Making Sense of Common Sense

Over at Spectator USA, Sam Leith's article with the title "Common sense is the real generation gap" caught my interest.

I thought I knew where he was headed.  After all, common sense has probably always been the real generation  gap.  Growing up (as opposed to only getting older) is mostly a matter of actually acquiring the common sense that experience of life gives us the opportunity to acquire.  People older than us had a head start, and we are supposed to try to catch up.  Mark Twain probably said it best: "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years."

As we all know, acquiring common sense can be a matter of life and death.  I'm thinking, for example, of the teenage boy who swallowed a garden slug on a dare, became paralyzed, and died recently.  Because children lack common sense, parents must do what they have always done, trying to instill common sense in their children while at the same time using their own common sense to encompass the growing child.

The topic suggested by Leith's title has added importance today.  Becoming a person of common sense has always been a life-defining challenge, but acquiring common sense has gotten a lot more difficult for young people in our time, especially if they have spent some time in our institutions of higher learning.  My witty friend Robert Godwin has this to say about that: "Say what you want about the liberal arts, but they've found a cure for common sense."

When I headed off to college, my high school teacher who was my mentor offered me two commonsense rules to follow:  "Take care to stay well, and choose professors, not courses."  Because of my high regard for him, I took his words to heart.  Later, when I saw the problems my fellow students brought on themselves by not getting enough sleep and generally being careless about their health, I understood the practical wisdom of what he had told me.  And the second rule helped me more quickly understand the value of navigating my way through college by who was teaching the course rather than by the course title. 

For years, I handed on the same commonsense wisdom to young folks I knew when they headed off to college.  But I have not offered that advice for some years now.  Here is what I tell them now: "They are going to try to knock common sense out of you; don't let them."

You can probably understand how eagerly I turned to the Spectator USA article, hoping to learn something that would help me and all of us face the future, knowing that the people who are coming along and will be taking over have had to endure an unrelenting attack on their common sense just at the time they were supposed to be developing common sense.  

Regrettably, I did not find the help I was looking for.  What I did find was an idea of common sense that is no help to anyone.  In fairness, the author does write this: "it is also common sense that now tends to make the young incomprehensible to the old."  In this way, he manages to refer to the perennial gap between the generations Twain evokes, though he reverses Twain's point of view.  In my case, at least, there can be little doubt that my high school teacher did not find me incomprehensible, but instead comprehended me pretty well, and knew better than I did what I needed to know.

But it was when the article zeroed in on "the peril of common sense" that discouragement really set in.  "[C]ommon sense ... changes.  It has been common sense that women shouldn't have the vote.  It has been common sense that homosexuality is unnatural.  It has been common sense that the natives aren't ready for self-government."  So common sense is commonly accepted opinion, subject to change, and nothing more?

But is this how we actually use the term?  When I tell you my grandparents had a reputation for common sense that resulted in many people in difficulty coming to them for advice, am I telling you my grandparents managed to keep abreast of commonly accepted opinion — or am I telling you they had a reputation for wisdom?

There are opinions, and there is common sense.  They are not the same.

Here is what Bruce Catton wrote about U.S. Grant in his wonderful book, Grant Moves South:

There was nothing about Ulysses S. Grant that struck the eye; and this puzzled people, after it was all over, because it seemed reasonable that greatness, somewhere along the line, should look like greatness.  Grant could never look like anything ... and afterward men could remember nothing more than the fact that when he came around things seemed to happen.  The most they could say, usually, was that U. S. Grant had a good deal of common sense.

Grant's robust common sense enabled him to find a path to victory that had eluded the generals, including the generals with reputations for brilliance, who had gone before him.

Here is what my copy of Roget's Thesaurus says about common sense: "good sense, savvy, sound judgment, native intelligence, horse sense, prudence, acumen, levelheadedness, instinct, wisdom, experience."  That is the complete list of synonyms with no omissions. 

When we are talking about common sense, we are talking about a power of knowing.  That power of knowing is partly the result of our experience of the world.  It is also the result of the gifts we bring to our experience.  Our native gifts that enable us to develop common sense are like all our gifts and talents, great and small: they came into the world with us and help make us the persons we are.

Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute.  He is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea and Reclaiming Common Sense: Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World, due out in September.  Both are from Encounter Books.