention (which, he reminds us, Simone Weil called “the natural prayer that we make to inward truth”).  It is a cri de coeur from a man who, echoing Orwell, believes that “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty.”

The book is a broadside, therefore, against modern education and the institutions that sustain it. Its ideas might be startling, unless you’re already steeped in, for instance, David Hicks, Michel de Montaigne, Charlotte Mason, Ryan Topping, Roger Scruton, Dorothy Sayers, and Stratford Caldecott. In that case, the most startling thing about the book is who published it. Perhaps things are not quite so bad as they might be.

For me, the book has been most valuable for its lengthy “further reading” section, which, under the banner “Kinsmen of the Shelf” includes recommendations of a great many books and essays that I hope to investigate. Kinsmen of the Shelf. A good phrase. (It’s from Dickinson.)

So let’s see: Shakespeare, Thoreau, Weil, Orwell, Berry, Dickinson. Good company.

A final note about style. Newstok writes in a punchy, compressed style, and, in a delightful way, integrates phrases from Shakespeare (and others) into his own prose, much as the Church Fathers wrote hardly a sentence without echoing Scripture. It makes for stimulating reading.

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