Sometimes, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry when I read some news stories today. Our world is more educated, more sophisticated, more modernized and more industrialized than ever before—but in our race to make progress, we often leave one important quality behind: common sense.
Webster defines common sense as: “the ability to think and behave in a reasonable way and to make good decisions.” I’d love to believe that most people possess this trait, but alas, common sense appears to be diminishing in our world today. Others define common sense as “sound judgment derived from experience rather than study.” Perhaps that’s our problem. We have more knowledge than experience today. Our students consume approximately 10,000 messages a day via social media, email, playlists, radio, TV programs, text messages and ads. We are educated beyond our ability to make sense of it or apply all the information we’ve consumed. And, we have little time to do any reflection or critical thinking. I’ve quoted Herbert Simon often: “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
Evidence of Our Diminishing Common Sense
You may disagree, but when I think of the long-term ramifications of our decisions today, I cringe. Some of the ones that come to mind are:
- Safe spaces on college campuses so difficult debates don’t upset students. While this appears to be a good solution, it’s poor long-term thinking. Our campus quads should strive for civility—but not ease. Rigor makes us grow.
- People buy products, services or vacations they can’t afford and go in debt. We continue to offer ways for consumers to get “stuff” they don’t need (or don’t need now) at the expense of deeper debt. Lay-away plans were better.
- Folks smoke cigarettes or eat junk food and wonder why they’re unhealthy.
So, we created warning labels to curb addictions. Since the labels were created, we’ve learned to sue or blame product makers instead of ourselves.
- Students (or politicians) who send photos of their private parts to others on their phone. I recognize this one is on the edge, but I wonder how anyone felt this was a good idea and that the photos would remain private?
- People who drive their car into a lake or river because their GPS wrongly instructed them to take this route. When do we look up from our phone and make a common-sense decision to stay on land? I’m just asking.
I understand the person who is an “absent-minded professor.” I can be that way at times. We become so focused that we neglect everyday needs. One landlord reported: “One of my rental units is occupied by a group of PhD students who could not for the life of them figure out how to change light bulbs in a simple ceiling light fixture. They called me to do it and I actually had to explain to them how you remove the glass bulb from the fixture and replace it.”
When Progress Is Regress
I love the fact that our country is more educated than ever. Sadly, we are incomplete if we don’t include common sense in the education process. Robert Ingersoll said, “It is a thousand times better to have common sense without education than to have education without common sense.” I heard someone say recently that common sense is so rare today it should be considered a super power.
The truth is, progress is in vogue. Almost everyone, including me, longs for progress. But it’s wise to ask ourselves if each idea or innovation is an improvement. New isn’t always better. It’s so easy to assume that something fresh always equals progress. It isn’t progress, I believe, if it replaces something timeless.
Could it be that something old might just be timeless?
Four Axioms to Help Us Retain Our Common Sense:
1. Don’t discard a timeless truth in the name of being timely.
Yes, in some things, I am “old school.” I have good manners. I show others respect and I will always try to help those in need. It’s not because I am old fashioned. It’s because I was raised properly. I try to stay open to new technology and innovation, but I know the timeless values and virtues I must not lose as I grow older. I attempt to demonstrate to students what I’ve learned via experience, and why.
2. Information without application decreases our common sense.
Common sense usually expands via first-hand experience. Wisdom is the application of knowledge. As you teach students, be sure to include experiences to debrief so they can gain that wisdom. Remember: We can teach from experience, but we can’t teach experience. Students must get it first hand. Always teach students to work something out via real-life experiences before they embrace it.
3. Work to maintain an open mind, while you hold fast to virtuous boundaries.
We’ve all heard of people who’ve embraced preposterous ideas because they are new. I believe we must labor to maintain open minds—but sometimes our minds are so open, our brains fall out. Boundaries built upon virtues enable us to live well in community with others. The truth is, we all choose one of two pains in life:
- The pain of discipline
- The pain of regret
4. Don’t allow a popular idea to automatically dictate your path.
Cultural icons and fads come and go. Today, the words we read are not necessarily from authors or authorities—but from anyone on Twitter or Instagram. Anyone can publish an idea or song about anything they believe. Just remember: “A lie doesn’t become the truth, wrong doesn’t become right and evil doesn’t become good just because it is accepted by a majority.”
Ben Franklin said, “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.” I invite you to join me as you equip today’s emerging generation to be the entrepreneurs and innovators they’re capable of becoming—but to hold fast to good old common sense.
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