Are you a Renaissance man?

You may wonder why on earth you would want to read a book about Renaissance education. Perhaps you’re under the illusion that education during the Renaissance was like the image in this cartoon:

But no, as you see from the caption, this cartoon was actually giving us a satirical view of the future from a 19th-Century French point of view (the future being the year 2000)! So why did I find it in a book about Renaissance education?

Let’s back up a bit. I will answer the question in my first sentence above: I picked up the book because people often accuse me of having had a Renaissance education. Actually, that’s not quite right, as it’s rarely an accusation, but it is true that my education included a great deal of Latin and Greek, as well as literature that we consider to be “the classics.” In any case, the remark was my motivation for reading Scott Newstok’s book. Its full title, How to Think like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, gives you a very different perspective on what is going on here. The hook is a deep dive into the education that Shakespeare himself had as a young man. Now you probably know Ben Jonson’s famously snippy remark that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek,” but that judgment is of course from the perspective of a fellow Renaissance intellectual, not from today’s perspective. There is probably a lot for us to learn today from Shakespeare’s personal education, which included a great deal more Latin than most people get today, not to mention some ancient Greek, “less” though it may have been.

All right, at this point you may be wondering whether Newstok’s book is about Shakespeare or about education in general or about the Renaissance. The answer is yes: it is about all three. It’s very professorial, making it clear that the author has all of Shakespeare at his fingertips as he educes appropriate quotations from the plays and sonnets to support whatever point he is making. So you do learn a lot about Shakespeare from reading the book. But from my point of view—as a 21st-Century educator rather than a Renaissance scholar—the main point is how to apply the Shakespearean information to today’s needs. I at least found Newstok inspiring in that regard; your mileage may vary.

The Big Idea here may shatter your preconceptions (if you have any). Newstok is definitely not a reactionary—far from it—who wants to go “back to basics” with lots of memorization and testing. In fact, he’s bitterly opposed to today’s overemphasis on testing (are you listening, Governor Baker?) and is calling for much more thinking (like Shakespeare, as the title tells us). In this regard he gives us a fascinating tidbit about Edward Deming’s famous quotation: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” It turns out—and let this be a lesson for all who read shoddily and quote out of context—that Deming actually wrote “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Omitting the first six words makes a big difference, doesn’t it! And yet I can’t tell you how many times I have seen people use the shorter version to justify their horrible insistence on measuring the success of our lessons! (On a related but slightly different point, I was pleased to see that Newstok insists that a “lesson” isn’t over in 45 minutes but may take two days or two weeks.)

Unsurprisingly, you won’t find this book a quick read. It’s quite scholarly and demands close reading. But you don’t have to read every chapter. Also, as much as I loved it, I do have two complaints, neither of which takes away from the Big Ideas:

  • The very large number of footnotes distract from the flow of reading, as one’s eyes are always darting to the bottom of the page. Newstok should either have used endnotes rather than footnotes or else settled for inline references as linguistics books do.
  • He gives extremely short shrift to the STEM side of the picture. While I suppose that is inevitable, given that Newstok is an English professor, it was still disappointing. A book could readily be written making all the same points but with an orientation toward math and science—not based on Shakespeare, of course, but still intellectually equivalent. Newstok writes that “naïve enthusiasm for digital technology often derives from unspoken hostility toward teachers—a hostility that seeks to eliminate the human element from education by automating it.” That’s true enough, but not a necessary effect. Recent experience with online remote education, necessitated by the pandemic, has shown us why we prefer face-to-face education with a live teacher and live students in the room, none of which negates the use of technology.

Anyway, do read the book. It will open your mind to some new information and new ideas.

Categories: Books