The Jolly Librarian Considers Common Sense

When I graduated with my Ph.D., there were congratulations and well wishes all around. I even received some very nice presents.

At first I was just so relieved to be done, I barely noticed some of the comments that started coming my way. But soon, I couldn’t ignore them. Mostly they went something like this:

Colleague 1: Well, that administrator wants to do something stupid.

Colleague 2: What can you expect? People with doctorates have no common sense.

At this point, one of them would say to me: “You’re one of the exceptions.” But I always had the feeling that was only said because I was present.

The assumption was people with doctorates were too often theoretical or research-based in their conclusions and had no practical knowledge. And practical knowledge always wins out in the battle for truth.

There may be two logical problems here: one, associating common sense with practical knowledge, and, two,  assuming that common sense is always right.

I was reminded of this last week when my boss referred her direct reports to a report entitled Time Is the Enemy. For years, those of us who advise community college students counseled them to take it slowly, perhaps just one or two courses at a time. The common sense behind such a recommendation was sound. After all, many of our students had spouses and children as well as full-time jobs. “Focus on one or two classes at a time,” we told them. “Don’t take on too much.” Our graduation rates were fairly dismal, and we looked for ways to improve our student success. But it never occurred to us to doubt that piece of commonsensical wisdom: be a part-time student.

But looking at the information culled from years and numerous colleges, we have to admit that this was wrong advice. The numbers clearly show that full-time students are more likely to complete a college degree. And this makes sense as well: Most of us can find a will and a way when there is clear deadline ahead of us. A spouse can agree to take on the kids’ after-school activities. A boss may be willing to be flexible for a year. But the longer the attempt drags on, the more likely other things will come up and interrupt the process.

One problem with the common sense argument is that it can be too easily confused with our personal prejudices. Plus, by labeling something so, we’re often not willing to put it to the test to see if it’s actually true or not.

Yes, I do have a doctorate, and, no, I don’t rate high on the common sense scale. But to be fair, I wasn’t high on it before I went to graduate school (or kindergarten). And I may be lucky because it means I’m always willing to test it against the facts. We all should be.




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