The poet T S Eliot once observed that when it comes to studying and analysing Shakespeare all we can hope for is to be wrong about him in a new way (Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, p2). But perhaps not, because recently we saw one lecturer being right about The Bard with an inspiring fresh take.
In an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott L Newstok, a professor at Rhodes College, delivers a lecture to an imagined class of 2020 about to begin their university studies. His advice? If you want a great future go back to the past, to the 16th century – and learn to think like Shakespeare.
Sure, English Renaissance pedagogy was rigid and pedantic, totally antithetical to our own contemporary ideals “of student-centred, present-focused, and career-oriented education…” But despite its drawbacks (eg, 6am starts, mandatory prayers, the occasional lashing) it somehow managed to nurture world-shifting thinkers, including those who launched the Scientific Revolution.
Newstok is certainly not advocating such teaching methods, but instead wants to focus on what it engendered – critical thinking, clear communication, collaboration, creativity and, crucially, curiosity.
He tells the “Class of 2020”: “Given that your own education has fallen far short of those laudable goals, I urge you to reconsider Shakespeare’s intellectual formation: that is, not what he purportedly thought — about law or love or leadership — but how he thought. An apparently rigid educational system could, paradoxically, induce liberated thinking.”
So how can they think like Shakespeare? Newstok lists several methods familiar to Shakespeare, including rhetoric, imitation, inventio (how to construct an argument) and disciplined study to develop a deep inventory of knowledge.
“You take it for granted that Olympic athletes and professional musicians must practice relentlessly to perfect their craft. Why should you expect the craft of thought to require anything less disciplined?” he says.
All well and good, but what will they do with all this once they graduate; how will they get a job? There, too, he says, Shakespeare can be a model.
“When he was born, there wasn’t yet a professional theatre in London. In other words, his education had prepared him for a job that didn’t even exist. You should be encouraged to learn that this has been true for every generation: Four of today’s largest companies did not exist when I was born, 43 years ago. One of them, Apple, was co-founded by someone who said that the most important topic he ever studied was not engineering but calligraphy …
“In short, the best way for you to prepare for the unforeseen future is to learn how to think intensively and imaginatively.” And the best role model is Shakespeare.
This is just a brief summary of Newstok’s “lecture” and so cannot do full justice to the power and persuasiveness of his argument. You will be enlightened by reading his essay in full here.