I should start off by saying that I received a copy from the author to review. But don’t worry, I’m not paid for it, and anyone who knows me knows that I can’t flatter anyone and I’m too blunt for my own good.
That said, I think it’s an enjoyable and thought-provoking book. One complaint I have about How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education is that it’s a bit of a misleading title: it made me think that it’s a book about Shakespeare, for Shakespeare’s fans (such as me), but it’s about education. Once I got that out of my head, it’s an interesting book.
In 14 chapters, Scott Newstok examines 14 subjects, 14 ways in which education today isn’t quite working (he focuses on American education but certain values and trends can also be found in other countries), and he writes about what we could learn from a Renaissance education, the kind of education that produced Shakespeare.
“Thinking like Shakespeare untangles a host of today’s confused—let’s be blunt: just plain wrong—educational binaries. We now act as if work precludes play; imitation impedes creativity; tradition stifles autonomy; constrain limits innovation; discipline somehow contradicts freedom; engagement with what is past and foreign occludes what is present and native.”
The most interesting chapters for me are perhaps 8 “Of Imitation”, 9 “Of Exercises”, 10 “Of Conversation”, 11 “Of Stock”, 12 “Of Constraint”, and 14 “Of Freedom”. Newstok makes lots of good points. I do think, for example, that people now are not taught to argue, especially argue against themselves and their own positions; many people see “argument” as a bad word, Devil’s advocate as a bad thing, and are incapable of considering different sides to an issue and different arguments on each side. There is too much certainty in the current climate, too much cant, too much black-and-white thinking. There is too much us vs them mentality, too much conformity, too much intolerance.
I’ve also noticed an ignorance of and indifference, if not outright hostility, to tradition and classic works. In English-speaking countries, many people including teachers no longer care about cultural inheritance or legacy of the past, and only talk about relevance and relatability. A lot of it seems to come from an ignorance of the past, ignorance of context and history and development. Some teachers, for example, see Shakespeare’s plays through the lens of feminism or post-colonial theory or anti-racism or some fashionable ism, impose modern standards on his works, and want to remove him from the curriculum, partly because they don’t understand literature and can’t talk about literary merit, and partly because they look at the plays alone, ripped off from context, and have no understanding of literary history and Shakespeare’s influence on literature and other arts.
Scott Newstok doesn’t name those movements and doesn’t directly talk about the attacks on Shakespeare and the Western canon. He focuses on what’s not right with today’s education and what could be learnt from a Renaissance education, though it does help me see the roots of the problems I’ve been noticing in academia and the teaching of literature in English-speaking countries.
Sometimes a chapter feels a bit too short and makes me want something more. In “Of Imitation”, for example, I want more counter-arguments, and want to read more about how one moves beyond imitation. Newstok is right that imitation was seen as a good thing in Shakespeare’s days and a bad thing now, and today’s culture values (or is supposed to value) originality, but contradictingly we’re also living in an age of countless film adaptations of the same books over and over again, we’re also living in an age of remakes and reboots and modernisations and prequels and sequels and spin-offs.
Or, in “Of Attention”, he writes about distraction and the overload of information, but I’m not quite sure what the solution is for better attention.
Overall, it’s still a thought-provoking book. Newstok also lets me see how many of Shakespeare’s qualities, such as his ability to consider every side to an issue and ability to enter the minds of such a wide range of characters, were partly shaped by the education he got at grammar school. I enjoy that.
If you consider reading How to Think Like Shakespeare, it’s only 163 pages (not counting the thanks and index).