Imagination more valuable than common sense

As an undergraduate at Michigan State forty years ago, I took German literature with a professor who is probably the main reason why I am a German professor.

Dr. Schild introduced me to great writers like Georg Büchner, Heinrich von Kleist, Ingeborg Bachmann and especially Franz Kafka. He taught me that one value of literature is that it shows the limits of common sense.

In the United States, mainstream culture is pragmatic and common sense is admired as the way most people see things, as the way reasonable people think and act and the way thought and action are justified by shared experience.

So why would anyone want to go beyond common sense? Shouldn’t we return to it and get away from abstractions, ideologies and sophistry?

Isn’t common sense “real world” sense? And doesn’t it know that college, where thinking and talking are more important than doing, is not the “real world”?

It is common sense to prefer the reality of things we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands to the reality of words and ideas, which is complicated, warped and twisted by scientists and intellectuals who have causes and agendas other than the plain truth.

After all, we read of studies upon studies that either tell us what we already know or are contradicted by other studies. Or they fly in the face of common sense.

It is common sense to believe that a college education serves the students, taxpayers and employers best when it produces a particular skill that leads to a particular job. Common sense holds that liberal arts waste students’ time and tuition dollars.

But in January 2014, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and the Association of American Colleges and Universities released a study that shows that in their peak earning years [age 56-60], people who had undergraduate majors in the humanities and social sciences earn an average of about $2000 more per year than people with undergraduate majors in professional or pre-professional fields.

Why is this so? The liberal arts train us to find and evaluate information, to communicate in spoken and written words and to think: broadly applicable skills. Liberal arts educate the imagination.

Common sense is poor in imagination. It states how things are and how they ought to be.

But imagination explores how things could be.

Imagination requires hypothesizing, empirical study and more hypothesizing. It requires time and patience and tolerance of ambiguity [the topic of my column of 03/02/2015].

“Common sense” has its own agenda: it tries to convince us that there is one true, disinterested way of looking at things.

To get back to German literature and the limits of common sense: in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor Samsa, a man with a good job, wakes up to find he’s been changed into some kind of insect. In “The Trial” [also written by Kafka], Joseph K. is arrested one morning, but he does not know why.

Gregor and K. are amazed that the world turns out to be so strange, so nonsensical. They know how things ought to be and so they try to fight their predicaments with common sense. Where does it get them?

Spoiler alert: nowhere

or worse.

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