Monday, May 28, 2007

Logic and learning to write an expository argument

My fourteen year old daughter is, as befits a DC child (I suppose), interested in politics. At the dinner table the other night, we were talking about some issue or other, and I asked what her view was and why. I was surprised to find that rather than formulate an argument and a position, she talked about metaphors.

I was surprised, because, unless you thought of a metaphor as something like an argument from analogy, metaphor was not really a way of forming an argument toward a conclusion. So we started talking about different kinds of issues, and I was increasingly perplexed to realize that she automatically reached for categories of analysis that she had learned in her English classes appropriate to analyzing literature - metaphor, mostly - as the categories of argumentation.

I have been thinking about that ever since, going over her curriculum up through the 8th grade a bit, and have realized that nowhere in her school curriculum does anyone teach, in any subject, the basics of logical argument. This is true of her school, National Cathedral School for Girls, but it is equally true of the school she will attend next year, Sidwell Friends, and I am pretty certain this is true of all the public and private schools around.

Consider the forms of analytics found in her different classes:

In English, they learn the figures of literature, metaphor, simile, and so on. The effect, at least through high school, is that they do not learn to form an argument to a conclusion - instead, they learn to identify devices in literature - a wholly different enterprise, and one which depends for its subject not so much on argumentation as the ability to apperceive a usage. (Leave aside the fact that they have done very little actual writing over the course of the last two years at her school.) The idealized subject matter itself is about the analysis of novels and poetry and the occasional Shakespeare play.

Strikingly, too - I draw on a very interesting Althouse post - they read in these classes no nonfiction, no essays or nonfiction prose - and that seems to continue all the way through high school. This is a curious omission - because, so far as I know, learning to write is partly the imitation of a "voice" - and the discovery of one's own voice - and, for me at least, and everyone else I know of who writes, the discovery of that voice comes from reading nonfiction and identifying with a certain voice. I have a pretty good sense of who those voices were in my adolescence - essays by Albert Camus, the marvelous Aldous Huxley preface to the second edition of Brave New World, Orwell. I could hear their voices in my head. I don't think that would have happened had I limited my reading to fiction, poetry and plays. In other classes, the nonfiction, such as it is, consists of textbooks written by curriculum committees having in mind the requirements of the states of Texas and California - there is a voice(s), but not one to imitate.

In history and social sciences - my daughter has just completed a genuinely marvelous American government class that would have taxed many college students. I mean, a spectacular class with a spectacular teacher. Tell me another 8th grade class in the country that could give a paragraph explaining Youngstown along with 30 or so other major Supreme Court cases? Nonetheless, despite an admirable emphasis on original documents, starting with the Constitution, the class did not teach the basics of logical argumentation - premises to conclusions. It sort of took it for granted, and went ahead with college level substance and material.

Science at my kid's school was, again, excellent, an inspiring teacher and fabulous curriculum in earth sciences. It taught a certain form of argument, but all of it was what you would expect and want in a physical sciences class - argument in the inductive scientific sense, the formation and testing of hypotheses. Great stuff, essential stuff - my kid knows the difference between a dependent and independent variable. But the form and circumstances of argument are all scientifically inductive - not deductive, premise to conclusion.

Math. Well, in one sense it is teaching deductive argumentation, particularly in geometry - but in a form so specialized and so technique oriented that it doesn't travel to other subjects. In any case, even geometry has moved away from formal proof to techniques that - very sensibly - start to provide the basis for calculus.

The result is that my daughter does not have a clue how to do something that is basic and essential to intellectual work in every field - offer a proposed conclusion and derive it from premises. It is crucial to reading any serious nonfiction work in pretty much any field - and yet is not something learned by reading stories with an eye out for the identification of literary tropes. And deductive logic, too, is critical to much of economics.

Long and short of this is, I have convinced my (more or less willing) kid to take some lessons in logic this summer. There doesn't seem to be a class at the local universities, but I've found one of the math teachers willing to do it - not a lot of sessions, but enough to get started on both basic Aristotlean logic, verbal logic of syllogism and fallacies, on the one hand, and very, very basic symbolic logic aimed finally at computer languages on other, and having a clue as to why term logic is finally inadequate.

The problem is finding a book that is basic and slow enough for a kid who is verbally gifted, does okay with math but has to approach it very systematically - I am thinking about the old Kalish & Montague, second edition that has more problem sets and more explanation of the problem sets. It seems to move more slowly than the coomputer science oriented texts. Any suggestions welcome. In the course ten or twelve sessions, I'd be happy if my daughter learned the verbal basics of premises, conclusions, validity, truth, soundness, etc., and how to look for and identify them in a written text, and the very basics of the idea of symbolization - not, and, or, if, if and only if. Not even get to truth tables.

(Update: Kalish and Montague just arrived, and it seems like a good place to begin. The preface says that it is about teaching a skill, and is not aimed at presenting the fundamental debates underlying logical systems. And it moves more slowly than the more current texts. However, for a junior high schooler, it still moves too fast - I think the tutor can work with it, but needs to come up with a lot of extra problem sets - and realistically, just getting through verbal, natural language fallacies, syllogism, and then symbolization in chapters 1 and 2 is still too much.)

Put another way, the school curriculum seems as though students were equipped for argument with Aristotle's poetics - but not with his logic. Certainly he would have been surprised.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...


This is a brilliant "non-fiction" essay. I am planning to print this and give it to my daughter and pass along to her teacher and principal. I hope my daughter may learn something and perhaps find a "voice" to emulate after reading it.

It's hard to believe five years ago we were siting together in your micro-credit class, and your daughter was visiting class discussing her thoughts on life. Now my daughter Naomi is almost Renee's age at the time.

Writing good descriptive and persuasive essays has been something I've worked with Naomi on for a number of years now but this essay certainly made me think about strategies for developing the skill. I was never one to read fiction much--even as a kid I read more philosophy than pulp fiction. Luckily I get off writing non-fiction for my work. I'd probably be starving if I were forced to write fiction for a living.

Anyway, stumbled across your blog and wanted to drop a note. Look forward to getting in touch soon.


Anonymous said...

Professor Anderson,
May I recommend for Renee "The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric" by the late Sister Miriam Joseph. She was a long time professor at St. Mary's University in South Bend and studied under Mortimer Adler. The book is available from Paul Dry Books at Although the book was written for college freshmen, I'm sure Renee will be able to handle it with a little guidance from you. All the best...

Mike P

Anonymous said...

she sounds ready for studying the TALMUD ...u must be great parents.