Are we losing our ability to tackle problems using logic and reason?
Evidence suggests the answer to that question is a thunderous “Yes!”
Let’s consider just one example.
Since Inauguration Day, our government is creating programs that will cost more trillions of dollars than the trillions we’ve already spent. Troops remain stationed in Washington D.C. to no discernible purpose, experts daily contradict one another on how to battle the pandemic, and Congress is pushing the Equality Act, which will likely destroy women’s sports, restrict religious beliefs and free speech, and negatively impact the freedoms of health care professionals. Clear thinking among the political set appears to have gone AWOL.
Causes for this diminished ability to reason abound. Let’s look at some possible explanations before searching for ways to revive logic and thought.
Intelligence and Our Schools
Google “declining IQ scores,” and you’ll discover a boatload of sites analyzing why IQ scores in developed countries have fallen for decades. Experts theorize that environmental factors such as our use of electronic gadgets, failing schools, reduced reading, and poor nutrition may be responsible for this about-face in these scores.
As most Epoch Times readers are aware, our educational system is a mess. Test scores in our elementary and secondary schools are either stagnant or falling. Students taking American history classes, for example, graduate high school ignorant about the Constitution, the Civil War, and American heroes such as George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dolly Madison. Worse, many leave school convinced by their teachers and textbooks that the United States is a wretched bastion of racism, sexism, and oppression. Most recently, some educators and bureaucrats have decided that even the way we teach math to our children is racist, that demanding a correct answer to a problem, for instance, gives Asian Americans and whites an advantage over black and Hispanic students.
Our Smart Devices May Be Dumbing Us Down
In his online article “Are We Losing Our Ability to Think?” Samuel Greengard blames our “smart” devices for the decline in our cognitive powers. After writing how our phones and computers have rendered many of us intellectual weaklings, Greengard adds this observation:
“Here’s some worse news: In an era in which there’s unsurpassed information at our fingertips—including thousands of online libraries full of books and reference materials on almost every imaginable subject—there’s more ignorance than ever. A glance at the Web serves up a mind-bending and horrifying array of lies, half-truths, hoaxes, urban legends, conspiracy theories, and just plain nuttiness. And the problem seems to be getting worse.”
Real thinking and some research allow us to see through these deceptions. At the least, logic should endow us with a sense of skepticism.
Extremism and Feeling Versus Thought
Moreover, political extremism now has thrown logic and debate from the saddle and seized the reins. The harm that will be done by opening our southern borders to immigrants should be a no-brainer, but progressives want the votes of these illegal migrants. The ongoing crackdown on conservative outlets and personalities should rouse all Americans to defend the First Amendment, but we find instead many who are perfectly happy with the erosion of free speech.
As in the public forum, for decades, emotions have trumped rational thought among many of our citizens. “Let it all hang out” was the watchword, and psychologists and others told us of the importance of sharing our feelings. College students attack speakers to avoid having their feelings hurt, and some of us have listened to the wild confessions of strangers in wonderment at their unbound confidences.
All too often we are swayed by sentiment rather than common sense, with the winds of whim and desire, unmoored from reason, taking us where they will.
A Forgotten Practice
The 18th century would have scorned too much heart and too little head as a prescription for disaster.
One of the highest compliments our Founding Fathers could pay to another was “disinterestedness.” As Josiah Bunting III wrote in his novel about the ideal college, “An Education for Our Time,” Thomas Jefferson once complimented John Adams by saying he was “as disinterested as the Being who made him.”
In our time, disinterest in any matter—personal or public—is as rare a concept as honor, yet the two are closely entwined. Disinterest according to Bunting, and as practiced by our ancestors, meant “building as a habit of conduct the mastery of all urgings that would drive a man from his duty and the elimination of all calculations of benefit or gain.” To be disinterested allows us to weigh the merits and faults of a proposition or an argument without bringing along the baggage of prejudice and passion.
Is there a way to restore such disinterestedness, to strengthen the powers of logic and reason?
Teaching Logic and Rhetoric
In “Revisiting the prophetic work of Neil Postman about the media,” Casey Chalk examines the predictions made years ago by writer and educator Postman regarding the disastrous effects of the media on our culture and on our ability to think. Near the end of his article, Chalk writes: “Finally, Postman promoted the education of vigorous exposition, logic, and rhetoric, all being necessary for citizenship. Implementing these proposals—as is already happening in our nation’s budding classical school movement—is necessary for forming an intelligent, capable, and reflective citizenry.”
To give the tools of logic to our young people is to offer them protection against manipulation by politicians, the media, and individuals. They can learn to spot different fallacies common today—straw man arguments, appeals to ignorance, circular arguments, ad hominem attacks, and the rest—and so realize when someone is making a false argument or attempting to mislead or bamboozle them.
Moreover, logic joined with rhetoric—the art of effective speaking or writing—can be a powerful tool for communicating with others. Ours is the great age of communication, and when we can write and speak with ordered and objective thoughts arranged in a logical fashion, we can sway others by our arguments and our words. The email written to a retailer about a product we manufacture, the memo to employees regarding the office dress code, the letter of encouragement to a son in college: logic, reason, and rhetoric can enhance all of our communications.
Fortunately for parents and students, a multitude of programs and books teach these skills. At the online Cathy Duffy Reviews, for example, Duffy, who has figured as a writer, speaker, and reviewer of products in the homeschool world since my wife and I long ago educated our children at home, looks at more than 30 such resources. Some I have used, such as Martin Cothran’s “Traditional Logic” and the superb workbooks from the “Critical Thinking Company;” others are unfamiliar to me. Yet all of these resources aim to train young people in the basic skills associated with logic and reason.
The Beginning of Wisdom
“Logic,” said Star Trek’s Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), “is the beginning of wisdom, not the end of it.”
In high school, my friends and I were fans of the original Star Trek, and particularly of the logical Vulcan-human Spock. Lines such as “May I say I have not thoroughly enjoyed serving with humans? I find their illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant” made us laugh with delight, and some kids were always shooting each other the Spock hand sign and saying, as he did, “Live long and prosper.”
We don’t need to cast away our emotions and so become Mr. Spock, but neither should we ignore the efficacy of deliberation and thinking. Human beings are the most intelligent creatures on the planet, and when we fail to employ that intelligence to the best of our ability, the consequences can be dire. Exercising our critical thinking skills makes us better citizens, better as well at whatever work we do, and is a gift easily passed on to our children.
Combine logic and reason with our feelings, make a union of the heart and the head, and we become more fully human.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.