Saturday, June 18, 2011

The lost practice of teaching common sense


My brother Ted served 17 years in the Air Force, getting an early retirement in 1995 at the rank of Master Sergeant (E7). For a couple of those years, he earned extra money teaching at a local college, where he’d earned his bachelor’s in engineering.

One day, he was running through the breakdown of a complex formula and its application. At the end of it, he saw the students were puzzled … so he ran through it again in a slightly different way. Yet the students’ confusion still reigned. One student said, “We understand how the formula works, sir … but how do you know to apply it there?

Ted replied, “Practice.” And suddenly he remembered struggling with advanced algebra and calculus in high school, asking the same question of his teachers — and thinking the answer was no help at all.

If you’re a parent, this may have happened to you already; if not, I promise it will: In the midst of remonstrating with your child, you will hear yourself repeat verbatim the same thing your mother or father said to you on a similar occasion (“If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it?”). If you’re not a parent, you may still find yourself repeating as an adult things your parents told you when you thought you weren’t listening … and finally realizing how true they are. Like the time at work when, in discussing annual reviews, I had to find an HR-appropriate way to tell others what my father once told me: “One ‘aw s***’ will wipe out ten ‘attaboys’.”


How I’d love to have the game film of my childhood! I’d go through all eighteen years of it with a notebook, stopping wherever I saw my parents trying to drum some common sense into my ivory skull and sedulously recording every such pearl of wisdom, like Dr. Tom Osborne breaking down the Oklahoma Sooners’ plays before sending in the Nebraska Cornhuskers against them.

Of course, Jews and Christians have a ready supply of common-sense sayings available to them in the wisdom books of the Old Testament: Proverbs, the Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach. I’ve often thought that a person who took nothing else of Scripture seriously ought yet to read these three books as if he were memorizing the periodic table of elements.

The beauty of a maxim is its distillation of the wisdom of experience into an easily-remembered and easily repeated phrase. This clarity found its best application in World War II, when the need for security became encoded in phrases like “A slip of the lip can sink a ship”, and factory management could keep production of war materiel high with the reminder that “The man who relaxes is helping the Axis”.

Let’s look at Hamlet, Act One Scene Three:

Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man ….
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Polonius is often demeaned as a toady to Claudius who thinks himself much more insightful than he is, and I don’t dispute that judgment. Yet “these few precepts” he gives to Laertes are of such sterling truth that at least two of the sentence (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be” and “To thine own self be true”) were traded back and forth by people who only knew the name of Shakespeare.

Victor Sheymov, a KGB officer who defected to the US in 1980 (and now owns a cyber security company), mused in his autobiography that after many years of building on practical education and growing more sophisticated, eventually a person comes back to reflect on the principles he learned as a beginner. So it is with old saws and platitudes: as we become more educated and sophisticated, we dismiss them as “tired” and “cliché”, only to discover as we grow older and more experienced that truisms really are true, that what we once ignored as narrow and unimaginative was fundamental and necessary.

Those of us of an older generation learned our times tables by rote; the generation ahead of mine learned Catholicism by repetition of the answers from the Baltimore Catechism. While I’m far from suggesting we teach everything by repetition, the simplest concepts memorized by repetition stay with us the longest, so there’s still a valid use for such a teaching technique.

In fact, that technique is the basis of oral tradition. More disturbingly, it’s precisely the technique embedded in teaching and spreading the lies, half-truths and deceptions of the culture of death: Keep it simple; keep it catchy and imaginative; and just bombard people with it over and over again until they absorb it and can repeat it without conscious effort.

If, as a culture, we’ve lost our senses, it’s because we forgot how we were taught common sense. It’s not only Saint Thomas Aquinas who needs to reappear in our classrooms; we also need to resurrect Sirach, Aesop and the copybook of adages, proverbs and maxims.

We need to stop sneering at folk wisdom, and rediscover how wise it is.