Scott Newstok on How to Think Like Shakespeare

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Intro. [Recording date: December 28th, 2020.]

Russ Roberts: Today is December 28th, 2020, and my guest is author Scott Newstok of Rhodes College. He is the author of How to Think like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, which is our topic for today.

I want to thank Plantronics for providing today’s guest with the Blackwire 5220 headset, and I want to encourage listeners to go to and vote in our annual survey for your favorite episodes of last year.

Scott, welcome to EconTalk.

Scott Newstok: Thanks for having me, Russ.


Russ Roberts: Let’s start by talking about Shakespeare. Shakespeare is difficult. Not every student can quickly access Shakespeare. A lot of them I think probably struggle to access Shakespeare even after a while. Why should people read Shakespeare today? He lived so long ago, his language is so difficult. Why should we read Shakespeare? Why are his plays still performed? A rhetorical question, actually.

Scott Newstok: It is a rhetorical question; I sense that right from the beginning. That’s perfect for a book that’s very preoccupied with rhetoric. Why does Shakespeare matter? Why does Shakespeare matter to me?

One way I tend to think about it is that Shakespeare is a good occasion for thinking, and is a kind of avenue to all kinds of wonderful things about the way we create, and the way me make, and the way read, and the way we relate to other human beings. And, that’s not unique to him as a single figure: there’s lots of other thinkers and writers, and artists and philosophers who we can point to that have those same qualities. But, they really are condensed in that one figure in an exceptional way, and that’s partly the history of the reception of seeing Shakespeare, and reading Shakespeare and responding to Shakespeare that we’re absorbing as well when we’re engaging with him now in 2020.

So, among the many things I love about Shakespeare are included the history of responding to Shakespeare, which has gone on for 400-plus years, and you feel like you’re kind of part of an ongoing community of those responses. That’s not the case for many of his contemporaries who were great playwrights and were great peers and competitors of his. But there’s not the same legacy for, let’s say, someone like Christopher Marlowe or Thomas Middleton, in terms of being able to work back through that archive of responses to that figure.

The plays themselves, the poems themselves are fascinating and rich avenues for thinking. But I also love the archive of people who have responded in many different ways across the globe, across centuries, across all kinds of different reader positions. And, you feel like you’re in conversation with hundreds of other people who have engaged with this very poem, or this very play before. So, it’s part of an ongoing process of making that figure feel like a living presence for you today.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I was thinking about my answer to that question, why does Shakespeare matter today? I’m sure my listeners have heard me say before the line from Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech, that art is about the ‘human heart in conflict with itself’. There are few people who have done a better job of plumbing that conflict than Shakespeare. It’s remarkable to me how timeless he is, in the sense that it’s obvious people have updated his plays, put them in modern settings, modern clothing, etc. They still work. But, the thing that works that’s really timeless, is jealousy, love, ambition, anger, violence. Few people write about those emotions in drama–I don’t know his poems very well, I can quote a few lines from a few sonnets–but his plays explore that territory of the human heart in ways that–I don’t think anyone has done it quite that well. What a bold statement! But, let me go out on a limb: I think Shakespeare’s really good.

I think the reason it bears saying is that he’s a lot of work, language-wise; and he’s challenging to read on the page. And he’s challenging in the theater. But it still works.

Scott Newstok: It does work, and I think one of the ways that he is able to convey some of those intense emotions or those intense human conflicts, is by staging his characters, thinking about them in action. You have many moments in the plays that I love when I read them as well as when I see them staged, where a character will say something like, basically, ‘What do I do now?’ And, that’s a very captivating dynamic. I mean, we all feel that way constantly throughout lives. And to see someone else going through the thought process of, ‘Where am I? What’s my next step? How do I proceed?’ And, that’s true for villains like Iago as much as it is for heroes and heroines who are lost and thrown on a shore of a new land where they don’t know anyone and they have to figure out what happens next.

So, in some ways I think those themes are timeless and lasting, but it’s in part the way that they’re conveyed through an individual’s uncertainty about how to proceed that, I think, is one thing that makes them very sympathetic for us, makes them feel accessible, because we all have occupied those positions of uncertainty.

