Making a logical assumption

24th May 1996 at 01:00
Marianne Talbot makes a plea for the teaching of logic to be extended to all pupils, regardless of their academic ability. In his 16 to 19 review, Sir Ron Dearing recommends to the powers that be that they explore the possibility of including in the general studies A-level a module covering "a critical approach to knowledge" of the sort used in the International Baccalaureate. I agree completely with the spirit of this recommendation: about the letter of it, however, I have two reservations and a practical concern.

Underlying the recommendation is the belief that the ability to think properly is valuable both to the young person who acquires it and to the society of which he is a member; and that this skill can, and should, be taught in schools, at least to A-level students.

Both these claims are absolutely right. The ability to think properly is the ultimate transferable skill: it can be applied to everything. Furthermore it is teachable. It is, after all, already explicitly taught to anyone who studies philosophy.

I am unhappy, however, about using the Theory of Knowledge part of the International Baccalaureate as the model for this proposed module. In my (admittedly limited) experience this all too often descends into a romp through Descartes' Meditations - great fun perhaps, but likely to leave students with the idea that thinking about thinking is of no practical use whatsoever. (Descartes insisted that his way of thinking about thinking was intended only for those of a philosophical bent and only then once they have shut themselves away from practical concerns.) The only proper way to teach young people how to reason well is to teach them logic: the science of reasoning.

In studying logic, young people learn how to recognise the different types of argument, and how each functions, in the attempt to acquire knowledge of the world. They learn the methods of evaluating each different type of argument and how, therefore, to recognise when a particular use of one of these arguments is good and - perhaps even more importantly - when it is bad.

In this way students become sensitive to the idea that they should offer reasons for their beliefs. They learn to expect this of others, too. Finally, they learn how to tell when a reason is a good reason for the belief it is supposed to support. In learning what it is to think properly, the student learns how to think properly.

The study of logic has other advantages. The student will acquire a sensitivity to language of the sort that the overt teaching of grammar used to impart. So, for example, he will learn how the different parts of language function in our reasoning about the world and also learn to guard against using language in such a way that what he is trying to say is obscured.

Students will learn that we cannot determine whether or not a sentence is true unless we know what it means, and they will learn how to recognise the different sorts of ambiguity that can lead us astray in our attempts to understand others and to make ourselves understood.

They will also learn that the ability to reason well transcends subject boundaries. In studying logic, they will, of course, consider arguments taken from a wide variety of academic and non-academic sources: from chemistry and history; mathematics and geography, from political manifestoes and advertising leaflets, national newspapers and magazines.

They could hardly fail to see that the ability to reason well is a skill that unifies all academic and non-academic subjects: the "topic neutrality" of logic explains why it is the ultimate transferable skill.

But - and this brings me to my second reservation about the letter of Sir Ron's recommendation - given all the benefits that can be derived from the study of logic, why should we restrict it to A-levels - why not make it available to non-A-level students?

It can hardly be denied that the ability to think properly is as useful to a mechanic as to a barrister. People who lack this skill are handicapped whichever sphere of life they enter and whatever their personal goals. There is even scope for differentiation built into the teaching of logic, given that the syllabus could be restricted to the informal study of arguments or extended to the study of elementary - or even advanced Q formal logic at the other end of the scale.

This would introduce the practical problem of finding qualified teachers, a difficulty even for Sir Ron's project as currently conceived. Students of philosophy, the only students who are explicitly taught how to think properly, are not accepted on most Post-Graduate Certificate in Education courses unless they have studied a curriculum subject in addition to philosophy. As logic is not itself taught as part of the PGCE even Sir Ron's proposed A-level module will often end up being taught by enthusiastic amateurs.

It might be said that the study of logic should be restricted to A-level students because only they would be capable of, or interested in, studying it. But this has to be wrong.

Why on earth should we think the ability to reason well is an ability that can be acquired only by the academically able or that only the academically able would be interested in acquiring it?

The ability to reason is an ability enjoyed by (nearly) every human being. There are no grounds for thinking that the only people who would be interested in, or indeed good at, learning to reason well would be those who are interested in and good at academic subjects. Logic should and could be available to all those who would benefit from it. It should - and could - be available to everyone.

Dr Marianne Talbot is College Lecturer in Philosophy at Brasenose College, Oxford

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