Tag Archives: teaching

Formal Logic – DiscussAmongstYourselves

On 26 July 2014, Jon Becker posted to Twitter “I think a course in formal logic should be a core/general education requirement on all college campuses. “.  I was watching for the discussion, but only two others [and Jon] have responded in that forum.  [If there was further discussion elsewhere, please point me to it…]  I have been pondering his statement since, and have some things to say.  [I’m finally pressing “Publish” after writing most of this in February 2015.  Wow!  Another year has gone by!]  There is much more than will fit in a Tweet, so here goes…

In general I strongly agree that learning key portions of formal logic should be part of the core/general education requirement.  Where I might disagree is whether [and when] it should be within an explicit [separate] course in logic, or whether it should be one or several units within another course having a more broadly-scoped focus.  I also think that in addition to being a college-level requirement, some elements should also be required at the high-school level [and perhaps even earlier.]

I derived much benefit from the Logic course I took as an undergraduate, and have applied elements of it in multiple contexts.  I was an Electrical Engineer with a Computer Science minor, so there were many EE and Comp-Sci applications of the formal logic material.  In particular, it prepared me for using Karnough Maps in Digital Circuits, and there were a couple constructions which were absolutely critical to memorize and have correct when writing computer software.  In particular, NOT (A AND B) == (NOT A) OR (NOT B), and NOT(A OR B) == (NOT A) AND (NOT B).  But what I learned about syllogisms and logic proofs and other topics has paid off handsomely in other areas as well, most especially in areas of systematic or structured analysis, and in reading and writing skills.  While I seldom have to write out statements in logical algebra, the thinking skills I learned in that Logic course are applied almost unconsciously every day in my work, and in all the reading and writing I do.

I think there are some undergraduate majors, such as Mathematics, Computer Science, several of the Engineering disciplines, and likely certain others [Lawyers? Communications majors?], for which a formal course in Logic should be required.  [Indeed, some Mathematicians or Scientist/Engineers may need SEVERAL courses of progressively more esoteric Logic and Logical Calculus.]  Others should be encouraged [but I think not required] to take a course focused upon Logic [perhaps especially Communications students and pre-Law students who need to prepare for (and use it during) their Rhetoric and Argument courses.]  But I think for many students, learning the basics of Formal Logic should be more at an “application level”, in bite-size chunks within other required courses.

A writing course [in particular] should have a unit [a week or two long] in which the students study syllogisms. Another short subunit should include some simple logical algebra, which includes at least those two “NOT” rules (NOT (A AND B) =, and NOT (A OR B) =), along with any other key rules which are typically applied in “normal” sentence structures.  The concept of a [logical] tautology is also important to convey.  In either the writing course or a reading course, students should have a short unit with some exercises in breaking down sentences and phrases into logical notation, and determining the validity of the logical argument being made.  [This could perhaps be most constructively and easily done during the unit(s) on syllogisms.]

A history course [especially a history of writing course] could have a reading or two on the history of argumentation and syllogisms and the use of logic and logical fallacies.   A course on Rhetoric or Speech should also include a unit on syllogisms, perhaps in a bit more depth than was covered in the writing course above.

From an administrative perspective, the easiest way to ensure that all undergraduates get an appropriate intro to formal logic is to require they take a particular course covering it, and then verify that course is in their transcript.  But I don’t think that’s the best approach: it would be much better to weave the most important and useful concepts into the other required core curriculum courses, distributed among them as appropriate for each major.

I think it’s the APPLICATION of the concepts which are most important, and the significant applications vary by major and topic area.  In addition, many students will be “turned off” by a somewhat-sterile mathematical approach to logic, while teaching the material within a writing and speech/rhetorical context, within a reading and analysis context, and within a computer literacy/(simple computer programming)/spreadsheets course, will communicate the key ideas and concepts in context(s) which appeal to students, helping them both latch onto and grasp the important ideas, as well as learn how to apply them effectively.  A key part of the appeal is the understanding of why they are learning logic, and what it is good for.  A pure-mathematics approach to formal logic will effectively communicate the rules, but not the varied and wide applications of it.

That’s my contribution to the discussion.  🙂   (So far…  Who’s next?)


P.S.  Regarding syllogisms, I remember a seeing a reference on Tom Van Vleck’s page to The Figures of the Syllogism.   There are probably better and more informative references, but that provides a good starting point for further study…

P.P.S.  for any “language lawyers” out there.  Jon used the hashtag DiscussAmongstYourselves.  There’s also one DiscussAmongYourselves.  What’s the difference (usage and connotation) between Amongst and Among?  http://grammarist.com/usage/among-amongst/ seems to have a decent description basically saying both are correct, but I suspect I’m still missing something important or interesting about the difference…