The Problem of Common Sense (Kumashiro)

Prior to reading Kevin Kumashiro’s article, the definition of common sense seemed, well… common sense. Self-evident. Hardly deserving of a definition, even. Isn’t common sense simply what everyone knows to be true? Moreover, doesn’t everyone know what common sense really is? The irony. These assumptions, as Kumashiro’s article demonstrates, is exactly why common sense can be so problematic: the term acts as a glib, and often harmful, deflection of close analysis and critique. Ironically, Kumashiro’s article valiantly offers the type of thoughtful critique of “common sense” that the term itself attempts to eschew: while the article positions the author’s early understanding of “common sense” as “facets of life” that “everyone should know” (Kumashiro XXIX), this definition is soon complicated by the revelation that these normalized facets of life are, in fact, contingent upon the unique social environments from which they stem.  Moreover, the deceptive everydayness of “common sense” knowledge, the article suggests, is often cemented through biased traditions constructed by, and favouring, privileged and politically influential classes of people. Kumashiro would remind us that knowledge is political, and the path knowledge takes to being deemed self-evident is a path often marred by a privileged class’ oppressive tendencies. (I am reminded, here, of the historical rise of public education during the industrial revolution: common schooling features such as bells and corporal punishment were normalized, with the intent of molding the working classes into ideal factory workers. Many of these industrial features are common in classrooms today, their very prevalence keeping them out of sight.)

Common sense, then, is not as inclusive as previously thought. It is not necessarily what “everyone should know,” but rather a constructed tradition of the normalized practices and beliefs of a dominant (and privileged) portion of society. At its worst, “common sense” is exclusionary by nature: the establishment of a set of norms and practices deemed self-evident in one culture has the potential to exclude norms and practices of other cultures, casting them off as “nonsensical” by comparison, when they are in fact perfectly ordinary in their own cultural setting. Kumashiro’s article thus offers teachers necessary perspective on fostering an inclusive learning environment. Furthermore, Kumashiro warns teachers to beware the bias of “common sense” as an obstruction to critical analysis. It is, after all, a teacher’s duty to equip students with the critical tools to analyze and critique the world in which they live.

In closing, I offer you this: the bias of “common sense” hides subjects worthy of critique from view like a white sheet hides a creepy antique puppet collection in your basement. “Why do you keep that creepy puppet collection there?” asks a friend. “It’s just always been there,” you reply, indignant in your embarrassment. You don’t disturb the puppet collection, you think, aghast: It’s common sense. Later, though, your friend’s innocent question prompts you to sell the antique puppets, which were always subtly creeping you out, and you are able to repurpose the basement space into a nice guest bedroom. Cool. What was once a space reserved and arranged for old relics becomes a welcoming room for real, living, present-day guests.

Your friend’s fresh eyes helped you make a positive change. Moreover, your friend was able to identify that creepy puppet collection probably because they didn’t have one in their own home. We should all welcome these fresh perspectives.

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2 thoughts on “The Problem of Common Sense (Kumashiro)

  1. I’m a bit at odds with the puppet analogy. It seems there’s an intended point, of course, but I don’t think the analogy demonstrates the point accurately. The thought occurs that perhaps the “common sense” in this scenario would be the friend’s notion that the puppets should not be present in the basement. When the main character of the tale sells the puppets, they are conforming to a view held by the wider society that those puppets are not natural. Yes, perhaps they are not natural as that person’s family before them would have assumed, but neither is not having the puppets there in the first place. Who in the scenario is supposed to have the oppressive role and who that of the oppressed? The family passed on their traditions to their offspring as most in fact would, and the society where the character resides was inhabited by people who thought the puppets creepy; too creepy to keep around. The puppets are not inherently creepy, but they certainly can be perceived that way or not by any person who finds them.
    Keep in mind when examining this subject that even the author of the article exclaims that their notion of common sense should not implore us to necessarily throw all of what could be common sense aside, but merely to examine what is considered common sense with a critical eye. This is to say that things should not be taken for granted as fact.
    Just something to consider.
    Your post was a good read. Thank you!

    Like

    1. Thanks for your comment, Friedrich! I was excited to have a comment attached to my post, especially one as thoughtful as yours. We chatted about your response to my post after Friday’s lecture, but I may have blathered a bit then, so I’ll cohere my thoughts in writing here. (More rambling ensues.)

      I admit my puppet narrative is convoluted, but I’m excited by the fact it elicited an interpretation (yours) differing from my authorial intent. As we discussed earlier, such is the power of narrative as an educational tool: it invites multiple perspectives. So I’d like to thank you for sharing yours. I’ll also awkwardly cheers storytelling in general (however clumsy), for being a platform and catalyst for discussion. Cheers, storytelling. (That felt weird. Will still probably make the final edit, though.)

      I’ll end this post by further addressing narrative as an educational tool, but before that, I’ll start by clarifying my own authorial intent when I wrote the story (a perspective that is but one of many valid narrative interpretations).

