Saturday, September 3, 2016

Professor Scott Newstok Urges Students to "Think Like Shakespeare"

OK, this is brilliant. And so necessary.

Professor Scott Newstok of Rhodes College urges students to "build a bridge to the sixteenth century" and learn to "think like Shakespeare." This reminds me of a recent Facebook meme that encourages men to "Ditch the man cave and bring back the study."  I can't explain this better than Newstok, so it's worth taking a look at his entire piece which is beautifully written and so important. The basic idea is about the idea of becoming a better human being by cultivating culture and knowledge and wisdom.

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. Because thinking and speaking well form the basis of existence in a community, rhetoric prepares you for every occasion that requires words. That’s why Tudor students devoted countless hours to examining vivid models, figuring out ways to turn a phrase, exercising elaborate verbal patterning. Antonio Gramsci described education in this way: "One has to inculcate certain habits of diligence, precision, poise (even physical poise), ability to concentrate on specific subjects, which cannot be acquired without the mechanical repetition of disciplined and methodical acts." You take it for granted that Olympic athletes and professional musicians must practice relentlessly to perfect their craft. Why should you expect the craft of thought to require anything less disciplined? Fierce attention to clear and precise writing is the essential tool for you to foster independent judgment. That is rhetoric. 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 na├»ve 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. In the words of the saxophone genius John Coltrane: "You’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light." Listen to Coltrane fuse experimental jazz, South Asian melodic modes, and the Elizabethan ballad "Greensleeves," and you’ll hear how engaging with the past generates rather than limits. The most fascinating concept that Shakespeare’s period revived from classical rhetoric was inventio, which gives us both the word "invention" and the word "inventory." Cartoon images of inventors usually involve a light bulb flashing above the head of a solitary genius. But nothing can come of nothing. And when rhetoricians spoke of inventio, they meant the first step in constructing an argument: an inventory of your mind’s treasury of knowledge — your database of reading, which you can accumulate only through slow, deliberate study.

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