People have been educating their young since language began and longer…
…and very smart people have been writing about education for a few thousand years now, and yet you’d think from all of the “reform” and “innovation” that is going on in education these days that the art of teaching was invented ten minutes ago.
More important, the arts have been at the very center of education from time immemorial, and have frequently been lauded for their role in preparing the mind for learning. And yet there is, as far as we have found, no history of the role of the arts in education going back more than one hundred years. It seems, in fact, that the arts were so embedded in education that they were not objectified as separate and discreet subjects.
I am retired from the position of Director of the Arts Education Branch in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where for fourteen years I and dozens of amazing colleagues labored to bring the arts to the core of the academic day for every student at every grade level. Research supported our efforts; teachers and most administrators embraced the program enthusiastically; and the evidence poured in that students thrive in arts-rich schools….And yet, we were constantly amazed that we had to advocate, advocate, advocate, to fight each year for our modest funding and for our seat at the table with the decision makers at the head of the district.
Could it be that this was, at least in part, because of our lack of history? Education leaders keep asking us for our “data,” and the obsession for data certainly drives the political power battles in education across the country. We HAVE data, and tons of it, but it is “soft” data and cannot always be directly linked to the results being sought. Perhaps history could be more powerful than data.
So I launched my own research, and once I retired I was literally able to bask in it. Over the past six years I have written a book focusing on one brief period in history, that of the humanist education designed primarily by Desiderius Erasmus and enjoyed by the young William Shakespeare and tens of thousands of his peers in Elizabethan England.
The title of my book is Good Behavior and Audacity: Humanist Education, Playacting, and a Generation of Genius.
Two igniting discoveries got me started on the research for this book: reading the books on pedagogy written by Richard Mulcaster in the 1580s and reading the Colloquia familiaria of Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus and Mulcaster both have had a huge and largely neglected influence on Western education to this day.
I stumbled across Richard Mulcaster several years ago when reading a biography of Shakespeare that mentioned that two of the Bard’s early teachers had studied at the Merchant Taylors’ School in London, where Mulcaster was headmaster. He was known to use theatre extensively in his teaching, and he wrote two books on pedagogy: Positions and Elementarie. They are almost impossible to read – euphuistic, ornate and discursive, written in early Elizabethan prose – but struggling through them, right away I found some amazing gems. To start with, he states that the five most important first learnings for a child are reading (in ENGLISH, not Latin), writing, DRAWING, SINGING, and PLAYING MUSIC. He talks about starting education with beauty and pleasure, about taking what a child does naturally and teaching the child to make beauty with that facility. He was a huge advocate of physical education and frequent opportunities for movement in schooling, and he writes an entire chapter on the importance of DANCE. He never, in his books, specifically discusses theatre as an art form, but, as stated earlier, he used theatre to teach fluency, self possession, diction, gesture, and presence. In fact, looking at rhetoric, which was at the core of the grammar school education, you have to recognize that oral argument was of equal or greater importance than written argument; and oral argument relies heavily on voice, gesture, fluency and imagination. That’s THEATRE.
Mulcaster was riding the wave of the humanists that arose in the fifteenth century first in Florence then north and south throughout Europe. He was indebted to many, including, of course, Erasmus and Ascham; and many were in turn indebted to him. Several of his former students wrote about their participation in his plays and the importance of that participation in their own learning My favorite quote is from Sir James Whitlocke, who claimed that Mulcaster used theatre to teach a combination of attributes that will be familiar to all theatre teachers: “good behavior and audacity.”
I first read about the use of Erasmus’ colloquies in Shakespeare’s classroom in Jonathan Bate’s wonderful biography: Soul of the Age: a Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare. I went online and found two translations: one from the early 18th century and one from the middle of the 20th. When I started reading them, I was stunned to find the seeds of so many colloquial characters and specific scenes in Shakespeare’s early comedies. I haven’t been able to find any scholarship about this, so I think I may be the first one to document the resonances. More important, along with the practice of physical rhetoric, or “actio” (acting), they are evidence of the enormous amount of training in the performing arts that children of that time received in school.
There are so many areas of historic research that I or others could embark on. I am compiling a list which is growing every day, and I haven’t even moved beyond western/European traditions. Here’s just a start:
The Greeks: Epicurus (the Garden), Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes
The Romans: Lucretius, Cicero, Quintilian
The Humanists: Dante, Vittorino da Fletre (La Giocosa – “The Pleasure House”), Guarino da Verona, Aeneas Sylvius, Sturmius, Bembo, Erasmus, Guido Camillo (Theatre/Memory), Ascham, Vives, Mulcaster, Elyot, Montaigne, Comenius
19th Century: Sloyd, the Kindergarten Movement, Horace Mann
20th Century: John Dewey (note guest post by Dain Olsen)