Conventional Wisdom


December 20, 2013 by The Editor

think againConsider the phrase ‘conventional wisdom.’ It’s that phrase easily tossed into discussions to smooth over the rough edges of an argument. It is supposed to be an anodyne expression, a way to show commonality – a way of addressing something without really addressing it at all. What does it really mean?

Conventional wisdom is the term used to describe those ideas that are commonly accepted by the general public, as well as scholars, politicians, and other community leaders. Though widely held, these ideas, the ‘conventional wisdom,’ are largely unexamined. Conventional wisdom is ‘assumed wisdom.’ It is assumed to be a benign expression of facts – an unsought consensus that is obvious to anyone.

But conventional wisdom is not a fixed measure. Circumstances arise that challenge conventional wisdom causing attitudes to shift, sometimes giving rise to a new ‘conventional wisdom.’ And, sometimes, conventional wisdom is just wrong. Sometimes what is said to be obvious to ‘everyone’ is not obvious ‘unanimously’ as the term suggests.

In fact, conventional wisdom is all too often wrong. On it’s face, it can seem like a positive way for a community to operate. It seems like a progressive way of understanding your environment. But what happens when the facts get in the way?

What does it mean when conventional wisdom effectively marginalizes people?

What is at stake if conventional wisdom states that a minority group no longer actually exists or once visible cultural expressions are no longer relevant?

For example, conventional wisdom has said that in the past few decades in the Great Lakes region, on the American side of the Lakes at least, French Canadian culture has all but died out.  The relatively few scholarly studies of French Canadian culture in Michigan have largely accepted this at face value. Their conclusions have been based on the disappearance of certain cultural forms that apparently are significant indicators of a living culture, such as media, religion, and political viability.

Conventional wisdom has also revealed that historically metis communities that originated in the Pays d’en Haut do not constitute a genuine metis culture. This viewpoint is confirmed for scholars by the lack of ‘endogamy’ (the practice of marrying within your own group), not descending from the ‘right’ fur trader communities, and failing to engage in cultural behaviors that ‘conventional wisdom’ might say indicate cultural continuity with the genuine article in western Canada.

Instead of acting as a liaison to actual wisdom, ‘conventional wisdom’ serves as an intellectual snare. It is a way out for those who do not want pursue a detail that may unravel their thoughts. It leads to the internalization of negative ideas that are presented as truth. Conventional wisdom is a guilty party, dispossessing the marginalized of their own voice. It is, in the end, the ‘conventional wisdom’ only of the dominant paradigm. Or more simply put, another way of saying ‘history is written by the victors.’


2 thoughts on “Conventional Wisdom

  1. Randy Miller says:

    French history is alive in Michigan. When I teach of the french heritage, you see the light in there faces. They are proud, and love to talk of the people of the past. Both native and french enjoy telling the stories. It must be kept alive in families and educational venues.

    • James says:

      Thank you Randy – I’m glad to hear from a teacher. What types of people do you work with – it sounds like you might not be working with children. Happy New Year!

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