In response to the recent uptick in domestic violence:

Several years ago I received a call from a District Attorney, one of whose clients had been tried and convicted of a crime involving sodomy, rape, and murder. She was trying to keep him off of death row. He had been expelled from more than ten LAUSD schools, and she was trying to find a single teacher from one of those schools who could say something nice about him.

When she told me his name I vaguely remembered a small eighth grader who had briefly flitted, somewhat disruptively, through my drama class years earlier, before being expelled. At the time, I and his math teacher had voted not to expel him until he had been tested and recommended for placement in a program that could better serve his needs. The majority of the faculty just wanted to be rid of him.

“He’s not small anymore,” she said.

In preparing an argument for a life sentence instead of execution, she asked him to name a single teacher who might be able to say something good about him. He named two: me and one other. I could hardly remember him among the hundreds of kids who had passed through my classes, but he remembered me and one other teacher.

We were both theater teachers.

I am not saying theater could have changed him, could have redirected him, could even have saved him and the life of his victim; but I’m absolutely certain that was what HE was saying. And he wouldn’t be the first. You will probably never meet a theater teacher who can not claim to have “saved” a student and doesn’t have a story like mine. Most of the stories end happily. Most of mine do too. This one did not.

Students in our schools are desperate for avenues of self expression and self-definition. Experience in drama activities empowers students and gives them tools for positive and constructive communication. This has been true for hundreds of years and it will be true for hundreds more. Educators, take note.

Milan Dragicevich was in town recently and I got to attend one of the workshops based on his new book, The Persuasive Actor: Rhetorical Power on the Contemporary Stage. So brilliant! Fifteen years ago, Milan was the one who first got me hooked on rhetoric and fascinated by the way Shakespeare and tens of thousands of his peers practiced it.

Rhetoric had already been at the core of education for two thousand years when Will Shakespeare was in school. It was one of the three pillars of the Trivium, which defined the first stages of education for every child, in schools called “trivial” schools—essentially what we now call elementary schools. The Trivium was grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar (reading and writing) was the most basic, of course, and in the Middle Ages logic was elevated slightly above rhetoric because of the tortured attempts to make biblical teachings conform to the classical philosophers, mostly Plato and Aristotle.

But by the time Shakespeare went to school, rhetoric was ascendant. This is because of the impact of the curriculum designed by Erasmus. In its most simple terms, logic is IDEAS and rhetoric is the PACKAGING of ideas. Rhetoric is persuasion. Rhetoric is salesmanship. People can be persuaded, for better of for worse, of both fine ideas or foolish ones: wise and beneficial ideas or deadly ones. Erasmus knew that people tend to “buy” ideas that are well packaged, and he was intent on “selling” the classics to all educated persons. He truly believed that all knowledge and all wisdom could be found in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.

There are hundreds of rhetorical figures (also called devices, schemes, or tropes) that date back to the 5th century BC and the Sophists in Greece. Shakespeare learned most of his from Grammaticae artis institution by the German humanist, Johannes Susenbrotus, published in 1539. In his Epitome troporum Susenbrotus defines one hundred and thirty-two tropes and figures and gives examples of their use in ancient and contemporary literature. A few of them may be at least vaguely familiar to us today, but many won’t even pass spell check. How about apophasis, or zeugma, ekphrasia, anthypophora, anaphora, epistrophe, epanalepsis, anthimeria, chiasmus, epizeuxis, catachresis, anadiplosis, or hendiadys?

I’ve either peaked your interest or lost you. Either way, I’ve only scratched the surface. And, no, I can’t define them all myself, but I guarantee Shakespeare could. In my book, Good Behavior and Audacity, the chapter on rhetoric is called “Per quam figuram,” because that was the daily question a headmaster asked his students when they were speaking or writing: “What figure are you using?” And you can be sure they had to give a correct answer or answer for it!

The more you learn about them the more you understand the mystifying brilliance of the poetry of Shakespeare and dozens of his peers.

I have a pretty good chapter explaining the use, history, practice, and teaching of rhetoric, but I’m having to revise it (yet again!) after Milan’s workshop. If you’re interested, his book is a great place to start!