      What I originally considered worth celebrating in this story is this: 1) the friend’s open, vocal inquisitiveness, which brings the puppets to light, 2) the owner’s ability to overcome his reactionary defensiveness to assess his position on the puppets, once they’re brought into his critical gaze, and 3) the narrator’s ability to accept his friend’s questioning as an opportunity to consider making a change (i.e. repurpose the puppet-space into a nifty guest room; I’m imagining flowers, sunlight, a nice throw rug).

      To clarify, the narrative was not intended (whatever that’s worth) to suggest “we should throw all common sense aside,” nor did I read Kumashiro’s article as indicating such. I agree wholeheartedly with you that the article merely advocates for “examining what is considered common sense with a critical eye.” And while my interpretation of the narrative condones this critical analysis of common sense, its primary focus was acknowledging that common sense bias must first be identified before it can be critiqued. Moreover, my interpretation of the narrative has the story positioning openness, inquisitives, and the welcoming of outside perspectives as means of identifying common sense bias. So I don’t read the friend in the story, as you did, as a conforming member of a puppet-averse society, but as a more neutral figure: simply as the alternate perspective needed to steer the puppet owner’s critical eye towards what previously escaped his critical observation. Within the narrative, the puppets are invisible to the owner: “they’ve always been there,” and have become so commonplace taking up space in the basement that the owner no longer questions their purpose – or why they’re there in the first place; it thus takes an inquisitive friend, who isn’t habituated to the presence of basement puppets, to question them and draw them to the owner’s attention and consideration. The puppets, at first unmentionable in their invisibility, become identified as an object for discussion and reevaluation, and this, I think, is positive, even if the puppets aren’t, as you point out, inherently bad. (I hope to foster a classroom, for instance, where such inquisitiveness is encouraged, especially the questioning of longstanding tradition. I hope not to convey, though, that all tradition is bad, and if I conveyed that in my story, I’ve erred.)

      The above is my own interpretation of my own narrative, and it’s cool to note that it’s quite different from yours. I think one place our interpretations may have diverged is on the point of symbolism: your interpretation possibly reads the puppets as literal, whereas my interpretation reads the puppets as quasi-symbolic.

      I invite you, for instance, to read the puppets as the symbolic embodiment of common sense bias: their longstanding, unquestioned place in the home has normalized their presence, and the sheet that veils them, moreover, physically embodies the puppet’s invisibility to the owner’s critical gaze.

      Reading the puppets as symbol also opens up some interesting avenues for further analysis, I think, and invites still more interpretations. For instance, I would like to point out that at the time I wrote the narrative, I was thinking generally about certain facets of current education practices still lingering from their inception in the industrial revolution: bells, desks in rows…. (see my early reference to these in the first paragraph of my article response). While I was writing this narrative, then, the puppets loosely doubled (for me, anyway) as vestiges of colonial educational practices, features normalized to the point of becoming “common sense.” With this in mind, I thought that hiding the puppets underneath a literal veil of whiteness was maybe an interesting choice. Yet another interesting exercise could be to read the puppets as representing confederate monuments.

      https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/04/the-stubborn-persistence-of-confederate-monuments/479751/)

      (^ Can’t figure out how to hyperlink in a comment.)

      Whereas you, I think (and I could be misrepresenting you here!), read the puppets as puppets, the product of a family’s cultural uniqueness, a very cool and valid interpretation, I was in part reading the puppets as a symbol for lingering aspects of a colonial culture. This probably wasn’t clearly conveyed, but I suggest any weakness in the narrative may have been due to vagueness, and not my misunderstanding of Kumashiro’s article.

      And yet, I might also suggest that the vagueness of the story is also, in some ways, a strength. Regardless of how you read the puppets, acknowledging them as symbol repositions the narrative away from a single “intended point,” and instead lends it a malleability that invites its use as a platform for discussion and analysis, of multiple subjects. I suggest that even though I began writing my story with an intended point, which I outlined above, perhaps the story’s real use is not didacticism, but its ability to adapt itself to the making of yet more points, and prompt more discussion in the process. Importing outside frameworks to the story, for example your inclination to label one party as oppressive and the other as oppressed, or establishing the puppets as an heirloom, the product of family uniqueness, while not a inherent to the story, does lead to even more interesting avenues for analysis and discussion. More discussion, after all, means the voicing of more alternative perspectives, which means more opportunities to question our own common sense biases; our dusty puppet collections become unveiled, and only then can we judiciously decide what to do with them.

      Whether or not my story “demonstrates the [original] point accurately,” I’m excited that it has endured (for a week, at least) as a platform for discussion. Even now, less than a week removed from my writing it, your thoughtful response has me ruminating once again on the story’s symbolism in ways I couldn’t possibly have foreseen. I wonder if making my story more didactic, or “clearer,” would have diminished its ability to hold such multiple interpretations? Would it diminish its use as a platform for discussion?

      Thanks again for continuing the discussion, Friedrich! You make fantastic points, and I look forward to more exchanges.

      Like

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