HOW TO THINK LIKE SHAKESPEARE:Lessons from a Renaissance Education

Scott Newstok

ISBN 978-0-691-17708-3  Princeton  £16.99 

Reviewed by Alan Dent


Composed of fourteen major chapters each entitled Of… (Of Thinking, Of Ends, Of Craft) this is a book about literature and education and the relation between the two. Newstok has in his sights the nexus of idiocies which dominates the US education system, but much that he says applies equally to the UK context, copied as it has been over the past decades from US failure. High-stakes testing, imposed curricula, narrow focus on putative literacy and numeracy, the reduction of the teacher from autonomous professional to supervised operative, micro-management of the classroom, league tables, markestisation, intrusive and punitive inspections, the dismissal of everything which doesn’t lend itself to easy measurement; these and more have turned schools into exam factories, demoralised and bored teachers and pupils alike and robbed education of the richness Newstok discovers in the mode of education Shakespeare experienced.            

Early on he points out, in response to what he sees as misguided educational remedies from Ken Robinson, that Shakespeare would have been taught in Latin and wouldn’t have entered school till the age of seven. The age may be optimum. What Shakespeare wouldn’t have experienced is what Gert Biesta has dubbed “learnification”. Shove the data in, measure it as it comes out. If there’s enough of it, the child is educated. The rich, of course, try to get their progeny out of a system based on such a reduced vision which drives Newstok to John Dewey:  

“What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.” 

The sense of egalitarian communism (in the widest definition) contained in this, is anathema to the current US leadership; little surprise it is engaged on the destruction of democracy. Education must encourage that most difficult of activities, thinking, and to do so it needs to engage with the past, argues Newstok. What he means by “thinking” is conscious intellectual effort. He and the mentors he quotes are right: people try to avoid it because it’s exhausting; but try to stop thinking. The only way you can do it is to think about not thinking. Thinking is our biological inheritance. We do it as inevitably as we breathe. All “thinkers” do is elevate it. They catch thought in flight and examine it and in so doing they sift what is merely reflexive from what has been subject to intense conscious scrutiny and forced to agree with evidence. The more conscious activity flows from the less. Children think endlessly. It is the remarkable achievement of our education system to convince them the activity is worthless unless it produces a certificate.  

What’s education for? Every school has a vacuous mission statement yet no one knows what the aim is. Newstok quotes a lovely poem by Chuang Tzu: 

When an archer is shooting for nothing
He has all his skill. 

Apparently, this fits with the experience of archers: the best way to hit the target is not to try. Get your action right and aim will follow. Our schools have turned this on its head: all that matters is hitting the target. This sucking of meaning and pleasure out of the process of learning is what our Secretaries of State call “the standards agenda”.  Interestingly, Newstok refers to the Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen, an advocate of “disruptive innovation” (there’s one of those in Downing St), who thinks it would be a good thing if half of US universities went bankrupt. Learning could then go online. One wonders if the Covid experience will have changed his mind.  

“Assessment” is derived form the Latin for estimation of property value for the purpose of collecting taxes. When Newstok asked his seven-year-old daughter what new words she’d learned, it was the one she produced. Volunteering in his child’s school , he asked a class teacher what she thought of the manic concentration on results. She replied it was cruelty to children. Another remarkable accomplishment of our system.  

What is the aim of education? It’s like asking what is the aim of friendship. It is its own end, whatever the Harvard Business School may think.  

Who would ask a postman about climate change? Newstok’s mate John Latimer spent forty years noting the seasonal changes in flora and fauna as he went about his work. Now, climate change scientists are studying his results. D.H.Lawrence won the Botany prize at Nottingham University having been taught by his dad, a semi-literate miner. Newstok puts this under the heading of “craft”.  He quotes a chef who founded highly qualified graduates of culinary schools unable to cope with the demands of a kitchen. A primer may help you learn German but if you want to be fluent, go and live in Berlin for a while. “Making is thinking” says Richard Sennet. We have denatured learning so far that people can’t boil an egg without having the egg-boiling manual to hand. Shakespeare would have been familiar with craft and his plays make multiple references to it.  