Shakespeare is often noted for the witty and insightful dialogue of his luminous women. Desiderius Erasmus not so much. But fifty years before Shakespeare was de Pizan1born, Erasmus was writing clever little plays in Latin, called colloquies, to be performed by schoolboys like Shakespeare to de Pizan1practice Latin conversation; and those playlets were full of whip-smart women sparring with their rather dull male counterparts. There’s Maria, who trades witty barbs with her suitor, Pamphilus, in Proci et puellae (lover and lass), a colloquy that sounds a whole lot like Beatrice and Benedict, Rosalyn and Orlando, Tatania and Oberon, or Viola and Orsino. There’s Xanthippe, the shrew in Uxor (marriage) who must absolutely have been the inspiration for Kate. There’s Lucretia in Adolescentis et scorti (the teenager and the whore) from whom Falstaff gets some of his best lines. There’s the sassy, ugly cook, Margaret, in Convivium poeticum (the poetic feast), who mouths off at all her pretentious poetical guests when they question her choice of lettuce in their salad and predates any one of a number of Shakespeare’s opinionated servants, female and male. There’s the brilliantly educated Magdalia in Abbatis et eruditae (the abbot and the learned woman), modeled on Sir Thomas More’s daughter Meg, who can’t keep from laughing at her foil, an ignorant and venal abbot. Finally there is Fabulla, in Puerpera (the new mother) who argues the artist Eutrapelus to the wall when he infers that she is lucky to have a baby son rather than a daughter. de Pizan2He finally says of her, “I see that you are bent on single combat. For that reason, I think I’d better yield for the present … for where wars are fought with words, not even seven men are a match for one woman.” It’s a quote I’ve thought of often several times watching the recent democratic candidates in their debates!

I love Erasmus’ appreciation and admiration for the wit and wisdom of women, partly because I’m sure he was not alone, but also because I don’t know de Pizan3much about the history of medieval and early Renaissance feminism. Erasmus and Shakespeare surely were not the only ones who celebrated smart women, but there are not many representative models of such women in the available literature of the time. My sister-in-law turned me on to Christine de Pizan, who, one hundred years before Erasmus, earned her living as a poet, biographer of a king, and writer of The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies.

De Pizan was widowed with three children to raise at the age of twenty-five, and although she had friends at court, she had no income of her own. She did not wish to remarry or become a nun, so she turned to writing. At first she wrote rather conventional love poetry, which apparently sold well enough to keep her out of poverty. Then she was commissioned by the Duke of Burgundy to write the biography of his deceased brother, King Charles V. As she became more sure of her strengths as a writer, she celebrated creative and innovative women by writing the two books shown here. Both of these books and their illustrations give us a glimpse of the vibrant intellectual contributions of women to the culture and climate of the time.

She also wrote political theory from a feminist perspective. As Charles VI’s, oldest son came of age she wrote works to his mother, Queen Isabeau, that promoted wise and effective government. In The Book of the Body Politic, dedicated to the dauphin, she analyzed and described the customs and governments of societies of the time.

She lived to record some extraordinary history. Late in her life she  published the poem, The Tale of Joan of Arc, after the French victory over the English at Orleans. Published just a few days after the coronation of Charles VII, she expressed renewed optimism for her adopted country. She cast Joan of Arc as the fulfilment of prophecies and a symbol for a bright future. Sadly, she died only months before that symbol was tried by an English court and burned at the stake.

A great article about how important the arts are for the development of cognition. Richard Mulcaster said it 500 years ago. Plato said it more than 2000 years ago. Here it is again.

‘Arts teaching could become more important than maths in tech-based future’ – education expert, Andreas Schleicher

Go To Article.


The following is a paragraph from the introduction to my book, Good Behavior and Audacity.  It describes the problem we had in the arts branch dealing with the fact that schools prioritized standardized test scores above all else in budget and scheduling decisions around instruction in the arts.

