Voices > Soul Food

Common sense

Where did it go? Can we regain it?

Issue: "Fleeing Hurricane Floyd," Sept. 25, 1999

Whatever happened to common sense? My wife laughs and says that nothing has happened to it; common sense is whatever the majority of people believe at any given moment, so there is always exactly the same amount-no matter how ridiculous it may be.

But that's not the whole story. Besides momentary common sense, there is a universal common sense of the living and the dead, shared not just by this or that majority but by most people in most times and places. Although not flawless, short of divine revelation it is the best place for reflection to begin. That's the common sense that is declining in our own time and place. You must have noticed, dear.

Perhaps the simplest cause is runaway legalism. With less scope to exercise their common sense, people get out of the habit.

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Our lawmakers cannot bring themselves to leave the laws alone; they are always changing the old ones and making up new ones. There are fewer and fewer areas in which common sense has any room to turn around; judgment is buried in rules and regulations.

Then there is empire-building. Bureaucrats, congressmen, and usurping judges aren't the only ones who want to enlarge themselves. In every walk of life, expert busybodies make kingdoms by proclaiming that they know better. And you'd better be careful, because sometimes the only way to keep one kind of expert off your back is to hire another, whether lawyer, social worker, or media specialist. Pervasive insecurity drives common sense still further into hiding.

Let's not forget intolerance for imperfections. Common sense is fallible. Inevitably our mistakes will sometimes cause trouble for our neighbors. Alas, each of us tends to be tolerant of his own mistakes and intolerant of the other guy's. I want breathing room for my common sense, but when you make a botch of things, I scream, "There oughta be a law!"

A different kind of cause is the isolation of the generations. After all, common sense hasn't merely lost its room to maneuver; the common state of sense is getting worse. One reason is the separation of people of different ages. In days of yore, young could learn from old because they lived nearby, perhaps even under the same roof. Today all is different: Junior is off at college, Dad has been transferred, and Grandma lives in a "retirement community." We even separate the generations at church, with different Sunday school classes for "Singles," "Young Marrieds," and "Golden Agers."

But even ending the isolation of the generations would be futile so long as we continued the idolatry of youth and progress.

The worship of youth leads to contempt for the qualities of the aged, not least the insight that comes from experience. In turn, the idolatry of progress produces the conviction that the future will be wholly unlike the past. This makes us think that the more ancient the wisdom, the more contemptible it is. The result? We become not only more and more ignorant, but less and less teachable.

As a teacher I should also mention badly timed higher education. We neglect the fact that different things must be learned at different ages. On the classical model, higher education enlarged and refined the common sense that students had already, leavening it with the experience of mankind. Regrettably, before a certain age students have too little common sense to be refined. Absurdly, we teach family law to people who still resent their parents, relations among the classes to people who have never held a job, and history to people who think themselves immortal. That's one of the reasons universities are havens for crackpot ideologies.

Finally is the sheer desire for ignorance. When common sense gets in the way of what we want, we may not want to have it. Take sex. Our grandmothers taught their daughters a bracing little proverb that ran, "Why buy the cow when you can have the milk for free?" The meaning: Men don't marry women who are casual with their favors. Today, many young women operate instead on the plainly false theory that sex is a good way to keep the guy around. Is it really that they don't know any better-or is it that they don't want to learn?

That which has declined may rise again-even common sense. It will take a long, long time, and things will get worse before they get better; but with grace and common sense, perhaps we will get through it.

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