Russ Roberts: And, of course, it allows us to inhabit those characters with our imagination and to–live vicariously is not the right phrase really–it’s to explore how we might behave in similar, maybe less dramatic, but similar challenging situations where we’re at a crossroads. And, we, I think, learn about life not just through the mistakes we make, or the good decisions we make, but also through the imagined decisions we make through fictional characters’ narratives and literary figures. And, I think that’s a grossly undervalued aspect of literature as a source of value to readers.

Scott Newstok: Yeah, it’s an amazing thing. And, it’s hard to articulate it and it is difficult to isolate what exactly that quality is, but we do feel it and it’s an amazing feeling. I mean, we talk about characters in that way as if they’re human beings, whether it’s in a novel, or in a film, or in a TV series, or in a play or in a poem; and it is an amazing craft, an amazing art to be able to create that impression: that this is another human being that’s thinking. And, that we can, as you said, inhabit or occupy their position for a short amount of time and feel their feelings or imagine our way into their subject position.

And, that’s something that would have been trained by his education, through a basic kind of exercise where these little 16th-century school boys would have been asked to imagine what it would be like to be a widow in the Trojan war, and how that would feel. And, that’s an odd thing to ask of a seven-year-old British boy, but it looks like it’s weirdly good training for writing drama, because that’s a lot of what drama ends up being–which is imagining yourself acting in uncertain situations that aren’t like your biographical situation.

So, I do think you’re right about that quality of inhabiting, which is really one thing that feels inviting for us when we’re engaging with powerful representations of characters.


Russ Roberts: Do you teach that way? Through that imaginary drama where you ask students to inhabit a character and respond to it? Maybe a situation that isn’t in the book?

Scott Newstok: I do try to–in a couple of different ways. I try to get them thinking about the making of the works and looking almost at the mechanics of how this speech is constructed, and why it works as well as it does. Like, trying to think their way into the maker’s head: ‘Why would someone build this in this way?’

And, I’ve done good deal of work with a visiting director that we’ve been able to host at Rhodes College, Nick Hutchison, and he definitely helps our students think that way and think their way into character.

But, it’s partly a process of–for him it’s a process of reading closely and thinking into, ‘What are the words on the page?’ And, it’s not imagining, kind of method-acting backstory. It’s looking at what’s actually there and then coming up with coherent and reasonable, and meaningful ways to articulate why you would be saying what you’re saying at that particular moment. ‘Why would you be silent at this particular moment? What’s going on in your head as you’re overhearing your best friend fall in love with someone else, and you feel like she might not really be as close to you anymore?’

So, it’s a way of reading closely that helps animate your way into the mindset of those characters, which I think is what he was doing when he was staging those characters.

Russ Roberts: And, of course, we do that with our fellow human beings. We’re going to talk later about conversation, but you think about–most of life we’re watching a bunch of dialogue that–we don’t get the whole story, we don’t get the inner monologue, usually. Actually, by definitely we do not get the inner monologue of the people around us. And, we don’t always get our own inner monologues. We don’t always hear them: they’re there. It’s an interesting question of what role art and studying art of, say, drama or movies and so on–literature generally–helps us be better interactors with the non-actors around us, our fellow human beings.

Scott Newstok: Yeah. One way to think of those inner monologues or soliloquies, is: it’s as if you’re watching a stage conversation with yourself, but it’s in someone else’s position; and you’re kind of creating a dialogue with yourself by your own process of self-questioning. And, I think that’s one of the ways in which those kinds of characters feel compelling, is because you feel like you’re almost drawn into that dialogue because the self-questioning that’s going on is a version of your self questioning, or could be a version of your self-questioning.


Russ Roberts: Do you have a favorite play by Shakespeare?

Scott Newstok: I do have a favorite play. Have you read The Winter’s Tale?

Russ Roberts: Yes, I’ve seen it a few times, I love it. It’s magnificent.

Scott Newstok: It’s always captivated me.

Russ Roberts: Underappreciated, I think.

Scott Newstok: I think it is underappreciated; and there’s many things I love about it. For me, it looks like someone who, late in his career, is kind of throwing everything on the table and all the pyrotechnics that are–

Russ Roberts: That’s true–

Scott Newstok: available; and pushing his medium to the limits of believability.

