Keeping Shakespeare in Mind

Illustration by Mathew McFarren

Illustration by Mathew McFarren

Quite a few of our team can attest to the power of a liberal arts education, especially when put in such a joyful context.

Scott L. Newstok’s convocation speech to the Rhodes College class of 2020 embraces this joy, adding the cheeky tweak of asking the incoming class to approach their college experience in the “spirit of the 16th century”.

Building a bridge to the 16th century must seem like a perverse prescription for today’s ills. I’m the first to admit that English Renaissance pedagogy was rigid and rightly mocked for its domineering pedants. Few of you would be eager to wake up before 6 a.m. to say mandatory prayers, or to be lashed for tardiness, much less translate Latin for hours on end every day of the week. Could there be a system more antithetical to our own contemporary ideals of student-centered, present-focused, and career-oriented education?

Yet this system somehow managed to nurture world-shifting thinkers, including those who launched the Scientific Revolution. This education fostered some of the very habits of mind endorsed by both the National Education Association and the Partnership for 21st Century Learning: critical thinking; clear communication; collaboration; and creativity. (To these “4Cs,” I would add “curiosity.”) 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.

“Take advantage of the autonomy and opportunities that college permits by approaching it in the spirit of the 16th century. You’ll become capable of a level of precision, inventiveness, and empathy worthy to be called Shakespearean.”
So how can you think like Shakespeare?

His mind was shaped by rhetoric, a term that you probably associate with empty promises — things politicians say but don’t really mean. But in the Renaissance, rhetoric was nothing less than the fabric of thought itself….

…Renaissance rhetoric achieved precision through a practice that might surprise you: imitation. Like “rhetoric,” “imitation” sounds pejorative today: a fake, a knockoff, a mere copy. But Renaissance thinkers — aptly, looking back to the Roman Seneca, who himself looked back to the Greeks — compared the process of imitation to a bee’s gathering nectar from many flowers and then transforming it into honey. As Michel de Montaigne put it:

“The bees steal from this flower and that, but afterward turn their pilferings into honey, which is their own. … So the pupil will transform and fuse together the passages that he borrows from others, to make of them something entirely his own; that is to say, his own judgment. His education, his labor, and his study have no other aim but to form this.”

The honey metaphor corrects our naïve notion that being creative entails making something from nothing. Instead, you become a creator by wrestling with the legacy of your authoritative predecessors, standing on the shoulders of giants.

Professor Newstok’s essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education is an adaptation of his convocation speech, the contents of which are far too rich to turn into quotable soundbites, and far too enjoyable not to read in entirety. 

You can find it here.

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