Is “common sense” better than a Ph.D.?

Fri, 20 May 2016 Source: Kwarteng, Francis

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”


Prof. Ernest Aryeetey, the Vice-President of the University of Ghana, gave an interview on Radio Univers’ Campus Exclusive during which he reportedly made the following statement:

“Common sense mostly…Common sense and courage…that is all. A Ph.D. is always important but common sense is the most important. You need enough common sense to assess what the student is telling you. You need enough common sense to go into an academic board meeting and debate issues. You need enough common sense to deal with politicians…”


Is Prof. Aryeetey actually implying that an established academic like him needs “common sense” beyond his acquired advanced degree, a doctorate, before he can deal with politicians?

On the other hand if the presumed response is in the affirmative, then surely he may have sold out his “rational” intellect and “common sense” to the presumed “superior” intelligence of the politician!

This should not have been the case as the political animal does not possess a “superior” intelligence, recalling also that politicians essentially see themselves as “gods” whose power of vision, analytic penetration, and intelligence surpass mortal intelligence.

In effect, politicians see themselves as primarily invincible, immortal, omniscient, infallible, smart, and superhuman!

Why is “common sense” absent in the character of most of our politicians?

And why does the electorate continue to vote for these characters with no “common sense” every four or eight years?

Could it be that the electorate lacks “common sense” since the politician comes from the same society as the electorate?

And if so, what does this say of Prof. Aryeetey himself if he is a registered voter and actually votes every four or eight years?

Far from everything else, could it also be that those with “common sense” are in the minority but hardly find their way to the seats and corridors of real political power?

Yet, many of those with doctorates in the country carry themselves as “gods” much like the politician as though an advanced degree automatically makes one an omniscient “god.”

And yet again, even those Ghanaian Ph.D.-holders with some “common sense”—like Prof. Aryeetey—eventually tend to lose it [the latter] once they become politicians in the country.

This may be why Ghana with all its cream of Ph.D.-holders—those in the academy and those without, especially those in politics—cannot bring anything of consequence to the national table.

We might as remember when Charles Wereko-Brobby reportedly made the following remarks some years back:

“At the age of twenty five, I had acquired my Ph.D so I hardly listen to foolish people that have done nothing to their lives when talking…For those out there who talk a lot about me, I don’t give them any attention because they have done nothing with their lives. If you should ask them if they are able to buy food for themselves on a daily basis, they can’t give a definite answer.”

While this may not necessarily be a correct imputative interpretation, it is still quite possible that the “foolish people” in Wereko-Brobby’s statements are “non-Ph.D.” persons, his critics.

This is a typical statement from a typical Ghanaian who holds an advanced degree—a typical Ghanaian who holds himself above the ordinary crowd thinking that, somehow, an advanced degree automatically says to him/her that he/she belongs in the realm of the all-knowing “gods.”

Of course, an advanced degree or any level of degree for that matter does not necessarily primes the holder for the paralyzing challenges of life.

Again, this is not to blatantly discredit education or acquiring a degree, an advanced one for that matter.

And yet there are also those who have achieved so much for themselves, their families and communities and the world at large but who attribute these successes to others—former professors, parents, communities, friends, other thinkers before them, deities, etc.—and not necessarily to their degrees whether advanced or not.

These are the kind of men and women who do not either carry or advertise the Ph.D. title around their necks.

Even so degrees can be bought anyway, which happens all the time.

And there are certainly those schools of thought that essentially believe that students do not “earn” but are rather “awarded” their academic degrees for the most part.

What this latter statement actually means is a highly debatable question!

The point here is that, there are just too many influential movers of the world and industries who do not even have degrees, not to talk of advanced degrees.

TED.com has featured a number of these non-advanced-degree-holding geniuses.

In the main, degrees help the world in many important ways but they are not the only requirements for success, however one defines success.

All these important diversions are not necessarily beside the point, however.

Otherwise, well, we certainly do not know what Prof. Aryeetey was apparently driving at, and what he actually meant by “common sense”?

But his views on “common sense” tended to assume so much for the popular phrase and for his listeners, from the point of view of folk etymology, not to talk of the folk etymology of the phrase itself?

But how “common” is that “sense” Prof. Aryeetey talked about?

Let us just say, we might want to add, that it is widely held among some, that, Voltaire, a French Enlightenment philosopher, writer and historian, owned the literally patent for the proverbial refrain— “common sense is not so common”?

And Ralph Waldo Emerson put it out there that “common sense is as rare as genius.”

Nollywood actress Beverly Osu says "common sense is rare to Nigerians.” And she too is a Nigerian just like her parents, grandparents, siblings…

If “common sense” is not common then it is relative, not rigidly absolute.