So, if you think, Othello pushes your limits of believability, your limits of credulity, in terms of watching a husband become jealous and murderous, then compress that into three acts instead of five. And then suddenly have a character drop off a baby and then be chased off stage by a bear. And, then have the baby on the shore picked up by shepherds, and then have Time come out and say, ‘Fifteen years have passed and now we’re in the future, and it’s a sheep shearing festival.’ And, then have characters that are in disguise that turn out to be fellow prince and princesses who have fallen in love and everyone’s somehow magically reunited at the end. But not everyone is reunited. And, so, it’s a really ambitious, extraordinary play that–you feel like he’s giving every effort to see the limits of theater: ‘How much can I do?’

And, I think it’s really hard to stage for that reason, because the main character, Leontes, is a character who verges on incoherence at some points in his mad, jealous rage. Though that feels like that is not so far off from how mad, jealous rage leads us to incoherence. And, to have someone who–it looks like he’s basically–his wife has died through his false accusations of her infidelity–

Russ Roberts: Careful here. Spoiler alert.

Scott Newstok: I don’t want to give too much of it away, but it’s just remarkable. And, I find it as remarkable to read it as to see it. So, I’ve seen it a couple of times just in the last few years, once here in Memphis and once at Shakespeare’s Globe. And both incredibly different productions, but powerful in amazingly different ways. So, it looks like kind of the best of raw theater, and him trying to reflect on his career and recycle all kinds of elements that you’ve seen before.

I like teaching it as well because it’s a great coda to the semester where students can say, ‘Oh, we saw that in this play.’ And, ‘This looks like this character that we heard before.’ And, ‘There’s that father-daughter relationship again. There’s the reuniting that we’ve seen before.’ And, it has an extraordinary final scene that is like nothing else in any of the plays.


Russ Roberts: All true. I’m going to make a confession and then we’ll move on, we’ll leave–for listeners not so interested in Shakespeare, we’re going to move on to education generally in a minute and talk about a lot of other interesting things, I hope.

But, I just want to say one thing about Shakespeare which is: I think my favorite play is, right now, would be A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I’m surprised at. I was in it in seventh grade: I played Bottom, and Pyramus. I didn’t think much of it at the time, didn’t think much of it for a long time. And, then I saw one of the most extraordinary evenings of theater I’ve ever seen, which was a production of it at the Shakespeare Theater Company here in Washington, D.C. It was so magical. It included a scene where Puck used a hose to create a mud-wrestling match between two of the characters, and that’s very Puckish. What could be more Puckish? Another scene, he’s up in the rafters with–I think he’s eating popcorn because he knows something he’s set in motion like that is going to cause trouble. It was just unbelievably an amazing production. I actually got to see it twice.

And, the other part, I feel–and this is the more serious, artistic question about Shakespeare is: his–the tragedies–and I’ve only seen a handful of them–you know, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, those are the ones that come to mind–they’re so dark. It’s about a character sort of spiraling downward forever, and there’s no redemption.

Whereas, in the comedies, people learn things. They learn about that their jealousy was misplaced, they learn that their love could persist. I just love A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I love The Comedy of Errors. I love Much Ado About Nothing. They make my heart sing in a way–obviously the tragedies aren’t meant to make your heart sing. Romeo and Juliet would be another one. They’re just dark, dark, dark. You have anything terrible to say about those things?

Scott Newstok: You know, I’m thinking about A Midsummer Night’s Dream because next semester I’m teaching a seminar devoted to that play alone, and I’m using it as exactly what I was something earlier–as an occasion for thought or as an avenue for thought. Because, we will be looking at its sources, so we will be looking at Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. And, we’ll be looking at Chaucer’s account of Duke Theseus. And, we’ll be examining contemporary folklore. And, then we’ll be looking at the long history of the reception of the play and the way that producing it has changed over the last 400 years, and the way different films have interpreted it. And, musical opera–Mendelssohn productions related to the play.

