Studying the Tools: Logic in Classical Education

Sep 4, 2020

As a classical educator, I frequently observe the necessity of logic in the life of the student. Despite this truth, my students still bemoan both its practice and study, especially in the early days of the school year. Yet, nothing is more essential than “studying the tools” of classical education. To put it another way, there is nothing so needed in our classroom, than “learning to breathe, classically.”

I can identify with my students in their struggle to value logic. In college, as a humanities major, I was asked to study logic with some uncertainty about its importance. In time, however, I came to see its nearly inexpressible value for the life of the mind. It undergirded every aspect of my learning and played a “breathing-like” role as I learned in other subjects. Because of educational culture today, many students would prefer  that their time, attention, and aspirational energy were consumed by the practice of content. Their educational lives, if they could choose, would be full of practical knowledge, where they would only be asked to skim the foam off the top of educational depths. Why should they be asked to dive deeper and learn logic? Answering this question is the first and most important job of a teacher.

Each year that I have taught logic classes, I begin by asking my students who woke up to breathe, or, more specifically, who woke up only to breathe without any other ambitions. Inevitably, no hands move, because people wish to breathe so that they can accomplish other things. The use of breathing in human life is magnificent; through it humanity has been afforded the pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful. If it weren’t for breathing, we wouldn’t have the Dumo or The Rite of Spring or the Apology. Igor Stravinsky, Florentine architects all woke up in pursuit of something greater than just breathing, but they needed it for every artistic step they took. Logic, I explain to my students, is like breathing: no ordered beauty can be constructed, no student essay composed, no great literary tales considered without “breathing in the air” of classical education. After only a day or two of class my students begin to acknowledge the necessity of the study and practice of logic. Yet, we still have a long way to go. They are onboard, and they begin to buy into the telos of our class time together. Mere acknowledgment, however, stops short of the ultimate goal: to create not just grudging respect, but a budding love of logic in my students. And the only way to do that is to demonstrate its beauty.

As educators, we must see the value and beauty of order. Logic has to grip us, before it  can impart wisdom to our students. We as educators must first hear Socrates speaking to us, when he calls out Meletus in the Apology: “I say that Meletus is guilty of dealing frivolously with serious matters.” Until we consider and impress upon our students the value of taking serious matters seriously and demonstrate it ourselves, we cannot educate as educators ought. We cannot classically ingratiate our students to the wisdom of the ages, to the beauty of ordered-thought, unless we display the order of serious things. 

Fostering a love for logic is not an overnight trip or quick vacation down a lecture-rabbit-hole. Instead it is the slow show-and-tell of those who have come before us, like Socrates and Plato. Students come to love logic when, like breathing, it offers order to the lover-of-writing, or the up-and-coming student-philosopher who begins to have a method to her curiosity. A love for logic takes hold of students when it begins to form substance into beauty. Beauty, as it is meant to, captivates the heart and warms the affections to logic and its utility. It is through this beauty that students begin to see logic, although subtly, as it takes the form of Plato’s Euthyphro or Aquinas’ Summa Theologica or Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Logic as breathing, drawn into the habits of beauty and truth, gives literal life to the pursuits of the students of a thoughtful classical education. 

As teachers, our pursuit should be logical students, whose education is marked by great literature and languages, and infused with order and beauty. A carpenter or construction manager or engineer will know their tools. The utility  of each piece will not only be apparent, but beautiful. The completed project will be a product, first, of the knowledge of the tools. It offers creativity and order to the things at hand. And like a great project, the culmination of good logic isn’t logic itself. It should take the form of those literary works, philosophies, or linguistic pursuits which give life and irrigate the cultural and intellectual deserts of our student’s minds.  As Socrates asks Meletus, “surely you consider it of the greatest importance that our young men be as good as possible?” We can respond like Meletus, “indeed I do.” What better way to offer our students the truly full life of the mind, than by extending to them classical logic and all the gifts, practice, and habits it affords.

Travis Copeland

Travis Copeland

Travis Copeland teaches Socratic Logic at Thales Academy, a community of classical schools in North Carolina. He earned his BA in History and Humanities, and he is currently pursuing a Masters in History from Missouri State University.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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