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Can you reason? Or have you learnt to reason?

During my high school days, there was a kid who used to do well in studies. My perception of him, however, was that he didn’t have a logical bend of mind. His eyes, his manner of speaking, his sentences… somehow he always appeared to me as a dumb person, lacking creativity and imagination and more importantly a strong rational mind. But surprisingly, he would be the only one who would answer the teacher’s questions. Most of which were reasoning based questions. It somehow didn’t fit the picture. I would sit and wonder “How in the world did he answer that?”. Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to check it out. The first thing that had to be confirmed was “Was he learning the answers by heart?”. I began observing the questions that he answered, trying to figure out the books where he could have already seen them. I could trace some, but not all of them.

My sleuthing was cut short by the “inquisitive culture”. Spurred by advertisements on television, the children caught the idea that asking questions was fancy. Irrespective of whether they wanted to know the answer or not. There ensued confident doubt asking series in our classes. The teachers, television viewers themselves, also encouraged them. And intelligently, the questions would be deflected back to the rest of the class (my earliest experience with crowdsourcing). This boy would answer. Some doubts were cooked up, some were genuine, some were conceptually tricky, some were imaginative. He would answer them all; the why’s and the why not’s. I was stumped. These doubts could definitely not be standard questions in a question bank. Then how? I began to sense what was happening but decided to observe more such people.

As I got into college and thereon, I bumped into many such students. So this boy wasnt the only one. What they did was this. They wouldn’t learn the answers. They would learn the reasons. It wasn’t rote learning since they didn’t byheart facts without understanding. They did seek the logic behind the answers. And then… byhearted the logic! And since they knew the logic so well, they could apply it to problems they hadn’t seen before and crack them with ease. Let’s pause for a minute and replay. So they know the logic behind the answer, they have imbibed it and they can apply it to other such scenarios. Where’s the catch? Isn’t this what we call learning?

Let us look at a non-specific example. Let us say that the crux of a formulation is that if A is greater than 0.5, B is 1 and if A is less than 0.5, B is 0. This is the logic behind some dynamics, to arrive at which geniuses did works beyond the scope of high school kids. You have read a good book which has cleverly boxed this result, an indication of its importance. If you remember this logic, you are ready to face all sorts of questions that can come up. What is B if A is 0.7? If A is continuously decreasing, what value of B will you land up with? And googly questions like if A multiplied by B is 0.3, what is A? (Answer: not possible) Such reasoning is used in various concepts in Physics, Chemistry etc. When a student not only tells you how A and B are related but also answers application questions like above, you need to give it to him. He has a strong foundation of the subject. If you try him in an interview, he will shine. He will also do well in the job he is given.

He hasn’t memorised the answers blindly. But he has memorised the logic. He has even memorised the line of thinking needed to approach these questions. He has also noted possible traps. He can now reason convincingly. But does he reason? I have often wondered how people who answer these logic questions, act insensibly, not on few occasions but often enough. The perception that we get of the person by interacting with him many a times turns out right; in spite of them answering logical questions. It is this discrepancy that is often termed as IQ and EQ. Reasoning academic questions does not necessarily imply that you are a sensible person. You can be illogical in the way you treat people or draw conclusions in your daily life. What causes this difference? When the same logic is successfully applied to 15 scenarios, why does it fail at the 16th? Is it because the real life application deals with emotions and we don’t have much control over them? That some emotions cloud our heads leading us to skewed viewpoints on issues? The brain that dodged googly questions, now easily falls prey to emotions? Probably. But, in that case, he only learned to reason. He never really did reason.

For an attitude to become a way of life, we need to experience it. And experience does not come just by emulating it. It comes by living it. By making those neuronal connections, by which you not only know where you are but also how you got there. That tells you why you are where you are. It is with that conviction and that journey that you begin to be the attitude and not an imitation of it. We can learn facts, the reason behind the facts, the reason behind the reason for the facts and so on. We can achieve depth in the subject this way, but we cannot experience the journey. When we are teaching students how to reason, we must encourage them to understand why we reason. Make them love reasoning in general, irrespective of what the issue is, which genre it falls in, or what the rewards are. It is reasoning that he should try to understand, more than the reason itself. Unless he lets himself be senseless, feel uncomfortable about it and make his way towards sense, he will never know why he wants to be sensible. He would also not know how to realise he is being illogical and how to find his way to sense. When we take an illogical decision, we feel a pinch. A pinch of doing injustice, of being unfair to someone, of being unethical, of putting ourselves at risk.

Long time back, facts were valued. Being aware of facts was a commendable feat. We graduated from that stage to rooting for reason. Students are now admonished for knowing “what” without knowing “why”. While we have accepted the benefits of external manifestation of reasoning, we are yet to accept its importance as a way of life. But then, we are yet to accept the very need for a way of life…