But, again, it’s a play that does have dark elements in it. Oftentimes, what happens in a comedy, it looks like if it just took one different turn it would be a tragedy. It’s the same for Romeo and Juliet: the first couple of acts look like they might as well be setting yourself up for a father figure preventing young lovers from getting together, but then eventually they triumph and it doesn’t take that turn. But, Midsummer and Romeo and Juliet do cross over in those ways, where just one turn could have moved things in the other generic direction.

Russ Roberts: For sure.


Russ Roberts: Let’s switch gears for a little bit. I want to say just a little something about your book. It’s short and sweet. It’s lovely–in print form it’s a beautiful little book. It’s not so nice on the Kindle, which you’ve told me beforehand, so I will encourage listeners to get the real book, the physical book. It’s not so much about Shakespeare, for me, as it is about how to think about Shakespeare and education generally. And, I want to hear you talk a little bit about the purpose of education.

When you start a class like the one you just mentioned, do you have a goal for your students other than that they be informed about A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Obviously they’re going to learn about Ovid and its influence; they’re going to learn about different productions. There’s content. Usually, you could imagine different kinds of goals for education beyond just, ‘You’re going to learn about something you didn’t know about.’

And, in particular, I was drawn by your quote from Addison, the 18th century essayist, ‘What sculpture is to a block of marble, education is to a human soul.’ What does that mean? And, how does it inform your own teaching, if it does?

Scott Newstok: In some ways, when I think about the ends of education, I have both very modest goals and very ambitious longterm goals that I would like to think emerge from those modest goals. So, the very modest goals for any of my teaching is to encourage students to become more careful thinkers and to do that through thoughtful reading and writing and conversation. So, that’s really modest, and that doesn’t sound terribly inspiring, but those are–

Russ Roberts: Not so modest–

Scott Newstok: are rare traits, and they’re valuable–a [inaudible 00:19:43] to me always to reduce [inaudible 00:19:45], but they’re virtuous things that are really hard to do. I hear constantly from friends who work in the corporate world, a frustration about their smart young hires who don’t read well and don’t write as well as they would like them to. And, I think that helping students become more careful thinkers, readers, and writers is a difficult thing to achieve, but an incredibly worthwhile thing to achieve. And, I’d like to think it has a number of untold future benefits to their lives, no matter what they end up doing. And, ideally that they will be better citizens ultimately and better contributors to society because of that kind of work.

Again, that’s the ambitious longterm goal. The short term task is to, I think, be honest to the thing that we’re reading and to not come to our reading with a lot of preconceptions, and really try to look at what we’re looking at closely and let it unfold before our eyes.

And, that’s a hard thing to do as well. That’s harder than it seems. Especially with Shakespeare. I think it’s easy to come to Shakespeare with a lot of preconceptions, and I’m surprised sometimes when I slow down in class and we actually start to unpack a phrase and students often don’t really know what the phrase is saying. They’ve kind of leapt to a presumption about what the speech is doing, and the more we unpack it, the more wonderful and fascinating it becomes.

Russ Roberts: Although richness is a huge part of a close reading that’s often very hard to do. I think the Bible is very similar to Shakespeare, in that sense that you’re referring to, which is: we don’t realize how much Shakespeare and the Bible have infused our understanding of the world or our culture or literary motifs. Someone will say, ‘Shakespeare, that’s already been done with those twins.’ Well, he’s kind of the guy who gave it to the world and now it’s in a thousand different movies and you’ve seen in 50 times, or the trick ending, or the surprise ending. There are people who came up with those early on. And it’s hard to come to them, as you say, with a fresh mind. It’s very hard.

Scott Newstok: One way that I think helps–and this is true for reading the Bible critically as well–is thinking about these writings, these texts, as responding to previous writings and sources, and then being transformed by subsequent editors and subsequent readers. So, thinking of these things as not static things in the past, but rather living, dynamic, ongoing texts that demand continued interpretation and that put you in conversation with countless other readers who have come before you.

So, I think the more I can make that exciting and feel alive for students, the more I think that’s cluing them in to something that’s powerful, and meaningful, and real about the way that we read. Making the work that we’re reading feel not alien to them, and make them feel like they’re a peer to the work that we’re reading is something that’s a high priority for me.