The irony of the vogue for “personalised learning” is that it is thoroughly depersonalised. Children are assessed  by algorithms and the subtle and attentive responses of teachers to their pupils considered unreliable. “Take infinite pains to make something that looks effortless” said Michelangelo. Newstok is thinking of “fitness” not in the bonkers, narcissistic, build-your-biceps-in-the-gym sense, but rather appropriateness. He cites the Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well who mocks the Clown who might have an answer to fit all questions like “a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks.” Uniformity is the enemy of fitness. Children must be permitted to find for themselves a “fit” way to relate to the world and learn about it. Impossible in our barber’s chair system where all must squeeze into the same narrow seat.  

Newstok includes a still from Eric Pickersgill’s telling photographic series Removed in which people were pictured in everyday circumstances attending to their mobiles and the pictures printed with the devices taken away. How many times have teachers ordered, “Pay attention”?The wonder, in our culture of ubiquitous distraction, is that children have any capacity for attention at all. As Thoreau put it in 1854:

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at…We are in great haste to build a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” 

The wilful destruction of attention is the handmaiden of the spread of stupefaction. “Enter Ophelia, distracted” reads the stage direction in Hamlet. In Shakespeare’s day, distraction was seen as a version of madness. Today, it has become requisite. What are we distracted from? Other people and ourselves. We pay more attention to screens than faces. We should be alarmed but not surprised that, according to data from the 2011 Torrance tests of creative thinking children are: 

“Less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesising, and less likely to see things from a different angle.” 

Less, presumably, than children of previous generations. 

Leslie Brothers, author of Friday’s Footprint: How Society Shapes The Human Mind, argues that the basis of human society is conversation. Our culture has displaced it in favour of the sermon, the lecture, the speech, the press conference, the broadcast; forms in which there is no possibility of creative exchange; forms in which power speaks down to us. Newstok quotes Shakespeare’s contemporary, Montaigne, who writes of conversation’s capacity to “rub and polish our brains by contact with those of others.” When conversation is diminished you get a brain like Trump’s or Putin’s, as amenable to polishing as rice pudding. Newstok intelligently refers to Socrates who argued that internal conversation is as important as external. Most language use, as Chomsky teaches, is internal. The two forms of conversation complement each other: talking questions through inspires thinking questions through. Today, we go to a computer, but as Picasso said: “..they are useless. They can only give you answers.” 

Shakespeare’s plays ask questions, as does good science. Einstein leaves us with the conundrum that the Standard Model excludes gravity and quantum mechanics is puzzled by its own discoveries. Why then do we tell our children education is about answers? Why don’t we let them follow the thread of their curiosity? Why don’t we tell them there is no ulterior purpose to learning?  

Newstok’s book is full of inspiring references to the plays and poems but also to a wide range of writer’s and thinkers from Shakespeare’s age and others. He astutely relates these to his modern theme of the parlous state of our education system. However, he does make one egregious if small mistake: he quotes Katherine Birbalsingh, apparently sympathetically. Ms Birbalsingh regretted the departure of Michael Gove from the Department of Education, saying it was a pity he hadn’t been permitted to complete his work; she has her pupils sing I Vow To Thee My Country in assembly; she has them recite If before lunch; she forces them to walk silently down corridors between lessons. Mr Gove is guilty of all the sins Newstok spikes. Birbalsingh fails utterly to comprehend that our education system is such a wreckage because it is made to serve an economic system which has an interest in widespread stupefaction. She seems to think everything “traditional” is positive: conquest, slavery, exploitation, denial of political rights, oppression of women, child labour, physical punishment of children? She sets a straw man of “progressive” against an equally phoney “traditional”. Her Manichean view lacks subtlety. She seems to believe that in school, children learn only from teachers and not from one another. Banning conversation between them from lesson to lesson is a matter of control, not education. It diminishes their socialisation She seems to have difficulty distinguishing one from the other. She claims her pupils are taught to be kind and respectful, suggesting pupils in most schools are neither. In short, she believes schools should be efficient exam factories. Pupils are “given knowledge” – just what “knowledge” is she seems not to wonder; is it, for example, knowing the works of Karl Marx or the plays of Joe Orton? – they show they have it and that’s education. No wonder Shakespeare saw his  schoolboy “creeping like snail/ Unwillingly to school”.