Book review: How to Think Like Shakespeare

Would you like to have the mind of Shakespeare? Put pen to paper and write your way into fame, forever? Well, dear reader, then this book

This book is not what you’re looking for. It is not a shortcut. It won’t teach you how to craft pretty words or witty lines. It won’t bring you fame on stage or the love of millions. What it does do, and very well, is to take a look at our current system of education and see where its failings lie. Scott Newstock’s message is that thinking like Shakespeare has much less to do with copying his form or his topics, and much more with instilling young minds with the habits and tools they need to become the next Shakespeare.

“How to Think like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education”
By Scott Newstok
Princeton University Press, 185 pages | Buy on Amazon.

The world is full of books telling us what to think. There’s no shortage of books telling us how to think, either. But How to Think like Shakespeare is a book that aims to help us think well.

The book is structured in fourteen “deliberately short” chapters, each dealing with an aspect of what Newstok considers to be “key aspects of thinking, and how to hone them”. This book is the product of his own experiences with the U.S. educational system, both internally as a teacher and a professor, and externally, as a parent. Through this exploration, Newstok heavily criticizes what he sees as ineffective or outright damaging trends in education, often campaigned for under the banner of progress through technology, or fairness under standardisation.

Heavily but delightfully peppered with great quotes from great minds throughout history, How to Think like Shakespeare makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read. Hard figures, charts, graphs, these are not really the meat of the book. And yet, through metaphor and wit, it makes just as compelling an argument as you’d expect from a mathematical proof.

I will confess that, at first, I was pretty certain that I wouldn’t like this book. As Newstok himself quips, I did pick up the book hoping for a shortcut, an easy way towards a great mind. Instead, I found that a case was being made for things such as the importance of engaging in past work, in ‘tradition’, to foster creativity. How imitation or outright copying of other’s work can help guide us to our own voice. All of them things that, as a highschooler or college student, I would have dismissed as the uninformed ramblings of a crusty old man out of his time, and out of his depth of understanding. “I,” was my first thought, “have been deceived”.

I am glad to say that I was wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Both in the way it reads, and in regards to what it has to say. At its core, How to Think like Shakespeare hits upon something that rings undeniably true: education is a very personal act. Screens, standardized tests, optimized ‘learning objectives’ at the head of every lesson, these can be great tools with which to acquire facts, and knowledge — but an education is much more than simple facts.

Newstok looks at the importance of seemingly innocuous factors, such as simply being in the same place and time with teachers, and your class-mates, in shaping our ability to think, and think well. Or, for example, how our obsession with being original, our disdain for plagiarism, actually limits our performance, and stifles creativity. How insisting on efficiency and optimization in the curriculum actually makes us all poorer, intellectually, and how an obsession with assessment and measurement hides the very essence of education from us. Or how, in putting our hopes for a freer and more convenient education in the hands of technology, we’ve lost sight of the fact that thinking aides are not a substitute for thinking.

All in all, this is a book I couldn’t do justice in any way in a simple review. Newstok has a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of literature, insight into why words have power, and an understanding of how to craft them. It presents valuable ideas in an engaging format, and will help you understand both our education systems and your own mind better. It will also give you the tools you need to guide the latter one better, and the insight as to where you want it to go. I thoroughly recommend you give this one a try.

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