Immersed in a Calling

20 Apr

Contemplation is not readily classified as a belief that one fights for, and attempts to squeeze its value into the language of justice or dignity or basic human rights will fall flat. It is better characterized as an object of love and reverence, and a source of fulfillment. For humanists, contemplation is not a cause. It is a calling.

-Agnes Callard, “What Do the Humanities Do in a Crisis?” in The New Yorker

My latest reading adventure took me through How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, a new book by Scott Newstok, a Rhodes College faculty member, Duluth native, and friend of this blog. In addition to our hometown and some occasional correspondence, it’s become clear that Newstok and I share a lot in how we look at the world, and his new book encapsulates so much of that shared calling.

I do not consider myself an expert in the realm of Shakespeare. Sure, I had the pleasure of playing the title role and donning a sheet with splotches of red paint in a sophomore English class reading of Julius Caesar at Duluth East. In more recent years, I’ve been a sometime attendee of the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota, an annual excuse for some extended family members to get together to eat a lot and drink a lot and enjoy a couple of the Bard’s plays. I’ve developed an appreciation for just how many Shakespearian aphorisms have made their way into our speech today. But I haven’t come close to consuming his collected works.

A deep familiarity with the Bard’s oeuvre is peripheral to How to Think Like Shakespeare, though.The book is not a systematic assessment of education in Shakespeare’s work, nor a thorough overview of Renaissance-era schooling. Instead, it is a defense of a humanistic education, and an ascent into a dialogue down the generations of how best to work one’s way through this thing called life. It is a reminder that expertise and even so-called genius come from discipline, from dedicated work, from immersion in the works of past giants and even occasional outright theft from them. We’re all in this tradition, and the style of the book underscores this on every page. Newstok doesn’t go two paragraphs without citing some great past thinker or literary work, without pulling in one of his friends to show how historical insights all build on one another. He quotes liberally from Shakespeare, of course, but a whole crew of canonical figures insert their insights, from Erasmus to James Baldwin, from Ovid to Hannah Arendt, from Cicero to Bob Dylan. (Newstok is a Duluthian, after all!)

I found myself scrawling down snippets of wisdom from across Newstok’s 14 themed chapters. Of course, I am a sucker for such lines as “if your school says your education has impacted you, ask for a refund—and a laxative,” in an effective early sequence in which Newstok skewers the idea of education as training for jobs that currently exist. But the insights compound on themselves and build to something bigger. Newstok writes of the idea of craft, and the process by which the craftsperson “forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft.” This process, we learn in “Of Imitation,” comes from repetition and careful use of models. Many great writers began by directly re-writing authors they admired, a process replicated across any number of crafts; only by inhabiting existing great writing could they later develop something that measured up to their own idea of greatness. Readers of How to Think Like Shakespeare are immersed in a flow of ideas from very smart people, all of whom together make it hard to claim they don’t have a very strong case.

Newstok’s chapter on place, with its critiques of Descartes’ notion that thinking alone made him who he was, was especially resonant in an age when most education is happening through placeless means. He traces the failed dreams of countless technologies to supplant in-person learning, from correspondence courses to massive open online courses, and shows what a valuable equalizer a classroom can be. Since their dismissal from campuses, privileged college students are free to Zoom in from spare offices in vacation homes while the less affluent sit in shared bedrooms on lousy internet connections in chaotic environments. School, Newstok writes, provides the freedom to think and interact alongside others. The content of communication is what matters, not its medium or speed; computers, to quote Picasso, are “useless,” because “they can only give you answers,” not the underlying questions.

I could go on picking out quotes, but I’ll settle for just telling people to read the book. Its structure proves the point of the Callard quote at the top of this piece. How to Think Like Shakespeare is not the work of an activist militating for his cause but a thinker reveling in his work. Newstok reminds us that this work is, above all, fun, and the calling on display is infectious. People have been attacking the value of the humanities since the humanities came into being (just ask Socrates), but they hold up because again and again. People fall for them and make compelling cases for why we need them in our lives, and again expose the poverty of the belief that a humanistic education is a frivolous luxury. We can wish that more people felt this call, but as Newstok shows, it’s hardly some innate feature. It’s something we cultivate over time, hone and perfect and pass along, and our educations, both formal and informal, decide whether or not we can impose our control on the often-accelerating pace of human life and make it slow down, be masters of our own time instead of letting it master us.

I have a lot of time for contemplation these days. Unlike Callard, I find myself mostly able to pass the humanist test, at least when I am not caught up in lamenting the absence of certain things from my life that would make it more difficult to pass the humanist test. (Solitude, per the Octavio Paz quote in my last post, works well as a temporary condition; it is not healthy as a permanent state.) I am leery of the line “never let a crisis go to waste,” as some people use crises to justify all sorts of nefarious ends, but I’ve been using it in my own internal monologue with some regularity over the past month.

In normal times it’s easy to get caught up in the drift away from thinking about how to think, especially for a rare humanist who, with some notable exceptions, has a day job that offers only occasional brushes up against the academy. (Moreover, coronavirus has cost me the most fertile ground for those exceptional conversations: long, shared car rides with colleagues.) It can be hard to find the time to devote to this activity, day after day. Funnily enough, I’m not any less busy these days: my job still takes up the same amount of my day, at times even more of it; I’ve launched my most aggressive running regimen ever; and an explosion of videochats with friends and family near and far has filled the empty social calendar. But, somehow, the notion that I’m trapped in a crisis-stricken world and ought to make something of it has allowed me to do so.

Sometime about a week ago, the road became ever so slightly clearer. It was a gradual process, one that came in fits and starts and some periods of mental anguish that rank among the less pleasant of my time on earth. I have not achieved nirvana; there are regressions large and small. But, at least in my mind, I am no longer a victim of hard times but an agent capable of using that greatest human capability. It is something I have mustered by knowing that others have traveled this road before, left some signs and guideposts, and any blank spots on the map are adventures to test what we’ve learned, not some fear-inducing void.

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