The “Real World” Never Comes, Yet Has Always Been Here

by Igor Ristić

I’ve been in America since the fourth grade and have noticed a disconcerting, albeit not purposely malicious, pattern since then. In those days of elementary school, our teachers were preparing us for the “real world” of middle school. In middle school, things would not be so easy, they said. Teachers would not be so nice and more work would be expected. They were trying to inspire us through fear.

Once we got to middle school, the so-called “real world” did not actually come. Instead, everybody started to prepare us for the real, “real world” of high school. In high school, they would say, the teachers would take no bull and things would be harder. We would need to work even harder in high school than we ever worked in middle school. We were thus prepared to finally enter the actual “real world” of high school. Except…

High school teachers, high school organizations, and everything else about high school (the school I went to, at least) seemed to be focused on preparing us for the real, real, “real world” of life after high school. We were given the impression that the conversations and learning going on within the high school classroom were significant primarily because they would prepare us for the “real world”; for college-level classes or for the workforce.

The real world was one step away, once again.

I cannot speak for those who started to work after high school, but I can speak for my experiences as someone who went to college right after. College would certainly change the pattern, and would finally introduce us to the “real world” that we have been warned about for so long, right?

Nope.

My experiences being involved in numerous college organizations, earning a bachelor’s degree, and now finishing up a master’s degree have shown me that the “real world” is apparently not here either. If college was indeed the “real world”, our professors and advisors would not spend so much time talking about the real, real, real, “real world” that we would finally enter after college. In my classes I constantly heard about the “real world implications” of whatever we were learning and I admit, I have shared such implications and thoughts with my students as well now that I have started teaching. So college seems not to be the real world either. Rather, it continues to prepare us for this illusive reality that has been promised for so long.

Hold on a minute, though. Something about this picture doesn’t seem right.

I just finished applying for PhD programs and might end up doing a few more years of college, and then might end up working at a university for a portion of my career. Does this mean I am doomed to never enter the “real world”?

Has my whole life been a waste of time, have I lived in a fictional, meaning-less world since 1997 and will I do so until I retire? Am I Keanu Reeves from the Matrix???!?

“The Real World” Never Comes, Yet Has Always Been Here

Of course, the answer to the above questions is no. I have not been living in a fictional world, but have instead had an amazing array of real experiences in the world of academia over the past fourteen years. When stepping through my elementary, middle, high school, and college classroom doors, I have never stepped through a sci-fi-esque force field that has moved me from the “real world” to a “fake world”.

Thus the revelation, the “light bulb” moment: I have been in the real world this whole time.

Everything I have learned inside every classroom throughout my life has influenced my real thinking, my real actions, and my real perspectives on life in some way. What happens in the classroom is in no way “fake”, it is as real as reality can be. The hours and hours I have spent learning have made me the person that I am today, and I think it is wrong to imply that my time in educational institutions has somehow been “fake” by referring to the “next step” as more real than the current step. I realize that when those who teach us refer to the “real world”, they are doing so because they want to inspire us and they want to encourage us. As I said above, I am not accusing our teachers or school administrators of any malicious intent. However, I now believe that by telling students that the “real world” will come after we are out of elementary, middle, high school, and/or college, we are sending the message that what goes on in the classroom is somehow false, somehow not important, somehow “fake”.

I have been thinking about this in one form or another for a while, but I became inspired to share with the world when I read a chapter from Critical Communication Pedagogy (2007) by Communication scholars Deanna Fossett and the late John Warren the other day. They passionately state that:

The world of the classroom is not a false world, but rather a microcosm of all the worlds we know, intersecting and interlocking in metonymic relationship to one another. This is to say, any attempt to cast the classroom as a false world ignores the classroom as a site of violence, tension, social justice, and change” (p. 62).

They go on to describe how we learn not only specific skills and knowledge in the classroom that will change the way we see and engage with ourselves and with other people of the world forever, but also how the personal experiences we have while in school shape us in a very real way. They ask a few questions of those who consider the classroom as not part of the “real world”:

Was your life on hold? Your ‘real life’ on ‘time-out’ so you could be in school? We all want to achieve our educational goals, and sometimes that causes us to feel like we’re waiting for our ‘real lives’ to begin. But, are all those friends you made in school ‘false friends’? Is what you learned useless, without value? Were you never embarrassed, called out, frightened, harassed, abused, celebrated, challenged, loved? Did you only study, all the time, forsaking relationships with partners or children or parents? Did time stop? In school, each of us found love and lost it, made and ended relationships, felt the ever-present squeezing of our time and resources in the face of state legislation, found vision and power and lost it…time and again, saw our families grow and watched loved ones die……We are always already living our lives, whether we realize it or not (p. 62).

There are many pedagogical issues in the United States that have resulted in a (bluntly speaking) horrible educational infrastructure, putting the USA embarrassingly low on worldwide academic rankings. The causes for this problem are many, but one of the unspoken about issues might be our entire philosophy on education. Being the capitalistic nation that we are, a trend seems to have developed in which schools are seen as factories to produce labor (blue-collar and white-collar), labor which will in turn be able to keep the major capitalistic corporations and conglomerates from withering away into oblivion. Our focus on labor seems to have resulted in our consistent “real world” rhetoric; and this rhetoric has flown over to the classrooms so much that educational institutions feel a need to share “real world” implications with the students.

By telling our students that the learning going on inside classrooms is significant only because it will have some sort of abstract influence during an undefined point in our “real world” future, we are sending the message that what goes on in the classroom at the present moment, what is going on now, is somehow “fake” and unimportant. Thus, we are giving the students an excuse to consider their time in school as a waste. If students see school as a waste of time, they will not invest fully into it, will not learn, and will become adults who will not think critically and thus will not be able to change the educational system or to compete with people form around the world when they grow up.

“I can’t wait to enter the real world”, they might state, while being dangerously ignorant to the real world  going on inside their classroom.

I believe that, as a small step to improving the education in this country,  this “real world” rhetoric has to end, and that we must begin to accurately portray the classroom to be as “real” as the environment outside of the classroom. I will start to do this in the classes I teach. If students realize that the classroom is, indeed, the “real world” in which their lives are defined, I believe they will be more likely to invest time in school and to  succeed in their futures.

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