University isn’t the real world?

This English professor begs to differ

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Is this the real world? (kevin dooley/Flickr)

Is this the real world? (kevin dooley/Flickr)

Google “university” and “real world” and you’ll see what you probably already know: to most people, they are very different things.

It’s amazing to me how often and how easily this anti-intellectual smear is repeated in the media, and even by universities themselves—as in this piece from my own alma mater, the University of Waterloo. The implication is that, at best, education is an ethereal paradise where no one has challenges or stresses or the difficulties that one encounters in actual reality. Or, worse, that education is a waste of time—because nothing you learned in that cushy little classroom means anything out here where things get real.

Anyone who has ever been in university—or at least has been and has tried to be successful there—can attest to the falsehood of this notion. University life is full of both hard work and stress. It is very real. Deadlines are numerous and hard to change. Evaluation is rigorous and frequent and comes not just from one supervisor but by numerous instructors, and a whole new set of them the following year.

Worse than that, though, is the implication that learning about the world and one’s place in it is unimportant if not absolutely inconsequential because it is not real. Why would anyone care about what is fake or illusory? But why should the experience of, say, literature be less real than the experience of a marketing strategy meeting for your company’s new mobile device? In fact, in important ways, the things dealt with at university are often far more lasting and important than the transient things of everyday life.

Shakespeare will be here long after tomorrow’s electronic gadget has become obsolete.

Worst of all, though, is that bad as it is to consider learning inherently fake, it’s even worse to think about what is supposedly “real.”

Typically the “real” in real world means the world of work, of earning money, of accruing capital. The implication is that money is what is really real and everything else is a prelude to or a poor imitation of that ideal.

Of course the world of education may be different from the world of commerce in some ways. And that’s fine. But there’s an ugly and unwarranted value judgement inherent in calling just one of these the “real” world.

It’s time for that term to become obsolete.