In Praise of Common Sense

The intelligentsia asking what’s wrong with America is part of the problem.


By Jack Cashill


 

One of nature’s great underestimated virtues is common sense—the ability to see the world as it really exists and act on what you see. The beauty of common sense is that you don’t need rich parents or a Ph.D. or a fancy resume to have it.

In my experience, in fact, all those credentials seem to work against it. In some professions common sense is more critical than in others, police work being high among them. Coming from a family of cops—father, uncle, multiple cousins—I have often found it refreshing to get their take on things. They can’t afford illusions about human nature.

In their world, as recent events have proven, a lapse in common sense can come at a very high price to cop and perp. In general, the greater the consequences of a screw-up in a given line of work, the more likely a practitioner is to possess common sense. Doctors, nurses, firefighters, engineers, farmers, architects, entrepreneurs, and construction workers are, in general, high on the common-sense spectrum.

Although I have met more than a few notable exceptions—in fact, I am married to one—university professors, bureaucrats, and “journalists” tend to be rather low on the spectrum. University professors, of course, have always been a little bit daft. In the past, however, we wrote them off as “absent-minded,” or, as Jerry Lewis would have it, “nutty.” I yearn for those days.

Today, their malaise is not so benign. Bureaucrats have not changed since Jesus lumped “publicans” and “harlots” together in the heavenly queue. A publican, for the record, collected taxes for the Romans. I think I read that even then bureaucrats had good pensions and could not be fired no matter how badly they screwed up, but I forget which Bible verse that was.

For journalists, the fall from common sense has been precipitous, and there is a reason why. A couple of generations ago, journalists were regular people. They lived and worked among the people they wrote about. Most of them didn’t graduate from journalism school. Some of them didn’t graduate from high school.

Hell, the best local reporter in my tenure here, J. J. Maloney, did all his academic work, such as it was, at the Missouri Training School for Boys in Boonville. He did not go there voluntarily. At 15, after multiple escape attempts, Maloney graduated to the Algoa Correctional Center, located on “No More Victims Road” in Jefferson City. After nearly three years at Algoa, Maloney was accepted by the U.S. Army—from which he promptly went AWOL. At 19, needing money while on the lam, Maloney murdered a shopkeeper. He got four life sentences for this murder and three other armed robberies. He started writing as something of an exit strategy.

The Star’s legendary book review editor, Thorpe Menn, took Maloney under his wing and helped get him paroled after 13 years . Maloney’s reporting on the KC mob’s brutal takeover of the River Quay was perhaps the best and easily the bravest reporting the newspaper has done in anyone’s memory. I spent some time with Maloney while he was still with The Star. If awareness is essential to common sense, Maloney had it in spades.

Although we met in some dive bar in mid-afternoon, Maloney was visibly aware of his surroundings. It came with the beat. Maloney had been out of prison for several years by that time, but he had zero social graces. The simple etiquette that most of us learn at home, he didn’t. His childhood was straight out of Dickens. In the school of hard knocks, however, he took a crash course in Common Sense 101. It was a survival skill.

Not so for today’s journalists. Too many go from their soft, off-the-shelf suburban high schools to J-school to be educated by professors who have spent way too much time drinking the same unfortunate brand of Kool-Aid. Upon graduation, these aspiring Bob Woodwards end up more like Brian Williams—bland, generic, dishonest when need be, and as devoid of common sense as last year’s Darwin Awards winners. I wish I could be more charitable.

Maybe there are some exceptions, but I no longer watch news on TV or read it in newspapers. I know much more than the ”professional” journalists do, and they refuse to know what I know. On the bottom rung of the common-sense spectrum, of course, are college students. They have had a lock on that position since the founding of the University of Bologna in 1088. It is no coincidence that “baloney” is a direct derivative of “bologna.”

Once upon a time in the days before COVID-19—January, if I remember right—I was at dinner with a group of about 20 crotchety people at various stages of senescence. They were complaining, as older people tend to do, about the muddleheadedness of today’s youth. To put things in perspective, I did a quick survey, asking them to name the first person they voted for in a presidential election. More than half of them voted for someone who today makes them shudder. Indeed, they would be horrified if their kids voted for that candidate’s contemporary equivalent today.

Kids have always been stupid. People will typically not have even a shred of common sense until they have a family, a home, and a mortgage. This is why cities in which most residents live in apartments tend to be low on the common-sense spectrum. San Francisco comes to mind.

So does New York, or what’s left of it. Greater Kansas City, as recent events have also shown, tends to be high on the spectrum. We were wrong about some key consequences of COVID-19, but never deranged. On the more recent crisis—here is hoping events don’t betray me—Mayor Quinton Lucas and the KCPD scored high on the spectrum. Hats off to them all—especially the cops.

About the author

Jack Cashill is Ingram's Senior Editor and has been affiliated with the magazine for more than 30 years. He can be reached at jackcashill@yahoo.com. The views expressed in this column are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ingram's Magazine.

One response to “In Praise of Common Sense”

  1. Dennis Boone says:

    Jack, I read your recent article “In Praise of Common Sense” and I was amused by your insight on the topic. I too have noted that some of the most highly educated people tend to be low on the scale of common sense, while many with lower education seem to have an abundance of this highly prized commodity. I have always found it interesting that people can be very intelligent, yet lack common sense and make foolish mistakes over and over. I was a “stupid kid” like those you mentioned in your article, and didn’t begin to gain any shred of common sense until I got married and started a family many years ago. Fortunately, once I began raising kids, I realized the need for wisdom and began to value the company of a few older gentlemen who ended up becoming my mentors. Many years have passed and a couple of my mentors have as well, but some time ago, I began to realize that a change had occurred in me and I was no longer the stupid kid that made foolish mistakes. I regularly make decisions these days based upon the many valuable lessons learned from the “old guys” over the years. Common sense seems to lead to wisdom, or maybe it’s the other way around. Anyway, today my thinning hair is mostly gray, and I have found myself in the role of the “old guy” trying to impart common sense and wisdom to a younger generation. Some receive it well, and others just smile as they go on about their business.
    Sometimes I wonder if the shortage of common sense these days is due to the lack of desire for wisdom on the part of our young people, or the lack of desire on the part of our older generation to spend time mentoring young people. It’s probably a little of both, I suppose, but nonetheless, I’ll keep trying to pass along the little bits of common sense that a few “old guys” passed along to me over the years.

    Gary Stanger,
    Stanger Industries
    Kansas City, Mo.

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