Standardized testing proved to be by far the greatest hurdle for us. There is a terrible irony in this.  There is no discipline in which authentic assessment—both self-assessment and audience assessment—is more embedded, at every stage, than in the discipline of art making; and yet it is the most difficult to objectively evaluate. Because of this, when the testing fever overwhelmed education in the 90s, I naively thought the arts would be spared. I was wrong. To quote my boss in the Arts Branch at the time, “If you don’t test it, they won’t teach it.”

education and school concept – little student girl studying at school

He was tragically correct. Of course you can evaluate performance in the arts: using elegant and precise rubrics, you can avoid the taint of subjectivity and give a grade to a project. But rubric-based evaluations are designed for in-class use, with a profound connection to the individual student working to improve through practice. Partly because of the element of subjectivity, but mostly because of the astronomical expense of grading such projects, it is not possible to create such a test as a standard measure across huge populations. We made valiant efforts to design and pilot cunning multiple-choice questions that could be included on national standardized tests, but they always boiled down to simple vocabulary. They did nothing to encourage the teaching of creativity. And yet history, common sense, and all the new research on brain development tell us that engagement in the arts is essential to the healthy development of cognition: or, as Plato and Mulcaster both said, the arts ‘frame the mind for learning.’

Test scores began to decline in the early 70s, at exactly the time the arts were being cut across the country, but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the policy makers that there might be a connection.

Today it really seems that all they are learning is how to take tests. Is that really all we want them to learn?

And this, from my final chapter:

Here is where I permit myself a tirade. Testing. I have the chops to say what I am going to say. I’ve spent years in the classroom, and I share my concern with tens of thousands of teachers who have observed classrooms numbed by incessant test preparation. I’ve witnessed the terror in seven-year-old faces, the tears, the vomiting, the quivering chins, and the shaking hands (as though today’s children did not have enough cause for stress in their innocence). I’ve seen teenagers wilt with boredom after hours of studying test-taking skills and simply disappear into daydreams or rebel with outrageous behaviors. I know brilliant adults who have internalized a “below average” assessment of their own intellect for their entire lives because of one totally irrelevant SAT or IQ score. I’ve attended days of professional development, with free lunch provided, teaching me how to legally boost test scores. I know all the tricks. It’s legal but it’s still cheating! None of it, not one second of it, constitutes what I consider education.

It goes without question that there must be accountability, which is why educators have embraced academic standards. Standards give teachers, students, and their parents an observable measure for developmentally appropriate achievement, and as such they provide guideposts for instruction. The problem comes with their marriage to standardized tests and the elevation of these tests to a level far beyond what was intended by their developers. There are many ways to assess achievement, but authentic assessment is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Standardized tests, although they do not differentiate for learning modalities and give only a very narrow slice of the whole picture, are easy and relatively cheap (and the word “relatively” should be used with a footnote here, because educational testing is a billion dollar industry). They are tools that serve a limited purpose in narrowly focused studies to be used by educators in the context of their own practice in schools or classrooms. But making their results public, exposing innocent children to them, broadcasting them on banners on school fences, using them as bludgeons to punish struggling schools and hard working teachers, and making them the basis for financial rewards and the data for research in achievement is unconscionable abuse. Schools trying to educate under a shadow of “accountability” anxiety based on standardized tests abandon what they know about authentic instruction and resort to drill and kill. Classrooms suffer. Teachers suffer. Children who are turned into data points and who internalize the deceptive message of their test scores may suffer emotional damage that is irreversible.


I started and dropped this blog several years ago, so now I’m updating it.  Originally I had the idea that I wanted to start a foundation devoted to the study of the rich but largely undocumented history of the performing arts in education.  I was planning to call it the Richard Mulcaster Foundation, after the headmaster of the Merchant Taylors’ School in Elizabethan London, because in his two books on pedagogy he devotes many chapters to instruction in the performing arts.  It was a good idea, but it needed a more persistent person than I or a focused team to get it off the ground, so I abandoned it.

This time is different.  I’ve finished a book, Good Behavior and Audacity: Humanist Education, Playacting, and a Generation of Genius, and I’m looking to get it published.   I’ve started developing workshops and presentations about the enormous amount of performing arts and physical rhetoric (“actio”- acting) in Shakespeare’s education.

I’ll be updating this blog monthly.

