So, you’re a bright-eyed freshman college student looking to fill in the schedule for your first year on campus. After signing up for a few of the obvious choices (English Composition, College Algebra, American History, etc.), you want to know if there’s something else you should be taking to round out the fundamentals—those first-year classes that will lay the foundation for the rest of your college experience.
This is important.
You ought to think it over logically.
It seems easy to make the case that English and math are must-take first-year classes (although, admittedly, it would have been hard for me to explain the value of algebra as a college freshman myself). You may even want to include Speech or Communication in this list, given how often the task of, you know, talking to other people seems to pop up.
One class that most likely does not appear on your radar as indispensable is introductory logic. But this is an oversight, and an illogical one at that. Taking a course in basic logic or critical thinking will yield real and immediate returns that impact your life in and out of the classroom. Here are four reasons why you should sign up for an intro to logic course sooner rather than later.
1. Logic is a foundational discipline.
Logic can be a highly specialized field that deals in weird, arcane symbols. This might give the mathematically disinclined the heebie-jeebies. But, at its most basic level, logic is all about arguments. An argument—not the kind you have with your roommate over what to eat for dinner—is a chain of reasoning that connects certain claims to certain conclusions. Whether you’re an astrophysicist, a moral philosopher, a web designer, a baseball pitcher, a social worker, a parent, or a panhandler, you make or make use of arguments all the time. Logic helps to render these arguments transparent; it uncovers their strengths and flaws.
The foundational character of logic makes it a great exercise for the development of what researchers call metacognition, i.e. the capacity to think about your thinking. Since this kind of thinking is about the process of thinking itself and not about any specific task or topic, practicing it in the relatively sterile confines of the logic classroom will only serve to sharpen your reasoning for other, less abstract applications. Thus, the skills you take away from a semester of introductory logic, you can bring with you to literally every other class of your college career. Considering law school, grad school, or an MBA program? Solid exposure to the principles of logic will assist you in acing the LSAT, GMAT, or GRE.
2. Logic can help you evaluate your own beliefs.
Knowing whether your beliefs are “valid” or not—if your reasons really buy you what you think they do—is an invaluable skill. But it’s a skill that takes practice, and often more than a little guidance. Most introductory logic courses offer such metacognitive guidance as their primary goal. Need to reassess the premises behind your support for political candidate X? Want to make sure the interpretive paper you’re working on for a freshman literature class stands up to logical scrutiny? Are you now vaguely uncertain about religious convictions that formerly seemed obviously true? The principles and habits exercised in an elementary logic class apply equally well to academic and extra-academic problem-solving pursuits. The clearer you can be about your own reasons for adopting certain values and reaching certain conclusions, the better. This remains true in the classroom, boardroom, courtroom, and living room.
Training in the principles of logic helps to clarify assumptions, beliefs, opinions, values, hopes, and fears—in short: the basic content of your mental life. Getting clear about what you hold as true is useful for a number of reasons. Even if the belief-system you subscribe to survives careful rational scrutiny, the process of scrutiny itself yields a deeper, more nuanced understanding of your convictions. Deep understanding has a long shelf life and tends to transfer well to other areas whose connection to the original problem may not be obvious. Experts say learning is primarily a matter of building connections and pathways between heterogeneous ideas. Fortunately, there’s a college class dedicated to the practice and study of just this very thing. Take logic early on in your college career to reap the maximum benefits.
3. Logic can help you to be more persuasive.
When you’re clearer about the content of your mental life, you can more effectively communicate that content to others. Rhetoric is an ancient art that studies techniques of persuasion and effective communication in general. Students of Communication know that “logos”—logical argumentation—is just one of three basic rhetorical strategies, along with “pathos” (emotional connection to the audience), and “ethos” (having a credible character). One can certainly enjoy success as a persuasive communicator on the basis of sympathy or reputation alone. However, deficiency in “logos” tends to make such success relatively short-lived.
In the long run, demonstrably valid inferences are more likely to withstand the pressure of counter-arguments. A skilled rhetorician can easily pull the proverbial rug out from under arguments that rely on coercion, intimidation, or appeals to emotion. Typically it is enough to simply identify pathos-heavy arguments as such in order to sap much of their persuasive vigor. Pointing out that an argument is “too logical” doesn’t tend to have the same effect. Why not? Emotional appeals work wonderfully on those with sympathetic or easy-to-anger dispositions, but not everyone is warm, caring, or prone to righteous indignation. The force of logical inference, on the other hand, transcends widely varying, subjective emotional tendencies towards something like “objective” truth, or that which remains true regardless of who is thinking it. Moreover, emotions like pity, anger, or fear are more likely to work rhetorically when supported by logical arguments that are capable of standing on their own. Whether you’re debating with classmates in a political science class, lobbying a professor for a better grade, or trying to sway your parents to pay for that backpacking trip in Europe, the ability to communicate valid inferences will serve you well in a variety of contexts.
4. Logic can help you spot fallacies.
You live in a media-saturated world where you’re constantly bombarded on all sides by efforts to move you in one direction or another. Politicians, advertisers, media pundits, lawyers, professors, etc. are all trying to convince you to buy what they’re selling. We’ve already seen how introductory logic can help you clarify your own beliefs and communicate persuasively, but it’s equally practical for clarifying and judging the rationality of others’ claims.
A “fallacy” is an error in reasoning that is common enough to warrant a name for it. In logic, there are “formal” fallacies and “informal” ones. As the name suggests, a “formal” fallacy is a bad inference whose badness has to do with the abstract form or structure of the logical argument. While interesting and important, these fallacies occur so infrequently and in such dry contexts that we needn’t consider them here. It’s really the “informal” variety of fallacious reasoning that you want to know about, since it involves the specific content of arguments, not just the symbolic language in which that content is represented. Even very smart people sometimes commit informal fallacies.
Here are a few examples:
- “My dad bought a Buick once and its transmission had all kinds of problems. Buicks must be terrible cars.” While it could be true that Buicks are terrible cars, the sample size of one Buick is not sufficient to support this conclusion. This is called a hasty generalization.
- “Bob is arguing that teachers ought to receive better pay, but he’s a narcoleptic jerk so we shouldn’t pay him any attention.” This is an argument ad hominem or against the person. Say what you want about Bob’s personality or sleep-proneness, but it shouldn’t have any bearing on the cogency of his argument.
- “Either we supply our cops with military-grade equipment, or we sit back and watch the crime in our society skyrocket.” This is a false dichotomy, a false dilemma, or an example of black and white thinking. Beyond straightforward manipulation or fear-mongering, there is rarely a reason to reduce a diverse range of possibilities or consequences to a simple binary.
The ability to identify fallacies like these where and when they pop up can save you time, money, integrity, and self-respect.
A semester of introductory logic yields great returns for both the classroom and everyday life. Taking logic alongside more traditional freshman courses like composition or college algebra can give you a real leg-up as you transition to advanced coursework. As a foundational discipline, logic exercises skills and habits that are pertinent to virtually every other human endeavor, academic and otherwise. The metacognitive skills developed in basic logic can assist you in becoming a clearer, more persuasive thinker and communicator. Finally, the training you’ll receive in an elementary logic class in spotting informal fallacies will help you to preserve your sanity and dignity in our increasingly media-saturated, sound-byte punctuated world.