Common sense, uncommonly flawed

According to Kumashiro, the operative word in the phrase “common sense” is the word common. It’s a widely held belief or practice that has gone unquestioned long enough to be considered tradition.

I’ve always been suspicious of “tradition.” (I think that’s why I’ve never liked Fiddler on the Roof.)

Here’s an example of my problem with tradition: once upon a time, I worked as a Protocol Officer for the province. This is the job where you plan big events for VIPs  – it’s a combination of being a historian and a PR person. Each time I was tasked with overseeing an event I would also be handed a file folder as thick as an Easter ham with the plans for previous iterations of the event. The expectation was that I recreate the event with as little deviation as possible. But why?

Because that’s the way we’ve always done it. This is a favorite phrase of government employees (FYI: as a long time bureaucrat from a family of bureaucrats, I don’t say “government” or “bureaucrat” with a sneer).

I found myself constantly trying to deviate from “the plan” because most of the time, the plan didn’t make sense to me. And if pressed, I found that the long time protocol officers couldn’t give me a good explanation of why things were done in such a way…they simply were. There was tacit acceptance of tradition.

And what was the response to my continual prodding to try something new? Discomfort. People were afraid – they didn’t know what the change would mean to their entire world view. (Yes, they were a dramatic bunch, I’m not entirely exaggerating.)

And if this is the reaction in a setting with relatively low real world stakes (after all, what harm could come of seating people differently or not having a string quartet at the XYZ event?) – how uncomfortable and frightening is it for people in a setting like education that has profound real world repercussions?


That being said, we should all be able to think of a million examples in which a prevailing thought or idea in any subject has been shown to be wrong or incomplete. Take Galileo Galilei – his contemporaries were absolutely certain that the sun revolved around the Earth. It was common sense – we can see with our own eyes that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Clearly it is revolving around US. But they were wrong, quite wrong.

That’s the danger of tacit acceptance of common sense. Many things may seem logical and plain if taken at face value, but further examination almost always reveals complexity.

And there’s no need to be afraid. It’s wonderful to be wrong – I think that there’s nothing better as a learner than that moment when you realize that you’ve been going about something the wrong way or that you hadn’t considered a major factor. Being wrong gives you the aha! moment.

My wish, and what I will endeavor to pass on to my students, is that we accept that we might be wrong most of the time simply because it’s better than feeling that we’re always right.






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