Common Sense Education—or, Rules of Thumb for Life

In remarks this week to the College’s Class of 2015 and their parents, I spoke about the complex and venerable concept of common sense and its vital place in higher education.

George Santayana, one of America’s greatest philosophers, was also one of its finest cultural observers. In an essay that discusses materialism and idealism in American life, he describes an encounter with the president of Harvard, where he had long been on the faculty. As they walked together, the president asked Santayana how his classes were going. Santayana said fine—the students are intelligent and keen. The president stopped, turned to Santayana, and said, “I meant, how many students are in your classes.”

Santayana used this as an example of the American penchant for reducing all things to the common denominator of quantity—presumably because numbers don’t lie: How many tons of steel are produced in Bethlehem? How many miles of pavement are in New York? One hundred years after this encounter, we are even more beholden to what we might call the quantity theory of quality as a means to measure our value as teachers and scholars. I am sympathetic to all this, and admit to obsessing about the cost per student of instruction in subjects where demand is not strong—like one of the Less Commonly Taught Languages, or LCTLs, as they are known in the trade.

But it is also undeniably true that this focus on quantity has a silent partner or counterpart, which Santayana termed “diffidence as to quality.” We should not be diffident. Quality, for all its resistance to measurement, should still be paramount. Maintaining and enhancing it is the core of what we must do.

When you take leave of your children this weekend, it is with the expectation that the University will provide skills that will place them in advantageous positions in life. But if you are like me—and I am a parent of a child leaving for college next week—you are also hoping for that ineffable thing that is difficult to measure and impossible to describe: an education in quality.

As your children spend the next four years in college, they will go from adolescents to adults over perhaps the most consequential four years of their lives, those years from eighteen to twenty-two. And you and I hope that they will mature as human beings, that they will learn to accurately gauge both the extent of the abilities we will provide them, as well as the limits imposed by circumstance. This is a kind of intelligence that has its roots in the context of events, in the realm of the real, and that manifests itself in the ability to align the complex aspects of reality and the limitless possibilities of the human mind. We might call these rules of thumb for life.

Santayana defined this kind of intelligence as “a certain shrewd orthodoxy which the sentiment and practice of laymen maintain everywhere.” It encompassed “the current imagination and good sense of mankind—something traditional, conventional, incoherent, and largely erroneous … yet something ingenious, practically acceptable, fundamentally sound, and capable of correcting its own errors.” He said that there was something in the practicality of this human orthodoxy that struck him as poetical, catching the rhythm of the heart. It was the finely honed intelligence of everyman, and it was not something that could only be forged in Harvard Yard.

George Santayana, you may already know, was a Castilian aristocrat, and what caught the rhythm of his heart was, in my view, what we might call “common sense.” So today, I would like to discuss with you the possibility that “common sense,” something we often think of as innate, and therefore a gift rather than a product of assiduous cultivation, may indeed be one of the goals of college education—perhaps a prime goal.

This is also the subject of an extraordinary book, Common Sense: A Political History, by one of our faculty in the College of Arts & Sciences, Sophia Rosenfeld. We think of common sense as the great attribute of Americans; in fact the most famous book by this title, Thomas Paine’s 1776 Common Sense, was a publishing phenomenon, selling more than 100,000 copies in the first year alone. (“Common Sense for eighteen pence” was one of the great advertising slogans of the eighteenth century.)

As Professor Rosenfeld explains, however, “common sense” is a very old term, with a complex history. Aristotle thought of it as a nexus at the intersection of the five senses—vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Others, like the Persian philosopher Avicenna, thought that common sense was the fundamental link between reason and the sensations, residing in the front of the first cerebral ventricle—in close proximity to its partner, imagination. For him, common sense was the cognitive faculty most vital to the discernment and judgment of character—of people, and circumstances—a kind of uncanny insight into the nature, possibilities, and trajectories of events. This is, no doubt, a function of experience and maturity—a healthy dose of which we seek to provide along that critical pathway between eighteen and twenty two.

Common sense is also “the sense that founds community.” Here, “common” is used in the sense of shared, as in the shared tradition, a social virtue that holds society together. Professor Rosenfeld invokes modern intellectual traditions from Giambattista Vico down to the postwar German philosophers, in seeing in common sense—or, sensus communis, the sense of a community—the force that fundamentally shapes the moral and political existence of humanity. It is the product of life experience in community that affirms our connections to others, and that enables us to discern the common good.

Common sense, both in the sense of shrewd intelligence (which, through the maturity and encouragement of the community, brings the finest of our sensibilities together) and in the sense of tradition that founds and holds that community together, is then a virtue we must foster.

