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Learning by Rote

Howard Jacobson defends the art of learning poetry by rote.

The poetry we commit to memory when we are young stays with us as a solace and an inspiration – an emotional no less than an intellectual resource – long after we have forgotten the mere accidents of our lives.

It’s a common complaint of student on, for example, the GDL, that there is too much rote learning. There is a general reluctance to see rote learning as having educational value, favouring instead the teaching of analysis as all.

I remember this when taught History, where the ability to critically analyse the era was given primacy to the detriment of learning the hard facts and events of the era.

This is problematic. Rote learning is an absolutely vital skill. All the analytical skills in the world are pointless if you can’t remember to what principles and facts they apply.

It is of course true that analytical skills are important and essential, but they require that you know the basic facts and principles.

You can’t properly analyse, for example, a historical question unless you know the underlying facts, assumptions and context. Those have to simply be remembered. There is no getting around it.

Likewise in law, you have to remember legal principles, case names, and material facts. You also have to get to grips with the factual basis of a case and remember the salient details. It looks deeply unimpressive in court to have to constantly keep checking things compared to the advocate who can do so from memory. You need this contextual knowledge in your head so you can bring it to bear quickly.

More generally, rote learning speeds you up to do the more important bits of analysis. For example in maths, if you know your times tables by rote, you can free up time and effort to focus on the more difficult parts of a problem, instead of having to go through a laborious and repetitive process of working out the more basic elements.

Similarly in law if you can remember, for example, the American Cyanamid; Ready Mixed Concrete; or Ghosh test (Interim relief; employee status; criminal dishonesty), you can save time by getting onto the important part of your job as a lawyer: applying and assessing how the law works, rather than what the law is.

Good analysis and insight also require rote learning. First, it builds up your contextual knowledge. The more you know, the deeper, better and more insightful your analysis can be. Moreover, the process of committing matters to memory forces you to understand them. You are more likely to understand a legal principle that you have spent time committing to memory than one you have simply highlighted.

Rote learning and analysis are not in conflict; they complement. You need to remember certain things

On a presentational level too, if you can remember by rote key cases and principles, you not only save time, but come across as more reliable than someone fumbling through their books and papers for the salient principles and facts. If a judge asks you a question, an immediate and correct response if far more impressive.

People often complain that the GDL, for example, is an exercise in pure rote-learning. It isn’t; the bulk of the marks come from the ability to analyse and apply the law. There is considerably more rote learning than other courses, but that is in fact an extremely useful exercise that helps you in the long run.

It is true that the lawyer’s real skill is to apply the law. But knowing it is a prerequisite. And if you’re being paid to do the former rather than the latter, the less time you have to spend overall doing the latter makes you a better lawyer. That is best achieved by committing the key principles and ideas to memory.

There is, for once, no way round it.