Russ Roberts: I’m thinking about when Agnes Callard was here talking about her book Aspiration, I think she said that, ‘Reading is about learning how to talk to dead people.’ That ongoing dialogue–you have that extraordinary quote from–who is it that talks about the salon conversation? The salon?

Scott Newstok: Kenneth Burke. He’s one of my heroes. He ends up saying that intellectual history–history is not even the right word–just any conversation is something like, ‘You walk into a parlor and there was a conversation that was going on before you arrived, and you don’t really know what’s going on, and it takes a little while to listen to get the gist of what the fight is about. And, then you realize that you start to have something to say, and so you make a statement, and someone attacks you, and someone else defends you, and then you’re really caught up in it. And, eventually you depart and the conversation is still going on.’ And, it’s really just a wonderful way to think about–you’re not the first reader of anything and you’re not the last reader of anything; but you do have something to say about it for that brief window when you’re engaging with it.

Russ Roberts: So, when you romanticize, as you did a minute ago, this idea–and I love that romance, by the way; I’m totally a sucker for it. But, this idea that texts like Shakespeare are often responding to other texts. Of course, as an academic you have a natural impulse to say, ‘We’ve got to go back and read Ovid, now.’ And, of course, you don’t have to read Ovid. You can read A Midsummer Night’s Dream without knowing any Ovid. We never read Ovid; I got a lot out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But, the academic in you says, like, ‘You got to see, this is connected. You’re part of this giant history.’

And, there’s something really beautiful about it, I think, in thinking about the human enterprise. There’s a wonderful quote from Tom Stoppard in Arcadia, which I’m not going to try to give; but it’s about that: We’re part of this long precessional, we join it–it’s a different metaphor, but it’s the same metaphor really–we join the precessional, things are dropped and people fall behind, but actually nothing’s ever really lost. It’s all part of this extraordinary human experience. And, I love that, I find it inspiring. Is it important? Or is it just poetic?

Scott Newstok: No, I think it’s important because it’s true, and I think it helps a reader feel like this thing is human and it’s not alien to me. I am as capable as engaging with this as anyone else is. This is not an imposition on me, I am a peer to Shakespeare or to any writer, or any creator. And, I can engage with it as an equal, and it’s part of my inheritance as much as anything is.

So, I think what’s regrettable about so much–Shakespeare is a particular figure, but many figures like Shakespeare–is that feeling like, ‘This is a monumental thing from the past that is foreign and alien, and it’s not me.’

And, the more you can stage ways of finding your way into conversation with that past, whether it’s that phrase that Callard is using, or the Auden line about, ‘Breaking bread with the dead’ that Alan Jacobs has pulled on recently. It’s the same concept, which is: this is part of an ongoing conversation or ongoing community, and no one should be excluded from that conversation. And, nothing is so remote that it’s inaccessible.

I mean, things take a lot of infrastructure and a lot of introduction to make something distant in time and space feel accessible, but in principle, nothing should be totally inaccessible to anyone.

And, the more education can stage that conversation, I think, the better it tends to be.

Russ Roberts: You used the word ‘alien.’ The word that came to my mind was ‘dead.’ The idea that, ‘Oh, that’s in the past. I’ll just read the modern stuff.’ The idea that there are things from the past that are not just–they’re not dead; first of all they’re alive. And, they’re alive because people have kept them alive. They’ve kept them alive through these ongoing conversations, either with the author or with others about the author–which is what education sometimes will be, with a guide, a teacher, an inspirer, a coach.

And, part of it to me is it’s our heritage as thinking creatures. It’s not just–it’s often called, ‘It’s part of the Western canon, or–‘. It’s really about coming to grips with who we are as humans beings, which is really tricky. And, ‘Here’s some of the greatest minds–Shakespeare would be one–who grappled with that, and here’s your chance to understand what Shakespeare understood, a little bit.’

