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On (Not) Preparing Younger Students for Logic

A friend who is teaching up-and-coming teachers about the liberal arts forwarded this question to me from one of his students:

I’ve also been contemplating throughout class so far how to prepare
younger students for logic, as it is likely I will find myself teaching
the younger grades next year. It seems to me that the first and maybe
even the second acts of the intellect are able to be grasped even at
young ages. In a way this seems to be what science and math are doing at
the younger grades. Learning the definition of a cow and the
classification of that cow in biology seems to be the act of definition.
Learning that all squares are rectangles but only some rectangles are
squares is composing and dividing. Are these then ways of preparing young
children for logic? Is there anything else that can be done? Do you have
any books or articles to recommend on this?

This is my response:

I would immediately discourage anyone from thinking about introducing logic or preparing for logic in early grades. The level of abstraction needed for considering what are proper and improper forms of argument, and all that is connected with that, including proper definition, does not arise until at least late middle school, possibly later. When students can follow the early arguments in Euclid without torment, then they are probably ready. That ability to think abstractly will arise naturally when ready; no preparation is necessary or helpful. In my limited experience, I think that doesn’t arise with most students until high school.

I also think that proposing definitions as such is a mistake until at least middle school. What is needed at the grammatical stage is simply naming — a rich, detailed sensory/imaginative encounter with any subject that allows for naming. This kind of thing is done beautifully by the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. You don’t have to define the names; kids know what they mean. You want kids to distinguish a Jersey cow from an Angus from a Longhorn (living and grilled), not to be able to repeat the memorized words defining cow. They should learn to identify subjects and direct objects and objects of prepositions; definitions of these things do not help them at all.

The early math and science programs are all messed up. They introduce abstract theories and terms to kids as early as possible (“let’s start with defining matter, space and motion.” — bah!), thinking that will alleviate problems later on, but it just exacerbates them by making kids hate science, math and school learning generally. I think everyone should read “A Mathematician’s Lament” — it’s the most concrete thing I have seen about the horrors of school and the proper/beautiful spirit of teaching that I know:

Let me know what you think. Experience is the key to all these discussions; I have yet to hear from anyone that kids eat up abstract thinking.

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