Friday, April 26, 2013

Memory Games

 Some word there was …
That murder'd me: I would forget it fain;
But, O, it presses to my memory,
Like damned guilty deeds to sinners’ minds

“Juliet,” Romeo and Juliet (III.2)

In celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday earlier this week, I did not follow the advice I posted on my own blog. Instead, I let my ten-year-old call the shots (as if that is something novel). She decided to honor the Bard’s day by performing a parlor trick. She didn’t want to venture into terra nova. She just wanted to see how many Shakespeare pieces she could recite from memory with minimal prompting. The final count was 11:

·         Theseus’s “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact” speech from the end of Midsummer;
·         Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”);
·         Portia’s “quality of mercy” courtroom argument from Merchant in Venice;
·         Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy;
·         Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”);
·         The caldron scene from Macbeth (“Double, double, toil and trouble”);
·         Marc Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral ;
·         The “Blow, blow, thou winter wind” tune song in the Arden Forest in As You Like It;
·         John of Gaunt’s “This earth, this realm, this England” monologue from Richard II;
·         The Clown’s “hey, ho, the wind and the rain” song from Twelfth Night; and
·         Jaques’s seven stages of man speech from As You Like It.

But I’m not proud…. Well, actually, what I am not proud of is that she insists on rattling off each of these brilliant bits as if they doggerel designed to be mere tongue-twisters. She has no interest in honing her delivery or massaging the subtext. She barely wants to know what the lines mean—except to the extent that she enjoys the occasional comic gloss I offer up, which sometimes become asides she inserts as she flies through the real poetry.

This game got me to thinking about the role of memorization and recitation in education. The practice has certainly fallen out of favor in this country. Even when I was a kid, we didn’t do much of it—although I do remember having to memorize and recite “Friends, Romans, countrymen” and a speech from R & J in junior high. Even more, I remember with mortification that, because I fancied myself a future famous actress, I was the only one in the class who took it upon herself to offer up sophomorically dramatic orations, which earned me the privilege of being the only one asked to read things out loud in English class, which in turn surely earned me the undying affection of my seventh-grade peers.

My sincere hope is that having all of this Shakespeare rattling around in my daughter’s head will one day do her some good. Inoculate her somehow against the ugly and prosaic. Fortify her like brussel sprouts doused in butter.

Lawyers do not have to memorize things in the ordinary course of doing business—which comes as a shock to many law students. But except for the purposes of law-school finals and those tedious bar exams, lawyering does not involve loading up one’s brain with a bunch of law and then setting forth to dispense advice. The law, which is forever in flux, must always be researched whenever an issue arises. Indeed, lawyers who purport to offer up answers to complex legal issues off the tops of their well-coifed heads tend to be viewed askance. Sure, lawyers memorize stuff when they are going to be in court—for instance, opening statements and closings for trial, a one-paragraph opening and key cases and record cites for appellate arguments. But, mostly, lawyers are rarely in active performance mode; but when they are, they need to know their stuff so well that they appear to be winging it—that is, they do not want to be seen clinging to a prepared script. Therefore, what lawyers have “memorized” were not absorbed into the brain the way one learns one of Hamlet’s soliloquies—through rote drilling. Lawyers, for instance, remember specific cases because they have read and digested those cases so thoroughly and determined how they affect a particular client’s cause that they just know the cases inside and out. Or they know that a particular statute or case established a key rule affecting the rights or responsibilities of clients that they might represent in a whole slew of similar matters in a particular niche area. But lawyers do not go about memorizing every decision announced by the Supreme Court to be ready just in case a specific issue were to come up in their line of work. Sure, they might read all those decisions (very rare); or they might read every SCOTUS decision that happens to be released in their doctrinal area in a given year—like antitrust, criminal law, IP, etc. (not as rare). But they still don’t routinely memorize cases, holdings, and key language waiting for the day when they can recite a passage to a client in the course of providing legal services. That would be rather a waste of time. And annoying. And reliance on such an approach might even amount to malpractice.

For my daughter’s sake, I hope the act of “summoning up the remembrance of things” built by Shakespeare is not analogous. See Sonnet 30. I devoutly believe that it is not. And this belief—that Shakespeare is worth memorizing whereas the law is not—if valid, probably tells us something profound about differences between the language games played in various spheres of human endeavor. Let’s think on that.

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