Articles and Excerpts

Modern common sense

Introduction

In the past, Americans relied on common sense to pass judgment on what they’d heard, read or watched, and openly credited common sense as the basis for deciding what to do. Today, we are being told that common sense is not enough. Modern society is much too complex; our ever-expanding knowledge is increasingly specialized. Issues are far too complicated; only nuanced deep thinkers can see the subtleties. It’s better to leave the analysis of events and decision-making to the experts and put common sense aside.

America is a huge country with a highly diversified population. For decades, the social sciences have been constructing academic tools to decipher societal complexity and improve our understanding. Surely, social scientific approaches can supplement or even replace homespun common sense as a means for conducting assessments or making policy decisions.

Regrettably, this has not proven to be the case. The social sciences have saturated our schools and the media with a kind of mindless oversimplification of America. Unintentionally, they have created a paradigm that is more an impediment to thinking than an aid to enlightenment. They have fostered various narratives of conventional wisdom that have caused confusion, bred misunderstanding and created divisive politics.

I think that Americans need to reconsider the paradigm. This book is meant to be a guide. It breaks down today’s America into some of its component parts and puts them in perspective. The chapters are intended to give Americans a more realistic sense of themselves and their country.

The first three chapters reexamine your fellow Americans: the people, their values and their diversity. Chapter one puts the population in perspective: how many Americans there are in a way that makes the large number tangible. Then, it examines the work that they do: the career fields, professions and types of employment. Chapter two takes a fresh look at American values and reveals how they have evolved to become a set of beliefs that Americans generally hold in common. Chapter three addresses the country’s diversity. Not the buzz-word term that is bandied about, but rather a bird’s eye view of the diversity found in communities across the country.

The fourth chapter is ambitious and unconventional. In “The American Intellect,” it describes how Americans think. The relatively new fields of behavioral economics and analysis of expert judgment have shown that the decisions which people make may be the result of honest, open thinking, biased or faulty thinking, or, in some cases, with no real thinking at all. Yet, individuals make decisions convinced that they have appropriately thought things through. Most people rely on common sense, either unconsciously or deliberately. But a sizeable number of Americans have been educated to think beyond common sense. In the course of completing a college degree, they develop different approaches to thinking that influence the way they evaluate the world around them, affects the beliefs they adopt and influences the decisions they make.

The next three chapters comprise what I call “The American Portrayal:” how is America and how are Americans described and defined, and by whom. America is portrayed in elementary and secondary schools, on college campuses, and in the dominant media, including print, broadcast and entertainment. These institutions share common characteristics that play a significant role in crafting the portrayal. The number of people who control the institutions is a small, and in some instances, minuscule number. They are cloistered in settings that are essentially estranged from those where most Americans live and work. And the few people in charge are similarly college educated and mostly think alike.

On a daily basis, what Americans think about things is background noise that may slowly influence economic markets and the culture over time. But on Election Day, what they think decides a political contest. It is the rare day when how Americans think results in one person being elected to office for two, four or six years. Two chapters look at elections from different vantage points: the parties and the voters. It discusses how the political parties define themselves and seek to divide Americans to garner their votes.

This analysis of modern America is meant to illuminate and educate, not to suggest new policies. That said, in a way, it points to an indirect solution: a more informed, aware and independent-thinking electorate. A few words of motivation to become a savvier consumer of information and a more engaged voter are offered in conclusion