10 Apr 2010
03 Oct 2013

A Case for Teaching Reasoning Skills

History: Where We've Been

Our species, Homo sapiens, is distinguished by a number of natural characteristics: We are fully bipedal—we walk upright full time; we have fully opposable thumbs; we communicate through language; and we have the ability to reason abstractly.  All of these traits contribute to what human beings are, but it is the last of these with which we are concerned here.

Even prehistoric humans managed to reason well enough to craft tools, weapons, clothing, and even artworks; to use and control fire; and to organize themselves into communities to enhance their prospects for survival and prosperity.  And when agriculture and metallurgy developed, it both was promoted by, and in turn promoted, an evolving ability to figure things out and to put that figuring to practical use.

But it was only relatively recently, in the fifth century bce, that formal methods of reasoning were developed and shown to be superior to the largely haphazard sort of thinking that had previously guided civilization.  Following the collapse of this "classical" civilization, structured reasoning went into a cloistered withdrawal from mainstream society during the European Middle Ages.  It reemerged in the form of scholasticism to fuel the Renaissance in the 15th century, exploration and religious reform in the 16th, the emergence of empirical science and the revival of philosophy in the 17th, the advent of the Industrial Age in the 18th, and the phasing out of slavery and monarchic governance in favor of democracy in the 19th and 20th.

This last bit, democratization—rule of, by, and for the people—requires something further: an educated and informed electorate.  Hence, for the past two centuries, basic skills of literacy and mathematics, plus training in civics, geography, history, and the sciences, have been routinely taught to all schoolchildren in what would become known as "the developed world."  Indeed, education is virtually synonymous with development.  Each advances the other, and neither can progress for long without the other.

The Current Situation: Where We Are Now

By virtue of general skills in literacy and math, we have become a civilization of reasonably competent communicators and figurers.  These basic skills multiply our ability to learn everything else, and to function productively in modern society.

Still, there is a problem.  For although literacy and math enable us to store, transfer, organize, and manipulate ideas with great ease, they tell us very little about how to formulate, evaluate, test, and apply ideas reliably, effectively, and wisely.  Yes, we learn a little about structured thinking when we learn the sciences or a trade.  But if we aren't taught the basic principles of reasoning itself, we tend to fumble rather badly at it when trying to apply it to anything for which we have not been specifically trained, be it embroidery or economics, plumbing or politics.  The really worrisome part is that this fumbling sort of reasoning all too often ends up in places of power, such as in the leadership of business, banking, and government, with sometimes catastrophic results.  Yet we fail to appreciate the true extent of our peril until we consider all this against the backdrop of our era: ballooning population, dwindling resources, emerging societies, competing ideologies, festering strife, wholesale lapses of ethics, tools of both intentional and unwitting mass destruction, and the frightful implications of it all.

The Objectives: What We Must Avoid, And Where We Must Go

If we are to continue to enjoy the blessings of self-governance and prosperity, we must each also accept the obligation that secures those blessings: to become more consistent and realistic thinkers, more responsible decision-makers, and more reliable problem-solvers.  We can no longer be content with being a society of mediocre thinkers, driven solely by hope and fear, and led by charismatic orators and clever schemers.  Even if most of us lack the desire and ambition to become wise planners ourselves, we must at least cultivate our thinking ability to a level that we can reliably identify and choose such capable people as our leaders, while consigning grandstanding demagogues unsuited to that serious task to some other line of work.  To that end, we must all share to some extent in that obligation to become more consistently rational, or else continue to suffer the inevitably escalating consequences of blindly ideological and clumsily irrational leadership in an increasingly perilous and unforgiving world.

Now, as to the transformation process itself, there are some concerns worth addressing:

  • Teaching logic in high school might place an additional burden on already strained faculty and facilities.  Granted, there is the transitional matter of additional instructor training and the modification of materials.  However, we might reasonably expect that the minimal investment here would be more than offset by the fact that critical thinking—like reading and math—makes learning everything else not only easier and more efficient, but also more thorough and enduring through deeper understanding.  We would expect this to result in a reduction in time needed for review, and thus more time available for productive learning.

  • Some worry that teaching logic might turn people into unemotional automata.
    But this overlooks that humans are emotional by nature.  Even with a firm grasp of logic, they will still choose to be influenced by emotion a great deal of the time.  The difference is that, when presented with important decisions, they will be equipped to deal with them more intelligently and realistically.  In doing so, the tendency will be for them to improve their chances of success and to reduce instances of failure, and thus to attain a higher level of overall happiness and emotional satisfaction.

  • Any effort to propagate critical thinking skills among the general public would be strongly opposed.
    This is indeed a problem.  Many (though fortunately not all) business and religious leaders, advertisers and speculators, pundits and politicians take a parasite's view of the public's gullibility, not as a frailty to be remedied, but as a resource to be exploited.  Their own livelihoods hinge on their ability to mislead others, so we would expect them to campaign vigorously against any effort to bolster general reasoning skills.  But that is precisely one of our goals: to serve the overall public interest and enhance general well-being, by enabling ordinary people to avoid falling victim to wily predators, misguided ideologues, and even their own ill-considered impulses.  And we think that wise and conscientious leaders will be on our side, because they envision the long-term benefits, both social and economic, of a competently rational work force, consumer base, and electorate, just as they appreciate the enormous benefits of a society in which reading, writing, and basic math are accepted and expected as necessary skills.

The Requirements: What We Need in Order to Get There

If we mean to promote a society of realistic thinkers, responsible decision-makers, and reliable problem-solvers, then we must adjust our system of public education to incorporate the cultivation of those skills generally, not just with respect to specific occupations.  Most children develop the ability to reason abstractly by age 11 or 12.  Waiting until the second or third year of university to introduce the study of critical thinking per se wastes half a dozen years of potentially guided development, and allows sloppy thinking habits to invade and take hold instead.  High school is an ideal environment to introduce critical thinking as part of a standard curriculum, guiding young minds straightaway into coherent methods of thinking, just as they have already been guided systematically into techniques of written communication and basic mathematics, with all of the individual and social benefits that these skills imply.

To implement such a program, we will obviously need secondary-school educators trained specifically in critical thinking methods, plus books and materials adapted to the high school level.  However, an hour or so of class time per week would probably suffice, if coupled with practical applications of critical thinking in other classes.  After all, most kids learn to reason minimally well on their own.  For everyday issues, they mostly need only learn to recognize and avoid logical errors—the elimination of which alone would multiply the quality and reliability of reasoning several-fold—and to take advantage of some common techniques of logic, which would advance effectiveness and creativeness in virtually any field.

Meanwhile, we should endeavor to enhance the critical thinking skills of our existing adult population.  The prospect of making people healthier individuals, more productive workers, smarter consumers and borrowers, more intelligently critical citizens and voters, and more competent and competitive members of the global community is to everyone's legitimate advantage.  Programs to attain this goal should be engaging, motivating, not excessively challenging, and inexpensive—or even free (i.e., paid for by the provider).  This website is a modest pioneering venture in that direction.  However, it might be hoped that similar projects will be set up—in classrooms, in home-study courses, in televised and on-line programs—universally accessible, and produced (unlike this one) by professional educators and accredited institutions.  It's a worthwhile investment in general human well-being, both humanitarian and economic.