The populist rebellion is in full swing these days. The gap between the educated and non-educated factions of Americans appears to broaden daily as partisan politicians, retail marketers and thought leaders try to capitalize on our socioeconomic prejudices for their own benefit. The poor blame the rich for the economic collapse, the rich blame for the poor for ever-increasing tax obligations. The poor popularize the scandals and salacious habits of celebrities in order to point out how undeserving the rich are (e.g. TMZ, gossip magazines and E! TV), while the rich point to isolated, fame-seeking members of the poor whose shameless academic failures have become the stuff of viral videos and television the world over (e.g. Ms. Teen South Carolina, Jay Leno’s “Jay-Walking” and Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader).
Despite the fact that the internet has made the sum total of the worlds knowledge nearly ubiquitous, the latest generation is less knowledgeable than any that has preceded it since single-room schoolhouses on the prairie. The value and quality of American higher education continues to plummet, while the price of it continues to rise. The dilution of the value of a college degree has become obvious as the school business has become big business. Who isn’t offering a degree these days? Yet, those same degrees have become less and less accessible as the prices of college continue to reflect the desperation of current economic times rather than the reality. The chasm between the educated and the uneducated is becoming more of the gap between the well-educated and the poorly educated. But a plague as foul smelling as by any other name. We’re not just losing the financial middle-class, we’re losing its intellectual counterpart.
The refrain most often heard from the populist crowd is that the educated elite in this country lack “common sense” - as though the nation’s academic elites have all been educated in cloistered and hallowed halls so far removed from the “real world” that they can scarcely be relied upon to tie their own shoes. C’mon people, put down the Grisham novel and step slowly away. Colleges haven’t looked like that for a hundred years, if ever. Most college campuses look like Abercrombie & Fitch commercials with less attractive people and more hand-painted signs. And the fraternities and sororities are no more powerbrokering secret societies than your local Elks Lodge is.
So what exactly is this “common sense” anyways? Most proponents of the theory employ the Justice Potter Stewart method of defining it; not attempting to list all the things that are included, but rather by just saying that they’ll know it when they see it. If this sounds like shaky ground upon which to indict a large portion of the population, it should. The idea that there is a special subset of knowledge available exclusively to folks who shun traditional education is just as absurd as the notion that the knowledge held by the educated or financially elite is unavailable to the population at large. It’s a farce either way.
And yet, we feel a special connection to the notion of “common sense.” We should. After all, it was Thomas Paine’s famous pamphlet of the same name, published in 1776, which became the most widely published and read writing in American history. Credited as a catalyst for the American revolution, it plainly and eloquently warned of the dangers of government and monarchy. It may be one of the most recognizable pieces of populist literature ever printed. But despite these storied roots, more recently common sense has come to mean “street smarts” or “life skills”; the knowledge of which parts of town to avoid, or how to successfully accomplish your own laundry. I’ve even heard it used to refer to skills as varied as interpersonal relationship prowess and fashion sense. What’s so “common” about all of that? And when’s the last time you took fashion or relationship advice from someone without an education?
What the new “common sense” is really, is intellectual segregation, born of the populists’ dissatisfaction with the current distribution of wealth and influence. What else would you call the concept that there are separate, yet equal spheres of knowledge and understanding that are divided along the same lines that dictate what part of town you live in and what job you have? I would hope that we learned a long time ago that there’s nothing equitable about this kind of exclusivity, and there’s nothing equal in “separate, but equal.”
“Common sense” is a pacification in the face of long odds; the exact opposite of the American “bootstrapping” ideal. As the socioeconomic gaps become wider and wider, they become more perilous and daunting to try and cross; and yet, it is precisely that challenge that has always given us our greatest leaders. The satisfaction crusade sweeping the nation, eager to tell us that being a little bit fat, overextended financially, or emotionally unstable is completely o.k., wants nothing more than for you buy into the fact that you’ve already got all the knowledge you’ll ever need, and that anyone who has more is trying to put one over on you. The real truth about the value of education is something Sir Francis Bacon knew over 400 years ago: knowledge is still power.
So, where do we go from here? Perhaps a good place to start are some things we can all agree on, no matter our education level or station in life:
- Having a college education doesn’t make you smart and not having one doesn’t make you street savvy;
- There isn’t a “better” way to learn. Where or how your get your information doesn’t have any impact on the knowledge or your command of it; and
- The knowledge you do have does not dictate the knowledge you can get.
When we’re criticizing someone for not having any so-called “common sense”, we ought to take a good look at what we’re actually saying. One one hand, if we’re indicting their lack of intelligence on relatively pedestrian matter (e.g. unable to work a parking meter, confused by basic traffic patterns, etc.) we can just go ahead and call them stupid. After all, there are no special kinds of stupid. In the immortal words of Forrest Gump, stupid is as stupid does. On the other hand, if we’re challenging their lack of perspective, perhaps we should take the occasion to either give them some, or try and understand where they’re coming from. Either way, putting a finer point on your criticism both increases the chances you’ll be listened or responded to, and makes your own sense seem a whole lot less common.
To be certain, a decision not to educate yourself is a personal one, but it’s also one upon which you should, and ought to be, judged and it doesn’t make you privy to some special kind of knowledge. The idea that it does is both foolish and dangerous. In this Information Age it’s never been easier to learn, and there’s never been a time when it’s needed more. In fact, it seems the only people who lack any sense, common or otherwise, are those fail to do so.