No Escaping the Real World

Ask a group of traditional college students – late teens and early twenties in age, seeking the baccalaureate and living in a residential hall/dormitory – what higher education is preparing them for and they will shout out the response in unison: “The Real World!” They are not talking about MTV, either. Their belief that the real world follows life in college is a trope that I hear again and again, in and about higher academia. High school students thinking about college, parents and faculty, too, will reference the “real world” as somehow just beyond the campus gates and on the horizon.

My instincts are that the construction emerged in the distant past when faculty and staff wrestled with balky, unfocused students. It reminds one of the way parents construct arguments, weaving together promises and threats to elicit attention from a young one. “Just you wait until your father – or mother gets home” or some form of “That’s fine for now, but later it just won’t cut it.” Usually uttered in the midst of some mild fit of pique, it grounds the present as a rehearsal for the future, a yet unnamed important performance when meaningful judgments will be made.

Like the ivory tower, another metaphor that we could do without, the idea that college is not part of the real world is destructive on many levels. The aims of higher education are neither abstract nor metaphysical. They are grounded in knowledge – its creation and dissemination – and institutions of higher education across the board are committed to the success of their students in their institutions and beyond. To pretend that the “real world” is somehow absent from academia is infantilizing to all concerned.

Students have to recognize that their behavior and their choices have been evaluated long before they entered higher education. Not only will evaluation continue throughout college, the digital record is always permanent. There are no sanctuaries free from the burden of consequences. Facebook may be forever.

As for faculty, imagining the disappearance of a “real world” outside the quad is more difficult and fraught with challenges. Without an external “real world” the importance of what happens in classrooms increases greatly. It freights academic and pedagogical interactions with much greater meaning. It is far easier and more comfortable to create an alternative reality within the quad. This alter-reality, an academic simulacrum, proposes a re-ordering of values and the rules of the market. It is very difficult to maintain when one is engaged in the rich tapestry of the world.

In Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche wrote that “the “apparent” world is the only one: the “true” world is merely added by a lie.” All of us in higher education can live without the lie. We know better. Higher education is not a rehearsal and learning is not preparation. Learning is learning. And all of us live in but one world.

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