The Educated, The Literate and The Common Sense Man

The Common Sense Man

Educated Illiterate! That’s what my mum called the people who frustrated her, people who were obviously able to read and write, but clearly stupid in her eyes. She was entitled to her freedom of speech and I made no judgment of her or of those people. It was Singapore in the 1970s. The ideas of education and literacy were catching on while intelligence was being defined and redefined.  Anyway, I was too young to even know what an “educated illiterate” was.

Literacy. The dictionary defines this as the ability to read and write. If we think about reading as the ability to convert symbols and visual shapes to audible sounds, and writing as the reverse process, then it is possible for a person to be literate in English and illiterate in Chinese, or for a computer literate to be a music illiterate. In other words, it is fair to say that everyone is literate in some ways and illiterate in many ways, and it is wise to consider a person who claims to know everything deluded, arrogant and dangerous.

Education is the process of receiving or giving systematic instructions.  By this definition, the Chinese butcher at our market who had received many years of systematic instructions in the art of cutting meat and learning the meat trade, should be considered an educated person. And since he didn’t read or write English, it would be fair to describe him as educated, but illiterate in English, but no, we were in the 70s and the devaluation of education in a trade or craft had begun.  The good natured Chinese butcher accepted his fate with a smile and labelled himself boh tak chek (roughly translated as uneducated).  He also ensured that his children didn’t follow his footsteps. Protesters of national initiatives that favoured the British form of education were considered troublesome citizens, and the Chinese butcher didn’t want to cause trouble during those turbulent times. He knew what was going on because he read the Chinese newspapers and discussed politics with the other boh tak chek stallowners beside him, activities which didn’t quite match self-declared uneduated folks. And he certainly knew his math because he could measure out meat on the weighing scale and was very good at counting money!

Intelligence is the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.  This is tricky because the idea of intelligence has been sliced and spliced in many ways, starting with Intelligence Quotient, then Emotional Intelligence, and quickly followed by Multiple Intelligence. With the broadened definitions of intelligence, we should expect less unintelligent people in society, and stupid people should be almost extinct. I suppose that’s the reason why people take offence at being called stupid.

Who then is a stupid person?  He is one showing a lack of intelligence or common sense, a person who is dazed and unable to think clearly, one who lacks sound judgement in practical matters.  I didn’t define that, the dictionary did.  In this generation where pursuing education and literacy is the default and being a student is considered an occupation, not much has been discussed about how students can develop sound judgment and gain common sense.  This isn’t anyone’s fault.  How can common sense can be taught if stupidity cannot be discussed, especially with those who need it the most – the stupid people?

Whether educated or not, literate or not, intelligent or not, a person can be stupid by simply lacking common sense.  Until we come up with a non-offensive word to describe very bright people who need to turn on the light yet refuse to learn to change a light bulb, there is really no room for an honest discussion about true education and true intelligence.

In the meantime, while we pursue education, literacy and work on raising the intelligence of our children, let’s not forget to engage them in conversation about common sense and its antithesis, stupidity.  Talk about the bus driver and the gardener, and the things they need to know in order to be competent at their jobs.  Discuss how an individual pedestrian lacking common sense can do something stupid and endanger the lives of other people. You’ll be surprised at how much laugh you can get out of your children’s observations of the happenings around them.  It is during these moments when you show your interest in their thoughts, that they would be interested in yours too…. making them the best time for you to impart wisdom and common sense.

Happy Parenting!

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