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Common Sense

Aug. 14th , 2014

When I was growing up the adults in my life often judged me on the basis of something they called common sense. For them it was some sort of unquestionable constant.

Its values helped them to assert their dominance over young people, children, me. Suffice to say, I lacked it. And the constant reminder that I lacked it contributed in no small part in my growth from an awkward, unsure child to an awkward, unsure teenager.

Common sense is all about the basics. Or at least the basics from the perspective of the adults I grew up with. Does this young person know how to sweep a driveway? Do they know how to hold a hammer? In other cultures theses things might not matter too much. In my circles they were the cornerstones.

And so, every time I swept a driveway, or held a hammer I felt eyes on me. Could I do the most basic jobs of humanity? I felt a heightened awareness of my inadequacy. I felt inferior, awkward. I couldn't even do the simple things. I most certainly lacked common sense.

Common sense is a great way to keep a hold over people. It gives you the capability high ground. Whatever else that person could do, from playing musical instruments to programming computers, if they lacked common sense then, well, what use were they?

Clinging to an idea of common sense is a brilliant defensive position. You can use it anywhere. See that clever person on the news? The scientist with the breakthrough? Probably not an ounce of common sense. And through that defence nobody can be better than you.

But common sense as a protective strategy is not what this post is about. It's what got me thinking about it: that sense of awkwardness, the constant thread of inadequacy it instills, and how it lingers. But then I realised that there's a wider issue.

The real issue is that we believe in a core set of knowledge at all. After all, beyond being able to survive, and reproduce (ironically one of the common sense things we prefer not to educate young people about), what actually is common sense?

And yet we build our whole society on a single body of knowledge. By a certain age there are things we must know. If our children don't know those things then they'll "fall behind". But the question is, "fall behind what?"

If the survival of the human species is dependent on everyone knowing solid arithmetic then we’re in luck. But I suspect that what we really need is people who couldn't care less about times tables; people who have no idea how to hold a hammer; people obsessed with honey bees, photons, the way sea currents manipulate the sea bed.

We need people with a complete lack of common sense.