The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Common Sense: Either or Neither and Can it be Taught?

[previously published online on Suite.101]

I’ve heard it.  I’ve read it.  I’ve said it.  But is it?  Is it common sense?  How common is it?  And is it sense?  Judging by the number of times it is said in a tone of exasperation, hardly ever either.

The topic has long exercised the minds of philosophers, such as Aristotle, Locke, Moore, et al.

Thomas Paine produced his pamphlet “Common Sense” anonymously as, in the 1700’s, his views in calling for American Independence were still considered treasonous and not yet common.[1]

The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “sound judgement not based on specialised knowledge; native good judgement”[2]. And therein lies at least one problem.  Native.  Common sense is cultural.  With all the vagaries of the historical, social, experiential and religious context in which sense is meant to be common, it is not universally common.

Wikipedia[3] suggests the ‘strict construction’ of the term to be: “common sense … consists of what people in the world would agree on: that which they ‘sense’ as their common natural understanding”.

Maya Lin, in ‘The Right Words at the Right Time’[4], describes her parents as her mentors.  Whether we are conscious of it or not, for most people, our primary carers are all our mentors.  Sometimes their influences are more helpful than others, sometimes there may be conflicting influences, such as between carers and school, and in more modern times, from the media, but inevitably it is from them we first learn our culture – and our common sense.  Yet even they are not necessarily a source of the best of either common or sense.

Members of the generation now mostly grandparents will recall education was about the acquisition of knowledge, the proof of knowledge being the passing of examinations.  A generation who grew up without the Internet, when computers were still in their infancy, the electric typewriter was still a bit of a novelty, and the humble calculator was a huge chunk of something that sat on a desk.  A generation who was still getting to grips with the concept of colour television and for whom the CD, let alone the iPod, had not yet been invented.  A generation who had laughed at their own great-grandparents’ generation for passing a law (in England at least) that a man had to walk in front of a motor car carrying a red warning flag, in case the car travelled too fast and either the occupants or witnesses died of shock as a result.  Struggling himself with the technological age, my father often told the story of his grandfather who, the first time he heard it, refused to believe there was not a small man hiding in the box they called a radio.

Which must lead to the conclusion that the common sense today’s generations are learning from their parents’ generations is already flawed.  And the common sense we are indirectly passing on to the next generation will also, inevitably, be flawed.

Whilst history itself cannot change, the interpretation of history frequently does as political views change and humanity develops new knowledge, experiences and ideas.  However other areas of knowledge, particularly in areas such as IT and science, are out of date even before the text books are written.

As the American Heritage Dictionary also states that common sense is not based on specialised knowledge, and if that knowledge is out of date before it can be taught, surely it is common sense then that these things should no longer be taught in schools?  Or do I hear an outcry?  Does not common sense dictate that if children are not taught what is already known they will not have the basics on which to build new knowledge in the future?  Maybe children should be left to find out for themselves, not taught, but left in a place where they can find their own path to learning and inspiration, such as through Minimally Invasive Learning[5][6].  It seems that the answer to these questions depends on the common sense of the surrounding culture.   In many mainly developing cultures children are more likely to be left to their own devices and learn much by experimentation.  Yet, where children have already learned, through the common sense of their own culture, to expect to be ‘taught’, the freedom to learn independently may itself have to be taught first, while their learning may require some courageous non intervention by their parents.

Among nomadic Mongolian families it is common to see children as young as ten or twelve out on the steppes in charge of a flock of several hundred sheep.  If anything goes wrong, the family could starve.  What parent would entrust their whole family’s livelihood to a child?  Yet, those children have been learning the sense, or knowledge, that is common to their nomadic lifestyle since birth.  They already know how to competently ride a horse, often bareback.  They know where the best grazing is to be found.  They know that each animal native to their lands grazes the ground cover in different ways.  One nibbles the tips of the shoots, while others prefer to munch closer to the ground.  Whether sheep, cattle, camels or horses, their families have known for generations how to rotate the meagre growth this largely desert landscape produces, to ensure each animal gets the best from nature.  Often families work together, one group looking after the herds of several families.  They each move their ger home every two months, taking their particular charges with them.  Another family moves into their space with their, different, animals, and so it goes on.  It’s common sense – to them.

The nomadic lifestyle does not preclude children from formal education, and adult literacy rates are considered to be around 90%.  National culture and pride are a common thread through Mongolian education.[7]

In Westernised education, experiences are not common.  Parental poverty or wealth, jobs, educational levels, class, disabilities, will all affect a child’s world view.  Children from immigrant families may face a conflict between the common sense of their parents’ culture and the education they receive in the classroom.  Teachers and schools are different, some better than others.  Some children may need additional help to learn basic life skills, perhaps because of a social or learning disability, such as autism.  The lucky ones will have the social and intellectual skills to work out what is both common and sense for themselves.

The development of international social networking is even now affecting the influences in children’s lives and what they learn to be common sense.  It is inevitable that the common sense of the dominant cultures will prevail, although for some children there will be a conflict with the common sense of their families and cultures.  It may even be that with world globalisation common sense will become more ‘common’.

Perhaps more than anything this idea helps both illustrate and question the less simplistic definition of common sense given by Diana Coben when she quotes from Gramsci[8]: “common sense comprises the ‘diffuse , unco-ordinated features of a general form of thought common to a particular period and a particular popular environment’”, and “‘a chaotic aggregate of disparate conceptions, and one can find there anything one likes’”.


[1] http://www.ushistory.org/paine/commonsense/index.htm

[4] The Right Words at the Right Time, Marlo Thomas and Friends, Atria Books, New York, 2002, p.198

[7] Based on Mongolian newspaper reports at the start of the school year in September 2010

[8] Common Sense or Good Sense? Ethnomathematics and the Prospects for a Gramscian Politics of Adults’ Mathematics Education, Diana Coben, Goldsmiths College, University of London, http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/csme/meas/papers/coben.html

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