In The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy, Santayana described American power and strength in terms of a genteel tradition that emanates from the shared tradition of Puritan New England on the one hand, and on the other, the young America—“originally composed of all the prodigals, truants, and adventurous spirits that the colonial families produced.” Puritanism was accepted by “all the unkempt polyglot peoples that turn to the new world,” forging the will to work and to prosper, as they inhabited this spacious and half-empty world. But if Puritanism was original to the creed, it was common sense, practicality, and the knowledge of everyday things, which would become the more long-lasting virtue. Famously, he said that the American Intellect inhabits the colonial mansion, and American Will, the skyscraper. And it is this vital tension between core values and ethics on the one hand, and ambition in the real world on the other, that is responsible for the dynamism and stability of American society.

It is also the tension that seems to have snapped in recent years. Americans are not an ideological people. We live in the determinate world of skyscraper heights and pavement miles—how many students are in your classes. Yet American politics has become curiously ideological. We can’t have debt—even though quantitatively, our debt almost equals our GDP. Government is the problem. Government is not the problem. Left out is what might be called the efficacy of the real, of common sense—an ethic of solving problems pragmatically.

American education is an emporium of knowledge. It has long been a province of intellectualism but not necessarily of the kind of shrewd intelligence associated with common sense. But without the good common sense that is skeptical of large and unfounded claims and doctrines, without shared traditions that impel a society toward getting things done, it is increasingly difficult to hold America together.

Therefore I would hope that the education we provide your children over the next four years is—along with all the expert training we provide in terms of skill, technique, and method—also an education in common sense. As the repository of liberal arts education, our goal is to help refine the sensibilities of your children, but also to reinforce, in a properly respectful manner, the traditions and norms that the University of Virginia has shared and cherished. These began with a highly educated but eminently practical man: Thomas Jefferson.

The soldiers in the frontline of duty for that task are our faculty advisors, who are gathered here in the front of the auditorium. They are as excellent a team of advisors as you are likely to encounter in American higher education: experienced, professional, and above all, dedicated. So without further ado, let me introduce them.

30 Responses to “Common Sense Education—or, Rules of Thumb for Life”

  1. Donald Query says:

    Thank you for another enjoyable article.

    I must say, you might be the only person I have ever heard describe Thomas Jefferson as practical! That is a word more often used to describe his colleague James Madison. Perhaps it was TJ’s practical side that cemented the bond between the two of them.

  2. Roger Adams says:

    Dean Woo,

    Your posts should be collected as a book of essays. I would certainly buy it. This latest one on common sense is another fine piece of writing.

    Roger Adams, ’64, ’71

  3. Bill Peerman says:

    I always experience a sense of wonder when I read these blog posts by Meredith Woo. Glad to be a Hoo all over again.

  4. Kit Schooley, class of '67 says:

    Dr. Woo:
    I am deeply appreciative of the emails I have received with transcriptions of your recent
    addresses, first to department chairs etc. and then to parents. As I move into my
    second month of retirement from a long career in the ministry, I am drawn again to
    my roots at the University and to the kind of intellectual curiosity, as well as rigor, that
    it instilled in me. Now I find I crave contact with those who challenge this American
    culture when you describe as the replacement of common sense with ideology.
    I keep searching for a time in American political history which parallels this one so
    that I may have some sense of what it was that jarred us out of our consumption by
    ideology. Please keep up your fine effort to educate those young adults and, through
    you email, continue to educate us who remember our university educations with fondness.

    Kit Schooley

  5. Prakash Rao says:

    Excellent thoughts. I would also hope that the education of my children at UVA would include exercises in estimation and rough order of number thinking, thumbnail sketching of concepts and relationships and a broad and deep understanding of how to attack a complex issue with more than a skin-deep, inch long treatment that is warranted by a 30 second TV spot. These are the tools that will make the next political generation of America resurgent and powerful and effective and drown out the surface oriented culture that our generation has successfully promoted and reinforced! Nothing like a lot of healthy grass to crowd out the weeds….

    Prakash C. Rao

  6. Tyler Healey says:

    Dean Woo,

    You write: “Yet American politics has become curiously ideological. We can’t have debt—even though quantitatively, our debt almost equals our GDP. Government is the problem. Government is not the problem. Left out is what might be called the efficacy of the real, of common sense—an ethic of solving problems pragmatically.”

    I agree with you fully. Of course, we voted for our federal government that is currently in gridlock. Thanks to the Framers, though, we can change the composition of our government every two years.

  7. Robert E Scully, Jr. '76 says:

    Amen. Given increasing specialization in the work force and in the intellectual life of the academy, a solid liberal arts education is the foundation, the homestead, and the safe haven of the constantly challenged modern mind. I am pleased that you are leading the College my daughter Kathryn enters this year.

  8. Barney Grier, Parent says:

    Dean Woo,

    My wife and I are most fortunate to have our Third Year student at UVa and exposed to the scholars, such as you. What an opportunity for both students and parents to open their eyes and ears to thoughtful messages. Thanks for your contribution to scholarly stimulus.

