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Book Review: Bringing Back The Art Of Thinking

by Sakshi Shivpuri
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How to Think like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education by Scott Newstok | 200 pages | ₹909.99 (Kindle edition)

The eternal puzzle of modern society is how to produce thinkers, artists and scholars, who can not only lift it up but push it forward. Here, our gaze turns towards education, that ubiquitous answer to all questions and conundrums.

A good education is undeniably fundamental for a well-functioning society. But what makes good education good? For instance, was Shakespeare’s prowess a plain stroke of luck, or was there something else that gave us the gift of not just the Bard, but also his contemporaries Jonson, Marlowe, and possibly Montaigne?

In his recent book ‘How To Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education’, Scott L Newstok explores this topic in great detail. Newstok is a professor of English literature at Rhodes College, and through his book, he breaks down characteristics of education, learning, and teaching in the Renaissance, calling for our present education system to incorporate more and more of these elements. It is hard to conceive of another Shakespeare in our time, but lessons from his society can certainly aid our own.

The germ of this book lies in the speech Newstok had given to the incoming class of 2020, where he warned students that they had been “cheated of [their] birth right: a complete education”. It was followed by an essay and has been expounded further in this book.

What inspired him to pick up this topic? In the prologue, Newstok explains, “As both a teacher and parent of school-age children, I’ve become dismayed by the way we think of thinking.” Education today is no longer focused on the art and craft of thinking; of critical thought that leads to originality and insight. “My conviction is education must be about thinking – not training a specific set of skills”, he contends.

In a little over two hundred pages, Newstok fleshes out his argument, even as he points us towards ways we can coach our own minds to think independently. Indeed, it is independence in thinking which forms the bedrock of progress. Education today, however, does not concern itself with cultivating independent thinkers; some would say schools might in fact kill it. Newstok himself is fiercely critical, saying, “We’ve imposed educational programs that kill the capacity to think independently…While we point to thinkers…we enforce systems that ensure that our own young people could never emulate them.” Below is a TED talk that Sir Ken Robinson gave, aptly titled ‘Do schools kill creativity?’

While the through-line of the book remains Renaissance education, it artfully juxtaposes education then with education today, commenting on the misguided trends that have begun to take shape. It explores the dichotomies inherent in the philosophy that governs the way we think about education today, and then, refutes them.

One of the most pleasing aspects of the book is the way it speaks about the act of thinking. Unlike breathing and walking, thinking, for Newstok, is a craft. Throughout the book, he uses the analogy of artisans and woodworkers to describe the kind of effort, precision and singular focus that should go in shaping our minds. This, as Newstok points out, is also the etymology of the word playwright – plays are wrought, like ships are sculpted by the skilled hands of a shipwright.

The book is a treat; delightfully littered with a litany of quotes from not just Shakespeare but also thinkers past and present such as Homer, Nietzsche, Emerson, Arendt, Woolf, Milton, Thoreau, Morrison, Dickinson. The chapters are short, the tone conversational and witty. The book, by Newstok’s own admission, is meant to be ‘handy’ – something which could be referred and gone back to over and over and over. To that end, Newstok includes an exhausting list of further reads. And it is here that the book stands out for me – it holds value not just for educators and teachers but also individuals who will find in these pages insights on how to mould their minds.

The book closes with the same counsel that Newstok had passed to his students, and that I find telling enough to reproduce here: “Education ought to exercise us in the crafts of freedom, helping us reach our fullest capacities to make by emulating aspirational models, stretching our thinking as well as our words. Anything else is a curtailment of our birth right.”

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