Living in the Real World: An Academic Interlude?

There is no scarcity of folks asking what many think to be a provocative question, namely, are universities preparing students for the "real world"? I think it important to reflect on this question and on the way that the way the framing of this "problem" gives rise to some (un) intended consequences that betray an unwillingness to examine some of our most basic assumptions.

Consider MTV's success with the show Real World. Having surpassed its 20th year and 30th Season MTV's Real World exemplifies what is being fundamentally overlooked in regards to the value of a university education. It is hard to deny that in its inception, namely, early 90s, the show tried to tackle some serious problems, e.g., abortion, capital punishment, racism, sexism, AIDS, etc. Although somewhat simplistic there was a sense that these young folks were grappling with some fundamental human concerns even as they were inclined to pettiness, frivolity, superficiality, and contrived drama. Much like the rest of us.

Like most reality shows, however, MTV's Real World, gradually, and perhaps unintentionally, highlighted melodrama over any kind of substance, gratuitous sexuality and sexual references over existential conversations regarding love, etc. Yet it continued and continues with a number of spin-off series added on. Is this the same "real world" critics of higher education refer to when they ask their provocative question, namely, are universities preparing students for the "real world"?

My guess is they would say resoundingly "NO." The "real world" they are referring to is much less dramatic and certainly much less prone to frivolity. It is, they might argue, the world Charles Dickens evaluates in Hard Times. Consider the opening lines of Hard Times:

'NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!'

While Dickens duly complicates matters illustrating the human condition in all its nakedness, we are being asked, as educators, to spare students the richness, the complexity, the variety, and the overall funk of life. After all, some argue it isn't clear that exposing students to the messiness of life is in line with the purpose of education. And, given recent conversations about trigger warnings, one might make someone uncomfortable unless one sticks to the facts. A university education after all, must prepare students for the "real world," namely, the world of industry and commerce. What else is there to life? Love? No. Death? No. Sorrow? No. Joy? No. Beauty? No. Virtue? No. Wisdom? No. Friendship? No. Business partners. Yes.

The claim here isn't that instrumental justifications, e.g., better paying jobs, saleable professional skills, higher scores on graduate and professional admissions exams, and so on, are completely wrong; but in so far as education is defended primarily in terms of enhanced practical outcomes, advocates and defenders fail to articulate one of the most important justifications, namely, being disposed to the practice of reflecting on, discussing, and evaluating the question of what sort of lives we should live. Put differently, there is little doubt that skill development and content acquisition will take place and ought to take place in a university setting. But if that is all there is, we certainly don't need universities.

Studio art classes, for example, aren't simply about skill development and teaching students the techniques in drawing or printmaking or sculpture; they are also about teaching students how to see the grandeur and beauty of the world enabling students develop their aesthetic sensibilities and, importantly, creating conditions that will enable students to find and create new ways of expressing what they see. A community of peers, not always like-minded, and a community of scholars, scholars who come to appreciate and investigate the world in quite varied terms, will enable the intellectual, emotional, social and emotional growth of students and each one of us. The community, then, is essential to our overall formation.

Every educator's basic hope is that students will come to realize through their exposure to a university community that life is quite complex and attempting to live a life fully requires one to engage in unimagined ways with the world and those who inhabit it. That living a fully human life means thinking significantly beyond economic concerns even when we recognize that they have a rightful place in our thinking and acting. That living fully means putting yourself in situations that might appear frightening and discomforting. That aspiring to be excellent means exposing yourself to the possibility of failure. That being educated doesn't mean going to school and earning a degree; it means developing intellectually, socio-emotionally, morally and, for some, spiritually. (A parenthetical remark is in order: one need not go to school to be educated. One need go to school to be credentialed. Yet university communities enable, if students so choose, one to be educated among colleagues and peers that, presumably, aspire to develop personally and professionally.)

Yet in the so-called "real world," a fictive world if there ever was one, everything seems to be measured by or in relation to economic metrics. It is a world where saying you are going to pursue the study of music and pursue it with passion because of your love of it, might get you institutionalized; it is a world where students cannot but ask how every facet of every activity or experience or class will help them land a job.

The so-called "real world" is a world, apparently, where students will need to think almost exclusively about making money not making a life.

They will need to be single-minded and one-dimensional at a fundamental level. They need to embrace the narrowness of being homo-economicus. Yes, we may ask them to work in groups and even ask them to take some humanities courses but this is all with an eye to ensuring they are increasing their earning potential. Importantly, people in this "real world" don't seem to cry, don't seem to die, don't seem to struggle with life issues like depression, divorce, dysfunctional home lives, dying grandparents, or debilitating illness.

So, if one believes, following Martha Nussbaum, that educated citizens should aspire to be self-aware, capable of respecting the humanity of others, able to comprehend and negotiate their relationship to a larger world, and be prepared to live a life of civic responsibility, then we should be creating conditions that enable people to develop civic responsibility, moral maturity, intellectual acumen, and a compassionate imagination in ways that are consistent with this view.

This doesn't and shouldn't mean that all students will come to think the same. In fact, they ought not if we are doing are jobs right.

All said, one might wonder whether universities, ironically, aren't the very places where people get an opportunity to experience the "real world"; where students have a genuine opportunity to encounter the real world before trekking off into the fictive world set up by investment bankers and financial speculators, a world dominated by concerns related exclusively to industry and commerce and whose valuations however speculative and fictive are measured in dollars and "sense."

It seems, ironically, that once students leave university life, they become quite prone to living one-dimensionally, and therefore not fully, especially if they haven't taken their "education" seriously.

So, with Matchbox 20, I would simply conclude by saying, "I wish the
real world would just stop hassling me."