    Barney Grier

  9. Clay Woody says:

    Although a good article, I fear that there was no common sense in delivering this address to the Class of 2015. It is just too “headie” and “academic” to connect with parents and brand students on a more practical level.

  10. Jack G Hardy, '52 says:

    Dr. Woo,
    Thanks for such a reassuring guidepost to academic thinking at Mr.Jefferson’s university. Common sense is without doubt the most difficult sense to find — but surely the most valuable. Your writing is a great gift.

  11. Ed Dunn says:

    Dr. Woo,

    I really liked your comments on Common Sense Education and they can apply to so many other areas in life. Being born in America and raised in the 1950’s, unfortunately we were taught “Bigger is better”. It is not until you retire and have time to reflect on what is really important in life do you understand the value of quality over quantity. We need to make quality the focus in all aspects of life, making quantity the focus has proven to be disastrous for our society.

    Keep up the good work.

    E. D. Dunn

  12. Curtis Tomlin, class of '70 says:

    Dr Woo:

    As we’ve learned to expect, another great article (and, no doubt, speech)! Common sense is not easily defined and we’ve just realized that our U.S. Legislative members have again failed to exercise any they may have brought with them to their elected posts. It would be a service to all Americans if you would forward a copy of your speech/article to each member of that body, but only if we were assured they would read it with comprehension.

    Thank you for your continued push for excellence in our University. We look forward to future articles from you with the same enriched “food for thought.”

    Curtis Tomlin, ’70

  13. Certainly my four undergraduate years at the College constituted a life-changing experience, and yes, I think common sense was one of the things I learned. I hope and believe you are doing all you can to preserve those quality courses that may not attract as many students as some others but that contribute disproportionately to the education of their students–education in the broad sense you describe.

    J. D. Hunley

  14. John Mahoney MD says:

    Dear Dr. Woo, Thank you for your thought provoking article. My oldest,UVA ’09, has recently decided to switch paths and try to become a Vetenarian. Unfortunately she has almost none of the science core curriculum needed and will spend the next 2+ years acquiring those classes. I only wish that her advisors at UVA had suggested aptitude testing during her undergraduate years as the career counseling service provided after her graduation. Her post-graduate journey included a stint with Teach for America, consideration of law school, and now a pursuit of her passion for animal life. I ask only that your advisors consider what are our children’s strengths and how can we perhaps mold these vessels into shapes that might resemble something valuable to students as well. I,too, firmly believe in the value of a diverse perspective in the educational process. Perhaps through this approach, we can say to these as yet unsure students as to which course of study they might pursue… “well, here’s what you are really good at”. I hope my youngest, UVA ’13, will be better prepared to answer what’s next?

  15. Achille says:

    Too “headie” and “academic”? That’s sort of the point of an academic institution. It’s for people who are eloquent and thoughtful. If you can’t understand what is being said, then you have no place in an academic setting. Plus, the address wasn’t primarily directed towards the students; it was primarily directed towards the parents of the students.

    It sounds like your definition of ‘common sense’ is ‘something that a common person can understand’. If that’s what you want, then go read addresses from Phoenix University ‘academics’…

  16. Jim Grogan, Coll, 66 says:

    I agree with Clay Woody. If it takes this many words to define, much less convey how the University will help her students achieve, maintain or improve “common sense”, I’m not sure there’s much hope for most of the students.

  17. James Linen says:

    Common sense derives from experience. Common sense would suggest government is the problem — precisely Mr. Jefferson’s position at our founding.

    Common sense also balances out the penchant by some for over-thinking the obvious.

  18. Bob Kraus says:

    This has been an intellectually interesting – but as one stated above, “headie”. The speech ignores the roots of what was much of the “common sense” of TJ and the other founding fathers … an understanding of history, history’s lessons – particularly as it applies to human nature, and the Bible. All had important lessons of life that are often dismissed – especially by the last couple generations.

  19. James Rouse '66 says:

    Dean Woo:
    Unlike other colleges and universities in the early 19th century, Mr. Jefferson founded an institution to impart “useful knowledge.” Common sense would seem to be the integument that encompasses the facts, skills, knowledge and intellectual maturity for a student. Your remarks are in that tradition, and I commend your astute and articulate characterization. I believe it was also Santayana who said those who ignore first-year calculus are condemned to repeat it.

