What is common sense?

It is the basic level of practical knowledge and judgement that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way. Yet, it is rare…

I was on a plane from Delhi to Bengaluru getting ready for take-off. A few people were having trouble adjusting their luggage in the overhead cabin. A gentleman came along, helped a few people with a smiling face and made space for everybody. “It’s a matter of common sense,” he said with a smile. More space showed up in no time, his own baggage was tucked in, and the people waiting in the aisle got going in a matter of minutes.

And all it took was common sense? A little event like this gets you thinking: is common sense commonly available? If it were, why did the people have trouble finding space for their luggage in the first place? Anyone who travels frequently on short-haul flights between Indian cities knows that the common sense required to adjust luggage in a high space-yielding way is anything but common. For me, what that gentleman did in such a short time, and with such good humour, was a rare constellation of skills.

Not common

Indeed, such common sense is the right mix of spatial, bodily kinaesthetic, and interpersonal skills, and I suspect even the aircrew needs some training to grow them. The man found the best pattern to fit the luggage in the overhead compartment; common sense, too, is a form of pattern-recognition in the spatial, bodily, and emotional dimensions. He was also correct in describing this essential skill as common sense as the term is generally used. At the same time, his use revealed the basic flaw in the general currency of the term. Common sense is not common. But we have been trained to think of it as lowly. It is common not in the sense of ubiquitous — but common in the sense of petty or trivial. It merely brings out the biased nature of our daily values and the language that codes them.

Educationist and cognitive psychologist, Howard Gardner makes it clear why. Common sense is praised — and its lack mourned — he says, almost wholly with respect to three kinds of aptitudes — ‘intelligences.’ in Gardner’s formulation: the interpersonal, the spatial and the bodily kinaesthetic. The expression ‘common sense’ is never used to describe other kinds of intelligences Gardner describes, such as musical, logical-mathematical, or linguistic intelligences. These appear to be the ‘higher’ intelligences. It is, among other things, based on the hierarchy between mind and body that we have inherited as part of modern consciousness — that mental faculties are somehow superior to physical ones. As a part-mechanical, part-social skill required in everyday life, it sits on a pecking order much lower than those that form the foundation of established academic or artistic fields.

The curious case of common sense brings to the surface the hidden biases with which society evaluates different human abilities. Our language codes these very biases. In her book Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, Lauren A Rivera shows that a similar play of power and prejudice is at work in society’s conception of ‘merit’. The conception of merit reflects the dominant value-system in a given society, and usually, the biases of dominant social groups. Rivera talks about the infamous prejudice about head size in 19th century European thought — the notion that non-white races had smaller skulls than Europeans — which was used to propagate a kind of scientific racism.

Likewise, the sociologist Jerome Karabel has shown that before 1920, admission criteria to Harvard, Yale and Princeton were primarily intellectual, centring on disciplinary excellence as evident in subject tests. As Jewish enrolments grew, so did anti-Semitism, and the definition of merit shifted so that Jewish students could be excluded more effectively from admission to these colleges, and white Anglo-Saxon applicants given easier passage. Admission criteria moved from being primarily intellectual to a focus on ‘character’, as evident through the candidate’s involvement in sports and extracurricular activities, and even a perceived sense of ‘manliness’.

The fact that these criteria persist to this day indicate the lasting trajectory of this shift. It is common knowledge that the admission to elite institutions of higher education anywhere in the world emphasises qualities that reflect the self-image of the privileged and the powerful. Elitism is all about the preservation of the status-quo, and the conception of merit is a very persuasive means of achieving it while making social prejudices invisible.

Meanwhile, common sense, a victim of biased nomenclature, continues to be a rare commodity in the world!

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