Logic was eliminated as a required subject in schools during the early 20th century because education reformers thought it was not necessary. But times have changed. No one today can deny the need for critical thinking, effective problem solving, and sound reasoning – all of which rely on logic, and all of which are in decline. An article in Wired warns:
“The rationality of the world is what is at risk. Too many people are taken advantage of because of their lack of critical thinking, logic and deductive reasoning. These same people are raising children without these same skills, creating a whole new generation of clueless people.”
Basic logic literacy decreased during the first half of the 20th century, and computers were developed during the second half. This ironic turn of history is a source of many modern problems. Computers don't decrease the value of logic literacy, they increase it significantly, just as the printing press increased the value of general literacy. But this value cannot be achieved unless schools start teaching logic again. History is filled with evidence of the need for logic and the value of logic education:
Claude Shannon, the engineer who invented the information age, might have been the only engineer of his time to understand classical logic, which he learned in a philosophy class. His knowledge of logic, together with engineering, enabled him to unlock the secrets of digital electronics. In his own words, “it just happened that no one else was familiar with both fields at the same time.”
Shannon’s discovery led to the development of electronic computers, but surprisingly it did not lead to greater demand for logic education. When the world’s first general-purpose digital computer, the ENIAC, was built, the lack of logic training among its engineers resulted in unnecessary complexity and inefficiency. The successor to the ENIAC, the EDVAC, was designed not by engineers, but by a logician, John von Neumann. His insights into the relationship between logic and computing made modern computers possible:
“Although an engineering tour de force, the ENIAC was a logical mess. It was von Neumann's expertise as a logician...that enabled him to understand that a computing machine is really a logic machine.” The Universal Computer, p xii
Since then, people who understand the significance of logic have made other important contributions, such as programming languages, database software, and artificial intelligence.
Logic is not just important for computers, it is useful for reasoning about everything. For most of modern history, logic was taught as the starting point for all further learning. Every student in every school had to learn it, and no one could be considered an educated person without it. Today, it is difficult for most people to understand the importance of logic education because, through no fault of their own, most people do not even know what logic is.
For the record, logic is a specific academic subject – one of the oldest, most important, and most intensely studied in human history. It has specific subject matter ranging from basic to advanced. Only the basics are needed for general education and subjects like business and computer engineering. The basics include principles such as validity, entailment, satisfaction, and proof. They include patterns of inference and logical operations for deductive reasoning. The basics are absolutely necessary for effective reasoning, and we need to start teaching them again. We cannot say a person is capable of critical thinking without skills relating to basic logic, which include the ability to:
- Draw valid inferences from evidence and recognize invalid inferences
- Identify the unspoken assumptions of an argument
- Recognize ambiguity and contradictions in ones own communication and that of others
- Understand the difference between the validity of an argument and the truth of its claims
- Determine what conditions satisfy a simple set of rules or constraints
A growing number of experts are coming to recognize the importance of logic and logic education. A professor at the University of Arizona has written about the importance of logic in information science. A professor at the University of Southern California understands the need for logic in business education. A senior scientist at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition wrote a paper to persuade his colleagues, many of whom have never taken a course in logic, that logic is useful in artificial intelligence. This is progress, but much more is needed. Most experts in most fields have never studied logic and have no frame of reference to understand its significance. This could not have been possible or even imagined in the past, but it is true today.
Logic is useful in everyday life, for reasoning about things like political arguments, advertising claims, and even one's own assumptions. Philosophers have long recognized a connection between logic and ethics. After all, logic can influence the way we think, and the way we think influences the ways we behave and the things we choose to do.
The laws and principles of logic cannot be applied if they are not first understood. The decline of logic education is without a doubt a major factor, if not the primary factor, in the decline of critical thinking, human capital and dynamism. But there is cause for optimism. A professor at Stanford University is leading a movement to bring logic back as a basic requirement for every student, and he has published a free logic course for high schools. He believes logic education is necessary for effective citizenship and democracy, and that a logic-literate populace will know how to make decisions that truly align with their values.
We at the Institute for Logic and the Public Interest support this goal and are working to promote it. We urge everyone to learn more about logic and to petition their local schools to start teaching it. Training for teachers is available at Stanford summer workshops, and the Institute offers training for teachers and others on demand, at any location.
- Logic in Secondary Education (Stanford University)
- The Importance of Logic and Critical Thinking (Wired)
- The Coming Software Apocalypse (The Atlantic)
- The Emerging Crisis in Critical Thinking (Psychology Today)
- A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age (Simon & Schuster)
- The Universal Computer (CRC Press)
- The Institute for Logic and the Public Interest