As pervasive as it is perilous, the recurrent use of two words — "real world" — crystallizes many problems confronting the academy today.
The term gestures toward all spheres beyond the so-called ivory tower; an advertisement in the New York City subways lauded the "real world" experience of teaching in the New York Police Academy. But often this expression more specifically refers to the world of business. When it simply serves as shorthand to distinguish those realms from the university, the reference may be innocuous. And yes, professors and academic administrators indubitably benefit from learning from and collaborating with their counterparts outside those proverbial ivy-covered walls. As a faculty representative, I worked closely with the trustees of Carleton College on a presidential search; these interactions repeatedly demonstrated to me their shrewdness in evaluating people and the practical needs of any organization, thus dissipating lingering prejudices about the business world and reminding me that its variety complicates generalizations about it.
More often, though, contrasting the "real world" outside the academy with its putatively unreal counterpart within is pernicious for three interlocking reasons. First, the two words in question often frequently reflect and encourage self-denigration, even abnegation. Many people outside the academy regard its denizens in the way nuns are sometimes dismissively seen -- as exemplars of a life that in theory one may respect but in practice one greets with bemused condescension. Academics themselves sometimes on occasion refer to the "real world" because they have internalized such judgments. The strategic use of those two words in influential studies of higher education can reinforce these prejudices and insecurities. Thus Louis Menand’s Marketplace of Ideas tellingly defends pre-professional and vocational courses, in contrast to the traditionally defined liberal arts curriculum, in terms of their fulfilling "real-world goals."
Second, by implying that alternative values are unrealistic — indeed, naive -- these two words are likely to justify the increasing importation of certain troubled and troubling "real world" business practices. This shift has been tellingly encapsulated as the recent corporatization of the university, notably in Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. The lamentable reliance on adjuncts is all too reminiscent of the emphasis on outsourcing in the business world. It is equally dangerous uncritically to copy hierarchies prevalent though not universal in business communities, as the trustees at the University of Virginia learned to their cost. Higher education’s star system went to school on Wall Street (and quite possibly in Hollywood as well). And "scorecards" that rate universities by the amount of money their graduates make after graduation similarly impose the worst values of the corporate milieu.
Third, distinguishing the "real world" of business from the unreal world of the academy misrepresents for better and for worse the longstanding workings of our institutions of higher education themselves. The very term "real" is clearly slippery ("reality TV"? "The Real Housewives of Orange Country"?); but many connotations — not all of them grounds for rejoicing-- do in fact already apply to the academy. To the extent that the adjective gestures toward the competition among ambitious people, many academics and leaders of their institutions not only read books about those issues but also, so to speak, wrote the book on them. The frequent references to “branding” within the academy demonstrate that marketing executives could teach certain admissions officers and other administrators nothing they have not long known about the half-truths that practice can foster.
But in fact the university is also a world committed to, indeed exemplary of, the "real" in more positive respects. Arguably our attention to using language carefully — teaching writing is surely a significant part of the mission of institutions of higher education — in fact encourages conveying a real picture, expressing what one really intends to say. Our emphasis on critical thinking, notably the marshaling of evidence, trains students to distinguish the real from the specious and self-serving. Alternatively, even if one subscribes to the poststructuralist credo that language can never express reality, we can still encourage those students to discern and distinguish positions along a spectrum between reality and deceit. In so doing, we achieve one goal central to a liberal arts education: building the very faculty of discernment — a capacity that, besides its many other potentialities, can and should encourage a re-evaluation of the expression "real world."
Heather Dubrow is the John D. Boyd SJ Chair in the Poetic Imagination at Fordham University. Among her publications are six single-authored monographs, a co-edited collection of essays, an edition of As You Like It, and a volume of her own poetry.