U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia visited Oregon last month, giving an incandescent keynote speech on the religion clauses and constitutional jurisprudence at the University of Portland and landing a strapping wild salmon on the Clackamas River. Both speech and fish generated press notices—tellingly, the pathetic "controversy" over the fish photo gained more attention than his thoughts on judging. But I didn't want his visit to pass by without highlighting something he said—something that might qualify as "words to live by."
At both the kick-off for the Garaventa Center's conference on religious freedom and the dinner that followed, the justice set forth a principle he uses in deciding constitutional cases.
"I call this the Shakespeare principle, because it represents, within the realm of law, a proper sense of priorities that I learned in high school within the realm of literature," he said in his keynote. "I had a tough old English teacher who made an enormous impression upon my life by explaining the Shakespeare principle to one of my classmates ... who in our classroom discussion of Hamlet made the mistake of volunteering some sophomoric, ill-founded criticism of the play. This teacher looked at him for a moment and then uttered the line that has ever since seemed to me a pretty good guide in many areas of life and work: 'Mister,' he said, 'when you read Shakespeare, Shakespeare's not on trial. You are.'"
When the justice got rolling, he not only named the poor student, but broke into a New York accent when quoting his former teacher. It brought the house down.
"What Shakespeare is to the high school English student," Scalia said, "the society's accepted constitutional traditions are to the prudent jurist.
"He does not judge them, but is judged by them. The very test of the validity of his analytic formulas—his rules—is whether, when applied to traditional situations, they yield the results that American society has traditionally accepted."
Many may disagree with Scalia's jurisprudence, but even his critics ought to see he's on to something here. The Shakespeare principle is, indeed, "a pretty good guide" in other realms.
I'm always struck by whippersnapper-students who know next to nothing—have been taught next to nothing—about the American Revolution or Constitution, but pop off on the alleged failings of our founders. (They compromised on slavery.) Or the young know-it-alls who are eager to share their low opinion of Abraham Lincoln. (The president didn't want to free the slaves when the war started.)
Now, I don't share novelist Vladimir Nabokov's definition of classroom discussion—"letting 20 young blockheads and two cocky neurotics discuss something that neither their teacher nor they know." But I wonder whether too many of today's students have learned to be critical thinkers before they've mastered what they are to think critically about? They're more impressed with their own limited education than the folks who've shaped our world. They haven't learned the humility that is a key element of (what do we call it today?) lifelong learning.
Yes, sophomoric, ill-informed criticism is a tendency of the young, a tendency that age, experience and real education often, but not always, temper. Perhaps it's so irritating because adults recall those days when we put our own Shakespeares in the docket. I know I can, to my current-day mortification. But it seems that, over the past decades, many educators and parents have nurtured rather than tamed this tendency. Letting the kids know that they, not The Bard, are on trial might damage their self-esteem. That is, damage it until they master a subject and merit real self-esteem.
Of course, this problem isn't confined to the young. Adults can be just as guilty of misplacing the burden of proof. We don't have the humility to realize that a historical figure, institution or tradition—G.K. Chesterton's "democracy of the dead"—isn't always on trial.
We are, mister.