Why Renaissance Educators Were “Incredibly Invested” in the Verbal Arts

English professor Scott Newstok has feelings about the value of the Renaissance education model. In an interview with Brett McKay, he argues that education in general should focus less on passing tests and more on sharpening students’ ability to think and write. McKay asks him why the Renaissance model of education is so effective in this regard. Scott’s reply fascinates me:

[I]t’s not the only model. But it is a good one, in part, I mean you can just look to the many wonderful writers that emerged out of that era, the many wonderful thinkers that emerged in other disciplines and really even founded fields of knowledge that we still study today … those all emerged from what looks to us in retrospect like a incredibly rigid education. But in some I think fascinating and paradoxical ways, some of the rigidity of that educational training system led to enormous flowering of creativity and human achievement. It was an educational system that was incredibly invested in the verbal arts. There was an emphasis on becoming the most fluent writer you could possibly be, through all kinds of strategies, across a long period of time. I think it’s just based on the insight that as humans we use language to articulate all kinds of complicated things, and the better you can articulate that complexity, the more capable you will be of engaging with the world as a citizen, as a political agent, as a member of a family, as a business person. Whatever it is, language is our vehicle for interacting with the world and expressing complexity, so why not devote incredible resources to refining language? (emphasis mine)

Guess what students in the Renaissance did to become the best possible writers? Copy large sections of books, essays, speeches, or other pieces of writing crafted by other skilled writers.

I could be wrong, but I can’t imagine that having high school or college students copy or type extended passages would be taken seriously today. The closest I ever came to this in my education was memorizing “The Gettysburg Address” or Marc Antony’s famous speech from The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Which seems odd considering that the practice of imitation in writing is far, far older than the Renaissance. Maybe Newstok is on to something, and it’s a practice worth resurrecting? Classic literature sparkles and bursts with examples of remarkable eloquence, and it is abundantly clear to me that gaining skill in the written and verbal arts —which is more sure to happen the more sophisticated literature you read—is, as Newstok says, going to improve your chances of navigating a complex world. Classic lit isn’t everyone’s favorite, to be sure, but even if you hate it you’ve got to admit: Damn, those folks knew how to write. Heck, I’ve often read passages from old books (most recently from The Brother Karamazov) and thought: Damn, I should use that line the next time I need to respectfully disparage anyone who disagrees with me.

You know, so I can better engage with a complex world.

Portrait of Shakespeare
Source: Wikipedia

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