This also implies another possibility of its being uniquely identifiable—and we could also add that it might even be identified—with the psychosocial character of individuation—fundamentally.

In other words the conceptual elasticity of the folk etymology of “common sense” in the Ghanaian context, even as we choose this limited geopolitical cultural context for the sake of analytic simplicity, affords each individual a unique purposeful sense, awareness or perception of that individual’s internal wealth of psycho-emotional tools and logistics which he or she can deploy against as well as help him or her negotiate the paralyzing complexities, challenges and vicissitudes of life.

Thus, our highly speculative understanding of “common sense” in this particular questionable context also points to another claim of the concept, “common sense,” being one of the basic units of human psychobiologic makeup.

This is not to push the threshold of our wobbly speculation into the esoteric realm of scientific realism and rationalism.

Rather, it is to imply that “common sense” may play some role in meeting biological needs for survival, for instance.

So far, so good—we will surely guess. On the other hand there is probable cause for us to make another wild claim, that “conscience” or “instinctive knowledge” may also overlap with “common sense,” if what Prof. Aryeetey says here is correct—or likely correct:

“In common sense, you are guided by knowing the difference between right and wrong, the difference between good and bad. You have that sense to it. There’s nothing that you’ll need to worry about.”

Nuance is everywhere.

Evidently there seems to a religious connation to these statements, but we will not push this line of thinking to its breaking point because there also does not appear to be sufficient internal evidence to support it—the point of religious connotation.

But, what also appears to defeat Prof. Aryeetey’s underlying assumptions is, the larger question of cultural relativism.

Simply, then, and to cite just one example to explain this phenomenon, what may be “good” under Sharia Laws in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan may be “bad” under Ghanaian or American laws.

And possibly—vice versa.

And there are also personal or individual differences in what constitutes “good” and “bad” based on the variables of education, political ideology and philosophy, age and maturity, social class, sex or gender, upbringing, culture, belief systems (religion), race and ethnicity, mental or psychological health, environment…

The point of mentioning education—particularly—is to suggest the role that education may play in the development of “common sense” and to distinguish between or demonstrate the nuances and subtleties characterizing the “academic” component/basis of “common sense” and the “traditional” component/basis of “common sense.”

In other words education expands one’s horizon for better or for worse.

The important point is probably that, one may not need a Ph.D. in order to have a “common sense.”

A certain level of basic education, formal and informal, and an acute awareness of the self, of the other self—that is, otherism—and of one’s and the other self’s environment(s) and how one may adeptly control, manage, and manipulate these variables to underwrite one’s and other’s biological needs for survival, to provide a conducive environment for the nurturing of human relations, and to ensure that humanism defines social, political and economic relations as prerequisites for improving the human condition are, perhaps, all that matters.

Immediately Kwame Nkrumah’s “African Personality” and Nelson Mandela’s and Desmond Tutu’s ubuntu come to mind.

Of course, there are many Ph.D.-holders today and yesteryear who could not have survived the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, Jim Crowism, and Apartheid, yet ordinary folks with lesser education did because they may have applied themselves to “common sense” in a way “book smarts” may have failed those Ph.D.-holders.

This is where we may have to part company with Prof. Aryeetey’s condescending elitism—he needs to get off his high horse and ivory tower—when he said “you need enough common sense to assess what the student is saying.”

First of all, and perhaps also, Prof. Aryeetey did not see the subtle relationship between studentship and professorship/lectureship. Again, just maybe, it did cross his mind that a professor or lecturer is also a “student” in an informal or technical sense.

A serious professor or lecturer studies or consults, even relies upon, others’ works—“scientific” or peer-reviewed papers, textbooks, podcast and video lectures, and so on—to prepare to prepare class notes for his or her students. In other words, a professor or lecturer cannot know everything and must rely on others and their expertise to make up for his or her own intellectual weaknesses or lapses.

This is just “common sense.”

Directly or indirectly, the “spatial” authors of the different informational media are teaching these professors or lecturers. That is, both the professor/lecture and the student are in relationship as students.

Here, Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy is of utmost importance to our theory as it tries to undo the “dictatorial” or “formal” relationship of unequal dichotomy between the teacher and the student—but this is a topic for another day.

Whish also implies that the student needs “enough common sense to assess what the professor is saying.”

It is basically a two-way affair, in other words.

We shall return with the concluding part (Part 2). Stay tuned!


Modernghana. “‘Common Sense’ Is Better Than A Ph.D.-Legon Vice-Chancellor.” May 15, 2016.

Ghanaweb. “Common Sense Is Rare To Nigerians—Actress.” February 27, 2016.

Ghanaweb. “I Have No Time For Fools—Wereko-Brobby.” July 13, 2016.

Columnist: Kwarteng, Francis