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.