Common Sense or Common Knowledge?

The Washington Times published a quiz with the title “Are You Common Sense Smart?” and the invitation “Take our ‘simple’ quiz to find out.”

I came across the link on Facebook. An inveterate Facebook test-taker, I took the quiz. 

The test was fun, but it was not a test of common sense.

At its most basic, “common sense” is the knowledge that tells a person to seek shelter in a snowstorm or to change an infant’s diaper when it is soiled. Every human being acquires this kind of knowledge in the process of living, without exposure to formal education.

Another definition of “common sense” is “combined tact and readiness in dealing with the every-day affairs of life.” Tact is a skill developed by social interaction rather than formal instruction.

What the Washington Times quiz tests is not “common sense,” but “cultural knowledge.” This is the knowledge we acquire from school instruction, from reading, and from consuming cultural output in the form of entertainment and advertising.

Of the nineteen questions on the quiz, all require the test-taker to possess information that has been obtained from formal instruction. Here are some of the questions.

A farmer has seventeen cows; all but six die. How many cows does the farmer have left? Answer choices: 0, 6, 7, 11.

To answer this question, the reader must know how to subtract and how to interpret the phrase “all but.”

What is the chemical symbol for potassium? Answer choices: P, Pt, Po, K.

This knowledge is not instinctive. The information can be found on the periodic table of the elements. I learned that K is the symbol for potassium from a fertilizer container. To do that, I needed to be able to read. Reading is a taught skill.

In what year did the US declare its independence from Great Britain? Answer choices: 1775, 1776, 1790, July 4th.

I suppose that a reader who impulsively clicks on the fourth choice might be considered to have committed a breach of common sense, but the correct answer depends upon formal knowledge.

What language is most commonly spoken in Brazil? Answer choices: French, Brazilian, Spanish, Portuguese.

The correct answer calls upon information taught in elementary geography lessons about the countries of South America.

It seems to me that labeling this test of general knowledge a quiz of “common sense” is just another manifestation of the anti-intellectualism that permeates US popular thinking. It plays into the sentiment expressed on websites on which commenters argue that “common sense” is more important than “book smarts,” as if the two were opposites. Here are some typical comments:

I know several educated people who are lacking in common sense.

My husband is super smart, but somewhat lacking when it comes to practical matters. I do not think that intelligence and common sense go together at all necessarily.

You can have all the education available and tons of degrees—but common sense doesn’t necessarily come along with that.

It is difficult to know what people mean when they debate “common sense”versus “education,” but popular television shows like Fraiser, Rules of Engagement, and The Big Bang Theory make it clear that a love of classical music and a familiarity with “big words” is thought to go hand-in-hand with social ineptitude.

Intellectual characters from FRAISER, RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, and THE BIG BANG THEORY
US television comedies often portray educated people as laughable. L-R: Fraiser, Rules of Engagement, The Big Bang Theory.

Beware of people who speak of “common sense” as if it were a virtue superior to “book learning.” Some may be expressing their resentment of people who are more educated than themselves. Some cannot see the value in an education that goes beyond job-training and therefore can’t believe that there is any value in such an education.

The fact is, there’s no need to choose sides. It’s true that many college graduates obtained degrees without absorbing much general knowledge. But it’s also true that—thanks to free public education (K-12), free public libraries, and free educational resources on the Internet—anyone who can read can become educated without obtaining a college degree.

Common sense is a good thing, and knowledge is a good thing. They are not mutually exclusive.

Knowing that K is the chemical symbol for potassium has nothing to do with “common sense.”

The Washington Times quiz