How Shakespeare Helps Us Rethink Education

Mar 02, 2021

In “Love's Labour's Lost,” a comedy that William Shakespeare wrote in the 16th century, the character Biron asks, “What is the end of study?”

Questioning the end, or purpose, of education is an exercise that modern students, professors and college leaders engage in all the time. Scott Newstok, professor of English at Rhodes College in Memphis, believes that Shakespeare’s own training—in rhetoric, craftsmanship and conversation—reveals the answer.

“This big, long-term, ambitious task of education is the development of your fullest human capacities to be self-reflective and to be able to articulate complex thoughts and engage with other people,” Newstok says.

In other words, he believes the purpose of education is learning to think.

Newstok explores this philosophy in his new book, “How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons From a Renaissance Education.” It’s a slim, surprising exploration of the value that deeply human engagement has in a world full of data points and distractions.

Surveying the obsessions that dominate instruction time in many classrooms, including standardized tests, Newstok finds them at odds with the practices that he believes are essential to developing a “fully deployed mind” like Shakespeare’s own. It’s reading, writing, translation and discussion that truly teach people to think, according to Newstok, who asserts that those same exercises can also help people today develop empathy by stretching “your cognitive capacity to imagine yourself into other subject positions.”

The kind of teaching and learning that Newstok prescribes takes time and effort. Education technology that promises shortcuts for “delivering content” cannot substitute for the hard mental labor of thinking, Newstok says, nor the skilled craftsmanship of teachers.

“They need to have content-specific knowledge, but they also have all kinds animating ways in which they help us care about that knowledge,” he explains. “And they nudge us and they press us and they shame us and they inspire us. That's a complex art.”

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