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Sunday Reflections: Common Sense isn’t Really all that Common

Occasionally you will hear someone say that a person – let’s say Joe – has a lot of book smarts but not a lot of common sense. The idea is that they’ve read a lot of books but they don’t have a lot of real life knowledge. I would argue that common sense isn’t all that common – and that it often comes from books as much as it comes from “real life experience”.


I’ve been thinking about this a lot because of President-Elect Donald Trump. You see, he has both mentioned that he doesn’t read a lot (See: Donald Trump doesn’t read much ; Donald Trump doesn’t read books ; Donald Trump doesn’t read, and that’s not even the scary part) and that he will govern by “common sense”. It’s as if he is saying that there is both no value in reading – which is patently false – and as if he is demeaning education, literacy, and well, intellect. Which is dangerous. At the same time, he has just appointed Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, unfortunately DeVos doesn’t support the public education system and has never seen the inside of a public school (she and her children attended private school). Which doubles down on this message. And the truth is, we should all be concerned about this.

Let me explain to you the value of reading. Not just nonfiction, but fiction. All reading. Yes, we get facts and important information from reading nonfiction, but anything you read has value. Yes, even fairy magic rainbow puppy horse books.

Many parents think of fiction reading as just an exercise in vocabulary, but the truth is fiction reading is more than this. Here is a short and incomplete list of what readers learn when they read fiction:

Cause and effect

Problem solving

How to be a good friend

How to be a good citizen

How to be a good mother/father/son/daughter/family member

What it is like for people from different faiths/countries/backgrounds/etc.


How people manipulate power

Politics, both national and global

What it is like for victims of crime





What we often think of as common sense are in fact things we have learned. Some of it we learn from experience, like not touching a hot stove, but a lot of it we also learn from reading. In fact, I would argue, readers have both much more knowledge and common sense because they have just been exposed to more. I’ve learned not only from my own experiences, but by walking in the shoes of others in the pages of a book. I personally don’t know what it is like to have tried to integrate schools, but I know more about it because I read The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine. I don’t know what it was like to be a female pilot in World War II, but I have a better understanding because I have read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Both of these books also helped me explore the concept of true friendship and compassion.

One of the things I valued in President Obama is his love of books. He was photographed going to book stores and we all looked to see what books he was buying. He talked about books. He told kids to read more and value reading. He, as a mentor and model to children, modeled a love of books first hand to the people that he was leading. He didn’t just entrust someone to lead education and step away, he engaged and HE MODELED A LOVE OF READING to the kids whose education he was now in charge of. This is a really important trait. Kids develop a love of reading when they see people in positions of power modeling reading. This is why teachers and librarians tell parents, make sure your kids see you reading.

There are a million and one reasons why I am concerned about the words and actions of the president-elect, but one of them is this perceived animosity and dismissal of the power of and importance of reading. I am a librarian after all. But I also know that what adults – what people say and do when they are in positions of power – can affect the overall climate and culture, this is also true of reading. And reading is an important part of education and citizenship. In fact, it’s an important part of humaning if you ask me. (Yes, humaning is not really a word).

Common sense isn’t all that different than book smarts – and it’s not all that common. And yes, they both matter. But you know what helps – reading.

So to our new President-Elect I would ask, please consider the ways in which you talk about reading and think of the children. Be an example to them and read. Your amazing new librarian at the Library of Congress, Carla Hayden, could probably make some good recommendations!


  1. In what I hope is not related news, the state of Michigan has declared their stance that literacy is not a fundamental right: http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/education/2016/11/20/state-says-literacy-right-detroit/94193032/

    • Karen Jensen, TLT Karen Jensen, TLT says:

      Wait, what? What a horrible and dangerous stance. Why do we not want our population to be educated? Why do we not understand that we’re going to keep needing innovation, doctors, lawyers, etc.? This is such disturbing news.

  2. This is completely tangential to your point about the anti-intellectual culture that’s been developing or the power of books. But thinking about the “s/he’s got a lot of book learning, but no common sense!” bugs me for other reasons as well. It seems like it’s often aimed at people that, if you take a step back, are probably non-neurotypical in some way. “Gee, he’s got a college degree, but he can’t remember to pay the bills on time/leaves water to boil dry/struggles to make ‘simple’ decisions – where’s his common sense?!” It’s normalizing the idea that everyone should be thinking and acting in the same way (the ‘common’ part of common sense).

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