Once upon a time, logic was held in high regard. Most educated people were acquainted with its basic principles and had at least modest skill in separating sound arguments from unsound ones. For example, they would see the validity of “All human beings are mortal; Americans are human beings; therefore Americans are mortal.” They would likewise recognize the fallacy in “Even geniuses make errors; I make errors; therefore I am a genius.”
They were also familiar with common pitfalls in thinking, including oversimplification, overgeneralization, unwarranted assumption, contradiction, and hasty conclusion. (Some even knew the Latin terms for them.)
Even more important, in those days people strived to be logical and expected others to do so. They realized that faulty thinking in any arena, including education, business, and government, can cause problems in other arenas.
How times have changed. Today, if logic were a person, it would sue for slander. Here is a modest sampling of offenses against logic:
- The Energy Policy Act of 1992 mandated the low-flush toilet that used half as much water as older models, but failed to note that low-flush usually meant insufficient flush. As a result, people had to flush several times, using more water than in the past.
- Governments around the world have begun phasing out incandescent light bulbs in favor of more environmentally friendly phosphor bulbs. But the latter contain the neurotoxin mercury and unless people make a special effort to dispose of used bulbs, an unlikely eventuality, they could do serious harm both to the environment and to the people who live in it.
- Environmentalists encourage people to bring their own fabric bags to grocery stores and to avoid the environmentally harmful plastic ones. Then they proceed to buy the heavier-gauge plastic garbage bags sold in those same stores. (Memo to environmentalists: thin plastic grocery bags are great for garbage and are less harmful than the ones you put in your shopping cart.)
- Some people champion tolerance and diversity and then organize boycotts against those who don’t share their views and join marches against the display of Christmas trees and even, in some cases, the American flag.
- Elementary schools give instruction in the Kama Sutra (well, not quite, but close enough) and then file sexual harassment charges against children who kiss one another on the cheek.
- Schools require a note from a parent to bring aspirin to class but distribute contraceptives and make referrals to abortion clinics without notifying parents.
- TSA regulations often result in more thorough scans of people who don’t fit the terrorist profile than of those who do.
- Legislators of both parties pressured banks to give loans to people who couldn’t afford to repay them, then were shocked when the practice produced calamity in the economy, and finally—with breathtaking chutzpah—accused bankers of irresponsible lending practices.
- Democratic legislators passed the Affordable Care Act without reading it. Then, when its many weaknesses were exposed, instead of apologizing to the American people, they diverted attention from their dereliction by accusing others of hatred of the poor, racial bias against President Obama, or both.
- Republican legislators railed against Democrats for their profligate spending and warned that the resulting debt would cause the ruination of our country. Then they continued their own practice of adding costly, wasteful, and self-serving pork riders to legislation. (In addition to abusing logic, this one makes a mockery of integrity.)
- As America’s social problems continue to worsen, teachers blame parents and the media, parents blame teachers and the media, and the media blame parents and teachers. (If logic had a voice, it would be shouting, “You all share the blame, so instead of pointing the finger at one another, you should get busy changing yourselves.”)
So what’s the solution? One helpful step would be to restore logic to a place of honor in education. The Critical Thinking Movement (CTM) has tried to do that for several decades, but has had difficulty for several reasons. Teachers who were trained to stuff students’ minds with information felt uncomfortable adopting a new approach. Purveyors of self-esteem abhorred making judgments such as “That is illogical, Agnes.” Many administrators confused making grand pronouncements about critical thinking with actually teaching it. And teachers who enjoyed imposing their personal agendas on students pretended they were teaching students how to think.
The CTM cause is a good one and should be continued. But more is needed. Since the 1960s a number of foolish ideas have become embedded in the culture, notably that everyone creates his/her own truth and reality, that having a right to an opinion makes all opinions right, and that feelings are more trustworthy than reason and logic.
Many of our leaders seem to have embraced those foolish notions. Those of us who know better need to change their minds or, failing that, replace them with men and women who value sound reasoning.
Copyright © 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved
VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America’s Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.