Scott Newstok: Yeah. My experience as a teacher is, I learn something new every time I’m reading the plays or the poems with my students, because they come at it with fresh eyes and they’re a new interlocutor. And I love that. And, that makes it so it’s not dead for me. And, the more I can make it alive for them in that way you were describing, the more it’s revivifying and invigorating for me as well. And that’s what makes it worth the while. Because, it is a lot of effort, and that’s true for anything that’s not immediately contemporary to us, but I think it’s worth the effort; and I think, again, it belongs to everyone. And, I want to think about an education that doesn’t cut off the past as dead, or monumental, or remote in some way, but sees it in conversation with the present.


Russ Roberts: You have a quote from Theroux, which I don’t remember exactly, but maybe you’ll remember it exactly, but it’s basically–it’s a version of something I’ve said, like it’s my quote. But it’s something that is apparent when you start to think about, which is: ‘You can’t read all of the books that have ever been written, so you should probably read the good ones, best ones, because if you don’t you might not ever get to them.’ I told that to my youngest son last night when I was finishing your book, and he said, ‘So, don’t read Walden, right?’ I said, ‘Exactly.’ That’s one of the valuable insights of that quote: You can just skip that one.

It comes to mind because your statement about you read them again, you something different out of them. Great works probably should be read more than once, some of them, even though it means there’s another book you’ll never get to.

Scott Newstok: Mm-hmm. Yeah, we only have so much time. Sometimes what I see ends up happening is that there’s the presumption–I think you were saying a version of this before, like, ‘Well, we already know that.’ Or, ‘That’s a given, that’s a static thing in the past,’ rather than, ‘It’s still puzzling, and it’s still malleable, and it still shapes us and we still respond to it in different ways.’

And, we respond to things in different ways across the paths of our lives. I think that now that I’m a parent, The Winter’s Tale feels a lot different to me than it did 20 years ago when I first read it. Or, now that I’m old enough to have had students who have passed away, reading things that I had read with them shadows–my reading of Milton’s elegy, Lycidas, feels a lot different now that one of my students who loved that is no longer alive.

So, you’re right: the kind of math of, ‘You only have so much time in your life and there’s only so many things you can read in that limited time,’–that it is a luxury to get back to a few things repeatedly. But I feel really privileged to have that luxury in my life, and to help keep that alive for my students.


Russ Roberts: The last thing I’m going to add, and this relates to education–the last thing I’m going to add about Shakespeare, although we’ll probably come back to him, is this idea that education is about acquiring facts. So, if you read Othello, you get exposed to the idea that a jealous husband can be murderous. ‘Oh, I knew that.’ Just like, ‘Oh, let me just explain this to you: a jealous husband can be murderous.’ ‘Yeah, okay.’ The idea that art can make lessons vivid–you have a quote in the book, I’m not going to remember it or find it–but there’s so many things that we “know” but we don’t absorb. And, art, I think, and Shakespeare, great artists help us absorb those lessons in a different way than just being told some fact.

Scott Newstok: Right now I’ve been thinking my way into Michel de Montaigne’s essays, and he’s got a number of great moments where he’s talking about education and he’s frustrated with, I think what you’re describing, the kind of stuffing of facts into your head rather than feeling like you’ve absorbed something on a more profound, almost visceral level. And, Montaigne picks up a famous metaphor for what he thinks education should be like, which is something like a bee flitting from flower to flower and picking up nectar, and then bringing it back to the hive and transforming it into honey. And, he says the opposite of that is when we ask our students to ingest excessive knowledge and then vomit it up on the final exam. And, that doesn’t feel like that knowledge has been digested or made internal in a more abstract or more profound, almost corporeal, way.

Montaigne is fascinating and weird because he obviously did learn many things and memorize many things, and had a powerful education. But, he’s very blunt about saying that that mode of ingesting only in order to spit it up again is not really what we’re talking about when we’re talking about education.

And, that’s why the plot summary of most of Shakespeare’s plays is very pretty banal. And, he’s borrowing many of the plots from his peers and his predecessors and things that he’s read. So, what’s more fascinating is the way in which it’s transformed–not the thing into which it was transformed but the process of that creation, or the process of that making. And, that’s one thing that I emphasize throughout the book, is trying to think of Shakespeare and all kinds of other figures as makers.

