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The Fourth R: Reasoning
We're all familiar with the traditional "three R's"—Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmetic. They're basic life skills that prepare us to live in civilized society, where the abilities to communicate and to do basic mathematics are essential to earning a livelihood and functioning as informed citizens. It's hard to imagine how we could get along in the modern world without being able to read and write in our native language, or to figure dimensions, weights, time, money, and percentages. The ability to do these things is a measure of our general competence, not only as individuals, but also as a people, as a nation. That's why our education system treats these as essential skills to be taught to every young person. They profoundly enhance the general quality of life, and constitute most of the basic skill set we need in order to accomplish just about everything else, from phys-ed to physics, from mechanics to medicine, from homemaking to high finance. But there's one crucial element missing: the ability to evaluate information, to make decisions, and to solve problems. For this, we need a fourth R: Reasoning.
Most of us have been taught how to reason effectively with regard to specific activities, particularly those we encounter in our own line of work. A mechanic must figure out why an engine won't run properly. A programmer must develop code that performs reliably. A doctor must analyze a patient's symptoms as a particular disorder and decide on an appropriate treatment. A detective must acquire and evaluate evidence to identify and track down the perpetrator of a crime. An athletic coach must devise winning strategies. And we must accomplish these reasoning activities with an acceptable degree of accuracy and reliability, or else find ourselves out of a job.
The trouble with this approach is that, when we try to apply reasoning to other activities, it often turns into a hit-and-miss comedy of wrong turns and dead ends. Why? Because our training in critical thinking has been mostly directed toward specific objectives, and has ignored its general application as a basic life skill. Most educators seem to have assumed that we can "just pick it up" as we learn other things. But this assumption isn't entirely correct.
While reasoning is a natural human ability, it turns out that there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it. Do it the right way, and it yields consistently reliable results. Do it the wrong way, and it yields high-sounding nonsense. Without knowing the basics of how to tell which is which, we're liable to do it the wrong way as often as not. This results in a burdensome waste of time and resources in choosing and pursuing our own goals, and in an unfortunate tendency to fall victim to the faulty reasoning of others. Although most children develop a natural ability to reason abstractly by age twelve, formal training in structured reasoning, as such, typically isn't offered until the second year of college or beyond. Consequently, a majority of people never learn the simple, fundamental rules of reasoning that lead to effective problem-solving and reliable decision-making. (And, perhaps even more troubling, neither do many of the people we elect to represent us in public office!) The consequences range from merely embarrassing to downright catastrophic.
In an age of escalating population, finite resources, and global interaction, not to mention weapons of mass destruction, we can no longer afford to make public policy and major life choices based on guesswork, gut feeling, and blind ideology. We can still look forward to prosperity, progress, and good times—but only if, both as a society and as individual adults, we accept the responsibility of injecting a greater measure of rational thought into our way of doing things. We don't need to become blandly unemotional or rigidly mechanistic; but we do need to cultivate habits of sober thought to address serious issues.
This website attempts to address this situation. Its objectives are:
to advocate formal instruction in basic reasoning skills for all students at the secondary school level, and
to remedy the effects of the lack of such training on our current adult population, by offering an easy, self-paced course in basic critical thinking, geared to the average high-school graduate and college undergraduate.
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It is the aim of this course to teach, not what to think, but rather how to think well—that is, how to connect related ideas methodically in ways that produce sound and cogent lines of reasoning, and to identify and avoid fallacious thinking. For we believe that once people learn how to think, then, with practice and experience, they should be able to figure out what to think on their own.
HST "Deep Field" background photo courtesy of NASA