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.


Edmund Spenser:

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Credited Mulcaster with his embrace of the English language for poetry.  Remained in contact with him all of his life.

(c. 1552 – 13 January 1599)[1] was an English poet best known for The Faerie Queene, an epic poem and fantastical allegory celebrating the Tudor dynasty and Elizabeth I. He is recognised as one of the premier craftsmen of Modern English verse in its infancy, and is considered one of the greatest poets in the English language.

Sir Lancelot Andrews:

Andrewes was born in 1555 in Barking, Greater London, and like his contemporary Thomas Harrison (see Jan. 2) studied at Merchant Taylors’ School, under Richard Mulcaster.  HE KEPT A PORTRAIT OF MULCASTER IN HIS OFFICE ALL HIS LIFE.  He graduated from Cambridge 21 years old, In 1571. He became a fellow (teacher) of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and a clergyman four years after that. Teaching undergraduates over a thirteen year period, he gradually rose to become Master (Principal) of his College in 1589. By this time he had already become chaplain to the Archbishop, and was a great favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, whom she appointed her chaplain. By 1601, he was Dean of the Abbey at Westminster. Before the KJV was published, he had also been appointed Bishop of Chichester, and then of Ely. near Cambridge. Seven years after the great publishing event, Andrewes became bishop ofWinchester, once the home of English Kings. Finally, he distinguished himself as Dean of the Chapel Royal. This is a body of singers and priests, which served to meet the spiritual needs of the Royal family at St James’ Palace and Hampton Court. Such a succession of significant offices meant there

Screen Shot 2013-04-27 at 4.20.55 PMwere few Englishmen more powerful in his day! He died in London, 1626, aged sixty-one, and a monument marks the spot where he was buried. Having never married, he bequeathed his property to charity. The poet John Milton, then but a youth, wrote a glowing Latin elegy on his death. The well-known poet T. S. Eliotwrote an essay about him, “ considering him “an important figure in the history of the church, distinguished for the quality of his thoughts and prose.”

Thomas Lodge:  Dramatist

(born c. 1557, London?, Eng.—died 1625, London), English poet, dramatist, and prose writer whose innovative versatility typified the Elizabethan age. He is best remembered for the prose romance Rosalynde, the source of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

He was the son of Sir Thomas Lodge, who was lord mayor of London in 1562. The younger Lodge was educated at Merchant Taylors’ School and at Trinity College, Oxford, and he studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, London, in 1578. Lodge’s earliest work was an anonymous pamphlet (c. 1579) in reply to Stephen Gosson’s attack on stage plays. His next work, An Alarum Against Usurers (1584), exposed the ways in which moneylenders lured young heirs into extravagance and debt. He then engaged in varied literary activity for a number of years. His Scillaes Metamorphosis (1589), an Ovidian verse fable, is one of the earliest English poems to retell a classical story with imaginative embellishments, and it strongly influenced Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. Lodge’s Phillis (1593) contains amorous sonnets and pastoral eclogues from French and Italian originals. In A Fig for Momus (1595), he introduced classical satires and verse epistles (modeled after those of Juvenal and Horace) into English literature for the first time. Aside from Rosalynde: Euphues Golden Legacie (1590), which provided the plot for Shakespeare’s comedy, Lodge’s most important romance was A Margarite of America (1596), which combines Senecan motives and Arcadian romance in an improbable love story between a Peruvian prince and a daughter of the king of Muscovy. His other romances are chiefly notable for the fine lyric poems scattered through them. Lodge continued to write moralizing pamphlets such as Wits Miserie, and the Worlds Madnesse (1596), and in 1594 he published two plays: The Wounds of Civill War and (with Robert Greene) A Looking Glasse for London and England.

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Thomas Kyd:  Dramatist

Wrote The Spanish Tragedy and other plays.  As well known for his temperament as his playwriting.

In October 1565 the young Kyd was enrolled in the newly founded Merchant Taylors’ School, whose headmaster was Richard Mulcaster. Fellow students included Edmund Spenser and Thomas Lodge. Here, Kyd received a well-rounded education, thanks to Mulcaster’s progressive ideas. Apart from Latin and Greek, the curriculum included music, drama, physical education, and “good manners”. There is no evidence that Kyd went on to either of the English universities. He may have followed for a time his father’s profession; two letters written by him are extant and his handwriting suggests the training of a scrivener.
Screen Shot 2013-05-05 at 3.17.25 PMSir James Whitelocke: SL (28 November 1570 – 22 June 1632) was an English judge and politician who sat in the House of Commons between 1610 and 1622.

‘In the Liber Famelicus of Sir James Whitelocke (Camden’s Society Publications, No. LXX), Sir James tells of his bringing up at Merchant Taylors’.  He was born in 1570 and was elected from the school to be a probationer of St. John’s College, Oxfofd, in June, 1588.  He says:  ”I was brought up at School under Mr. Mulcaster in the famous school of the Merchant Taylors in London, where I continued until I was well instructed in the Hebrew, Greek and Latin tongues.  His care was also to increase my skill in music, in which I was brought up in daily exercise in it, as in singing and playing upon instruments:  and yearly he presented some plays to the court, in which his scholars were [the] only actors, and I one among them; and by that means [he] taught them good behaviour and audacity.”

Thomas Jenkins and John Cotham:  Two of Shakespeare’s teachers at the Stratford Grammar School.

Mulcaster wrote two books on pedagogy:  Positions, in 1581, and Elementarie in 1582.  They’re not engrossing reading, unfortunately, but they are full of gems.  His style is euphuistic and discursive, and he covers a lot of ground: opining on who should be education, how, what curriculum, what languages, how old, private vs. public, etc.  Many of his opinions were forward thinking, and all of them are solidly based in practice, as he was an educator, in the classroom, for over 50 years.

In 1903 James Oliphant published a redaction of much of his work, which is much easier to read; but he focused on the parts that were interesting to him, and, oddly, left out a lot of the references specific to the arts.

Much more fascinating to me is Richard Mulcaster, by Richard L. DeMolen, published in 1991.  He doesn’t try to re-write the books, but he  puts Mulcaster in the context of his age and the humanist movement in education, and he explores the main ideas of both books.

I’m going to set out to redact only the chapters and passages that I find that directly address role of the arts in education.

In the first few pages of Chapter 1 of Elementarie:

Image taken from the internet had not credit given

My redaction:  The other area that I started to explore in that book [Positions] but didn’t finish is to lay out what subjects should be followed in the course of learning, and what I myself propose to do for the advancement thereof.  These are five in number and infinite in use: reading, writing, drawing, singing and playing [music].

So right from the start, the arts get three of the five.  He proceeds to explain the importance of drawing and music, and I’ll cover those in time.  But theatre and dance are left off the list, so I want to briefly clear that up.  Mulcaster spends many chapters on voice and gesture, and we know from numerous memoirs that his students were extensively involved in performance.  I’ll publish more of this in a post on Theatre

As for dance:  Mulcaster is HUGE on exercise, noting that stillness in children produces bile and bad behavior, and thanks to Oliphant he is often noted for his endorsement of soccer [foote ball] in education, but he certainly didn’t stop there.  My next post will be on dance.