And, ideally, I think that should help inspire students to think of themselves as makers again, and people who are part of that human process of creation. Not thinking that, ‘This thing is outside of me,’ but, rather, ‘I want to ingest this and make it a part of me.’

Russ Roberts: And, make something else out of it.

Scott Newstok: And, make something else. Right.

Russ Roberts: Which could just be me, which would be amazing. It doesn’t have to be you have to write your own book. It’s just: you make yourself. I think that’s an important part of the human experience.

You mentioned the word visceral. I have to just mention that we don’t usually think of what that word means, where it comes from. It comes from guts. And, I always think about getting a lesson into your guts, into your bones; and visceral gets at that in such a great way. So, [crosstalk 00:34:38].

Scott Newstok: Yeah, it’s really corporeal: you’re incorporating something. You’re bringing it into your body on profound level.

Russ Roberts: As opposed to a fact that went into the hard drive: it’s still there probably, but it’s not the same as front and center.


Russ Roberts: I want to talk about a quote you have of Iris Murdoch: ‘The goal of education,’ she said, ‘is to attend, to learn to desire to learn.’ To attend meaning to pay attention, to watch, to be attentive. But, the next part I really love: ‘to learn to desire to learn.’

Usually, I think people romanticize education or idealize it by saying, ‘Well, education is about teaching people how to learn.’ But, that’s not what she said. It’s not about teaching people how to learn, it’s to teach them to desire to learn. It’s an incredibly beautiful idea.

Scott Newstok: It is. And, it’s really hard to achieve. If we knew how to do that, everything would be so much simpler. And, I think that’s one of the reasons it is so difficult to talk about education and difficult to implement the things that we love about learning. Because, in some ways it’s more of a craft or an art than it is a raw science, or something that’s programmable or could be reproduced with an algorithm.

Part of that idea of learning to desire to learn, is–I think, when I think about stages of my education, one thing that often comes to mind is that I was looking at teachers who were modeling that desire in all kinds of different ways, and all kinds of different disciplines, and with different pedagogies and different topics. There wasn’t really any one thing that unified my high school math teacher and my high school Spanish teacher and my high school biology teacher, except for: they were on fire with this thing that they loved and they wanted to convey that excitement and share that. And, part of what they were doing was modeling that continuing desire to learn and helping inspire it through the modeling.

But, it is tough and I don’t think any of us has the secret answer for how to achieve that. And, it’s as much a part of parenting as it is a part of teaching, where it is something that’s very elusive and you try all kinds of different ways of approaching it, and it’s idiosyncratic to the individual. And, something that might work for one student doesn’t work for another, for a whole host of reasons. And, part of the luxury of being a teacher who has small classes, is that you can afford to figure that out and get to know your students in a way that you can’t at a much larger scale of education delivery.

So, I think that Murdoch is right on, and she’s also pulling off of that great Simone Weil passage, which says a different version of the same thing, which is, ‘Education is about cultivating the kind of attention.’ And, Weil starts off with, again, a modest statement, something like: ‘Doing a math problem seems kind of banal at first, but if you can figure out ways to get enthralled by a math problem, that might down the line lead to more grand ways of being enthralled by the world itself, or creation itself.’

It’s a hard thing to model and, again, I don’t think any of us know the one way to make it work. And, that’s great: we’re all experimenting and we’re all trying to make it work, but we’re all trying to find ways to draw attention to an object that’s outside of ourselves. Whether that’s a physical object or a verbal object.

Russ Roberts: I was thinking about this quote I love of Plutarch: ‘The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.’

And, it’s an interesting thought that a great teacher shows you that their fire is burning. It’s hard to kindle someone else’s fire, but at least seeing someone else’s fire burning–and, of course, fire is a beautiful thing because I can share my fire with you, and it’s a public good, in econ jargon terms, because it doesn’t get any less because I’ve helped your fire get lit. Really a beautiful, an incredibly beautiful metaphor.


Russ Roberts: But, the math point is extremely interesting because–my wife is a math teacher, listeners know–and they sometimes say, ‘Why do we have to learn all this? I’m never going to be a mathematician. I’m never going to go into engineering.’ And, of course, some of them turn out, they are. They didn’t realize it. They get that fire kindled, and they decide, ‘Hey, I’m good at this, actually. I thought I wasn’t.’ That’s a beautiful thing.