In the meantime, back when I first started my research I made an attempt at updating some of Mulcaster’s writings on education.  Because of his ornate and discursive style it was a beastly task, but lest my work go completely to waste I’ve put it into a pdf below.  I’ll also pull from it in future posts.

About Richard Mulcaster



I have a house guest this week, Clara Trigo, amazing choreographer from Brazil here to do a workshop at the Electric Lodge.  (The workshop is called Poetic Instability.)  Clara doesn’t speak English all that well, but she was telling me about a presentation by a Dr. Carol Davis, at a conference in San Diego last week.  (It was conference on pilates.)  The presentation was about fascia, which is the connective tissue that surrounds all of our muscles and organs.  It is more extensive than skin.
What is fascinating about fascia is that it is, in fact, a sixth sense.  It processes information coming from our other senses.  And that’s what reminded me of my conversation with Dain Olsen earlier this summer.  Fascia is the sense that has to do with aesthetics – the processing of information through all the senses.  I think it must also be profoundly connected to our emotions and moods.
Fascia!  Who knew?!

I just ran across this marvelous passage in reading T.W. Baldwin, Vol II, Chapter XXXII:

Robert Whittington was considered the ultimate authority on rhetoric and we may fairly assume that Mulcaster was aware of him.  Here he writes in his Vulgaria in 1520, citing Cicero’s (Tully’s) Orator as his source and instructing the preceptor how to teach children to recite.  I’ve redacted it so that it is immediately readable, but have left unfamiliar words in the original script:

“Preceptor.  It is a rude manner, a child (have he never so [fylde or sylde] (silver? sweet?) a tongue and pleasant pronunciation) to stand still like an ass; and on the other side (as a carter) to be wandering of eyes, picking or playing the fool with his hand and unstable of foot….Therefore take head the countenance be made conformable to the purpose: now with gravity, now cheerful, now rough, now amenable, shaping meat unto matter (as I may say) like a glove to the hand … Also see that the gesture be comely with seemly and sober moving: sometime of the head, sometime of the hand and foot: and as the cause requires, with all the body … Of this thing whoever please to have more full knowledge, let him look upon Tully’s rhetoric.”

Clearly children were being taught theatre skills in the classroom in 1520!

Yesterday a former colleague of mine, Dain Olsen, came by to help me get this site going, and we had a fascinating conversation about the diminished role of aesthetics in the conceptual underpinnings of western culture.  Dain is a media arts teacher and has agreed to write something for this site.  His thinking is dense and complex, but essentially, if I understand it, his argument is that ever since Plato, aesthetics – the processing of experience and knowledge through the senses rather than through pure reason – has been undervalued.  John Dewey addresses this in his writings, and Dain also recommended a book called The Meaning of the Body, by  Mark Thompson.  Re-visioning the role of aesthetics would require a radical re-thinking of our educational systems and would greatly increase the role of arts engagement.  Dain sees media arts as a potential catalyst for this needed transformation.

One connection I made as he explained this was a passage that Barbara Kingsolver wrote as an addendum to her novel The Lacuna.  She points out that in Mexican culture (and in many world cultures) the arts play a much more significant role, even in politics.

Dain is hoping to write a book but struggling to carve out the time in his life.  My hope is that this site will eventually be a place where people can post their exploratory thinking for feedback from others in the field.  We need to keep each other inspired.

So much of Positions and Elementarie wanders all over the place, repeats itself, over elaborates and strays off topic that it makes for laborious reading; but if you boil it down to some big ideas it is simply amazing to me how prescient and forward thinking he was, and how oracular a voice he could have even today.  So for now, this post is that distillation of the ideas that most stood out for me. Click Here for the PDF: About Richard Mulcaster

(Redacted from Elementarie, for clarity)

START WITH NATURAL ABILITIES:   I call those natural abilities which nature plants in our minds and bodies for our use, but to be perfected by our own selves for our best use.  For example: nature plants in the hand the ability to catch and hold, but to use that ability to best effect our policy must be to practice.  Nature plants in our mind the ability to foresee such things as may be to come, which to be most profitable to us must be employed with our own wisdom and consideration.  Therefore we ourselves cause our own want if we do not endeavor to further that which the goodness of nature (nay the goodness of God of his own mere gift) does bestow upon us.