In praise of math, logic, and Latin … say, what?

They are the building blocks of reasoning, problem-solving and critical thinking.


The courses that I teach contain a heavy dose of problem-solving skills.

Early on, I assert my belief that that problem-solving skills can be taught – and, more importantly, learned – and set about to prove the point.




I’ve been doing some summer reading on the topic of reasoning & problem-solving and learned:

“For twenty-six hundred years many philosophers and educators have been confident that reasoning could be taught.”


In the book Mindware, psychology Prof. Richard Nisbitt channels some classical thinking on whether problem-solving can be learned:

Plato said, “Even the dull, if they have had arithmetical training,… always become much quicker than they would otherwise have been … We must endeavor to persuade those who are to be the principal men of our state to go and learn arithmetic.”

Later, Roman philosophers added studying grammar and exercising the memory to the practices that would improve reasoning.

The medieval scholastics emphasized logic, particularly syllogisms (e.g., All men are mortal. Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal).

A nineteenth-century educator was able to maintain, “My claim for Latin, as an Englishman and a teacher, is simply that it would be impossible to devise for English boys a better teaching instrument. The acquisition of a language is educationally of no importance; what is important is the process of acquiring it. The one great merit of Latin as a teaching instrument is its tremendous difficulty.”

Nisbett summarizes that – even though some psychologists tried to debunk the so-called “Latin Theory” of learning — the faith in drilling mathematical, logical, and linguistic rules was strong enough that by the nineteenth century some people believed that pure exercise of the brain on difficult rule systems — any difficult rule system — was enough to make people smarter.

That’s good enough for me ….


For my take on the subject, click to view: Can problem-solving be learned?



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