But, the other part is just that insight that the aesthetics of a proof, of a poem, and so on, which I’d never thought about that you just mentioned. One of my favorite moments–in life actually–is the time my statistics professor at University of North Carolina–and I’m struggling with his name, it might come to me in a minute–but, he taught us three different proofs of, I think, the Central Limit Theorem. One used characteristic functions. And it was, quote, “a waste of time.” There was no–none of us–it was a graduate class; I was taking it as an undergraduate. I don’t know–it was a waste of time probably for most of the graduates. But, as an undergraduate, in theory, it was a waste of time.

It was one of the most inspiring I ever saw, not because he did such a great job proving it, because I suddenly saw that this insight could be illuminated from these different directions. It blew my mind. It really was just a moment of pure poetry in a math class, in a statistics class. And I apologize to that teacher, not remembering his name, maybe I’ll find it.

But, what a beautiful thing that is, and–

Scott Newstok: It is beautiful. I have a similar anecdote from–and I do remember my teacher’s name: this was Arnold Adelberg at Grinnell College. And, there would be times where he would stop in the midst of a proof, and he would say, ‘Look at that. We could have done this in 13 clunky, ugly steps and kind of ham-fisted our way to the answer. But, we did it in seven steps, and it’s more elegant than these other ways that we could have done it.’

And, I always bring that up when I have science majors in class because I think sometimes there’s the impression that it’s a humanities subject and this is all subjective, and the sciences are all objective. And, in fact, sciences are suffused with wonderfully subjective, in the best sense: like, the subject is an expert who is knowledgeable about this thing and knows a lot, and is able to make evaluative judgements that are based on their accrued authority.

So, I bring up that anecdote because I think it’s a great example of talking about the aesthetic quality of thinking different routes to the same answer.

There’s a great book that just came out called 99 Proofs, which just walks through 99 different variations on the same problem. In the introduction the author mentions that that was inspired, in part, by a 1950s French writer who wrote 140-some variations on a little anecdote about getting on the bus and getting jostled and then getting off the bus; but, it’s written in kind of bureaucratese, and it’s written as a kind of haiku, and then it’s presented in florid language, and then really blunt, hard-nosed crime novel language. And, after a while, the joke starts–it’s a joke, it’s a stunt at first, but it does make you realize, ‘Wow, there are many ways you could say the same thing.’ And, again, that’s part of our human capacity for amazing inventiveness. And, then finding, ‘What’s the best way for this occasion? What’s the best way for me to frame this, given the audience that I have and given the resources that I have, and given the time that I have?’

That’s part of learning to become a more fluent human being, I think, in general, whether that’s as an economist, or as a scientist, or as a politician, or as a speaker, or parent. ‘What are the right resources that I should apply at this particular moment, given the task that’s in front of me?’ That’s rhetorical at heart, and that’s something that definitely was infused in the education that someone like Shakespeare would have received in the 1500s.

There’s a great example that I bring up in the book by the humanist educator, Erasmus, from his wonderful book Of Copia–or Of Copiousness. And, ‘copia’ is a word that–it gives us the word ‘copy,’ like a photocopied pieces of paper, but it also gives us that was word ‘copious,’ like cornucopia, like profusion of excess. And, Erasmus takes this one sentence, ‘Your letter has pleased me greatly.’ So, it’s about as banal–it’s like an email response you would say right now, like, ‘Thanks for your email.’ But, then he goes through this pyrotechnic list of variations on how many different ways you could rephrase that. You know: Invert the subject, the verb; think about different synonyms that you could deploy for the adverb. Think about ways in which you could make it more elaborate or make it more blunt. And, it’s kind of a joke: it makes you chuckle a little bit. But then you realize, ‘Actually there are a lot of different ways you could say that line. And, there’s probably one that’s best suited for right now, for this occasion.’ So, it’s stunt, but he’s doing it as a stunt in order to prove a point about–even something that seems like the most simple thing you could say, has a lot of different ways you could go about saying it. [More to come, 44:37]

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