    James Rouse Coll ’66

  20. leigh middleditch says:

    Dear Meredith: Another great article. All should be distributed widely to alumni, e.g., through the Alumni Association. Please write on the Honor System, i.e., “Integrity”. Best, Leigh (College 51; Law 57)

  21. Patrick Sweet, MD says:

    I disagree. The students that matriculate to U.Va. are generally well equipped to understand abstract thought. Indeed, I would be wholly dissappointed if Dean Woo’s address was so simplistic as to be unable to communicate the very essence of her theme. If there are some that were unable to comprehend during the speech, I would offer them the written transcript for further understanding — a practice that was utilized by Thos. Jefferson when he was the President of the U.S. for similar reasons.
    Best regards,
    Pat Sweet, MD
    CLAS 2001

  22. Brawner Cates says:

    Dr.Woo, Great address as usual. Would love to hear your thoughts regarding the explosion of technology and the digital age and what they have meant to this common sense value you and Santayana speak of. The world often seems to be moving so fast in the digital age that common sense is left way out in the cold. Brawner Cates BA 1967.

  23. J. Knox Morrison III says:

    My Dear Dean Woo:

    What a formidable amount of common sense went into your appointment as Dean! Starting with your very first post, I have become increasingly awed and impressed at your foresight, wisdom, leadership and, yes, common sense.

    In replying at last to these gems of wisdom, I am including both this one and the one you delivered to your faculty on leadership and middle age, both outstanding. Although turning 82 just yesterday, I still feel middle aged and able to contribute. Recently the book on naval history on which I collaborated and was chief researcher won the Admiral Samuel E. Morison award for best in 2010. So much for retirement!

    My love and respect for UVa has grown stronger and deeper in the last several years, especially given the University’s atmosphere in the late 1940′s and early ’50′s, my years of reference. The Honor System was based in a very fundamental way on common sense and respect and should remain that way. It is a constant beacon and goal for me since my first year. I agree with Mr. Middleditch above — your thoughts on the 21st century and the honor system would be most welcomed.

    In line with what Mr. Case states above about a fast moving world, we are in an age of accelerating information and intelligence, to paraphrase Ray Kurzweil and his thoughts on “singularity.” It is truly food for thought at this stage of scholarship, teaching, mentoring and learning. I am following it avidly.

    Actually, learning should never cease: common sense dictates this as well, nor should contributing as an alumni of UVa. In addition to your multitude of tasks, Dean Woo, you are uniquely gifted to assist the alumni to understand this. Please gather these essays/talks into a single volume, both on-line and printed, to ensure the widest distribution feasible.

    Thank you for loving our University as much as we do.

    Knox Morrison
    BA 1952 – NROTC Scholar

  24. B. Jones says:

    I agree with Clay. I was there. Sorry Dean Woo, but you showed no common sense in delivering a 20+ (seemed like an hour) minute lecture more suited for a Philosophy class then a back-to-school orientation kickoff assembly. Hearing this Professor/Dean with a heavy accent using words like “ineffable”, “orthodoxy”, “assiduous”, “cerebral ventricle”, … made me think I should be taking notes for a mid-term.

    And: “George Santayana, you may already know, was a Castilian aristocrat”. WOW!, I didn’t know that, you don’t say!

    At other parts of the orientation they talked a lot to the students about being aware of their surroundings. Here is one case where this distinguished person was clueless of her surroundings.

  25. Joseph D. Rudmin says:

    I would take Dean Woo at her word. Her denigration of the opinions “Government is the problem. Government is not the problem,” suggests that we should not be considering government involvement or interference at all. I find that attitude encouraging. I strongly support looking elsewhere than government for permissions, solutions and support, including financial support. Rather, UVa has the capability and resources to cultivate its own support structures, including innovations such as local currency. I mean that with all sincerity.

  26. Jamie Linen says:

    I do take Meredith at her word, which is why I’ve chosen to disagree with her, and this isn’t the first time, I don’t mind telling you.

    The second half of your post would seem to concur.

  27. Nancy Gilson '77 says:

    A wonderful, well-written article that makes a good case for the liberal arts education, which so many seem to question today.

  28. Peter Verdirame A&S '76 says:

    Interesting call, Dr. Woo, for common sense in academia. I would think that common sense would include addressing excessive faculty salaries. Take a look at what these U.Va. faculty members are paid, and ask if they would pull down such numbers in the private sector:

    Perhaps modern college professors are the present day equivalent of Castillian aristocrats, and as likely to become extinct.

  29. Jayant Khare says:

    Dear Dr. Woo,
    An excellent article. How about addressing issues that hinder the application of ‘Common Sense’ to everyday events at the college and life; as parents have limited influence at school.

  30. Laura Gesicki-Wood says:

    Dean Woo,

    Thank you for addressing this necessary issue. Finding educated individuals with common sense has been a significant struggle for my medical practice and many business owners with whom I acquaint in the Northern Virginia area. Students are so far removed from common sense due to constant memorization of useless information and other group think techniques in the primary and secondary school systems.

    I hope higher educating bodies such as UVA can stop the madness and save these kids.

    Laura Gesicki-Wood, M.D.