Friday, February 03, 2006

New Paradigms in Law

For the past twenty years, I have listened to, and participated in general grumping about how law students today just aren't what they used to be. They don't read carefully. They don't write well. They don't analyze clearly. They have all these problems rolled up at once, and we can't seem to solve the problem! Is it the high schools? Is it the colleges? Is it not enough legal writing instruction? Need more practical skills instruction? Well, yeah.

But maybe, it's a paradigm shift. Maybe they are different people than we are. And maybe their practice of law will be different than our law has been. Maybe that's what is happening. If you go back far enough, you will find interesting diatribes by Plato against that radical new invention, writing. It was destroying memory, and the young folks just weren't able to memorize things the way they used to. Pretty soon, they didn't have anybody left who could recite the entire Iliad or Odyssey from memory! That was a paradigm shift. Writing things down really did make people rely on it, so they didn't have those fabulous feats of memory. It was a true loss -- those Homeric bards must have been something!

But on the other hand, we gained something else. The handing down of things by memory really limited the number of major works you could have. It also was subject to tinkering by creative types in each generation -- maybe for good, and maybe not. We will never know if there was a real Homer and what he really said. And, things that can't be sung are harder to remember. Physics books would be a lot harder to hand along, for instance.

Much closer to our own time, you can see another paradigm shift. Just 150 years ago, written and even spoken English in this country had a much richer vocabulary and a much more complicated structure. If you look at most speeches given, look at newspaper article and look at decisions published in the 1850's period, you will see a tremendous difference. People expected a speech or sermon to go on for a couple of hours. They felt cheated otherwise. The Gettysburgh Address was initially disregarded by most folks because it followed a famous orator who had hammered on for several hours, and Lincoln only spoke for several minutes. Pithy was not part of their thinking about speech-making!

Read a little of Mark Twain's writing, and you will see immediately that even when he is writing dialog for uneducated youth, they use long words. The effect may be comic, but the fact that Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer would know words like "prodigious" is pretty amazing if you think about it nowadays. Our language has grown much more streamlined and has a smaller vocabulary to go with it. We are pithier, but we have fewer words to say things in. It may date from Hemingway's vogue in this century, but I rather think he just sped things up.

And so, back to my original idea. I think our current students, exhibiting all these problems, may be part of a further paradigm shift. They skim, they do not read. They cut and paste, drop text in. I am not sure how they analyze. They may be doing it a different way. They think spelling is for dopes. The spell check takes care of that so it doesn't matter, does it? If an entire generation passes that feels this way, or at least the majority of it, law practice will be transformed. That is a paradigm shift, folks.

I began thinking about this, and was really upset. I thought, wow! this is the end of Western Civilization. But maybe it's not. Plato thought it was the end of Western Civilization when folks started to rely on writing instead of memory. They lost Homeric bards. But we gained some other worthwhile stuff. Maybe this will turn out the same way. I listen to my students. Some of the ones who skim and don't care of about spelling worry me. But some of them really have a lot on the ball. Just like the ones who poke along in books and paper the old fashioned way. I probably won't be around long enough to see the upshot of it, but it ought to be interesting. All I ask is that you remember Law is important, and it is old and worth keeping the chain alive. This painting of Plato teaching in the agora is from

No comments: