The Myth of College as a Fairy Tale

The idea that students live in a low-stress, light-work bubble, waiting to enter the "real world," is a lie, writes Justin D. Martin.


September 23, 2011

I was in college and graduate school for nearly ten years, and in that time I must’ve had 1,000 different people tell me, “Wait until you graduate and go out in the real world,” or “Graduating next year, huh? You’ll finally be in the real world.” And every time I heard such stupidity I wanted to slam a pie in the speaker’s face. Even toward the end of my Ph.D. program, when I was working 70 hours a week and earning $20,000 a year, an occasional nitwit would say something like, “Well the party’s almost over; time for the real world.”

The collegiate fairy tale myth supposes that I spoiled myself in early adulthood by avoiding “work” and going to college. Presumptuous garbage. Like my students today, I had in college an enormous and time-sensitive workload, social pressures, empty pockets, and little sense of physical continuity. Any psychiatrist will tell you that moving domiciles is one of the most stressful life events that humans experience, and yet we make college students move around like carnies, in and out of dorm rooms, and perhaps urging them to relocate to off-campus housing as upperclassmen. On September 13, the fraternity house of Pi Kappa Alpha at the University of Maine, where I teach, was condemned and 22 students were tossed out. My, how lucky they are to know nothing of real-world pressure!

College years are exciting and liberating, certainly, but they are also a time of myriad deadlines, limited self-efficacy, and a tightrope of time management. I met a college student a few years ago wearing a shirt popular among his classmates that read: “The University of Chicago: Where Fun Goes to Die.” While I doubt this elite institution resembles the Gulag, I did believe the young man when he told me that University of Chicago students are worked like dogs.

Not as a college student, but rather now, as a professor, I’m living the dream. I make a fair wage, have strong benefits, and get over three months a year to work almost exclusively on my own research projects. I wear jeans to the office and shave only when I’m bored. I feel no shred of guilt for such freedom; I didn’t start earning a livable wage until I was almost 30, and the creative flexibility of the professor’s life is what I toiled a decade for. I still work very hard, but I’m paid for it now, and the professional stress I feel is not at the unsustainable decibel that nagged me as an undergraduate.

Nostalgia is a sexy elixir, and it often blurs our recollection of distress as opposed to eustress. Eustress represents life pressures that motivate us and are pro-social, like a manageable work deadline or the tug on our conscience to exercise a few times a week. Distress is harmful pressure that causes us to lose sleep, eat or fast in unhealthy patterns, or exhibit short tempers. When many middle-agers compare their current lives with their college years, they do so while remembering their youthful distress as eustress, and by mislabeling many of their current positive pressures as atypical distress.

The stereotypes that college years are marked by experimentation with substances and sexual precocity do bear some truth, and these pleasures are what many Americans care to remember about their time in the academy, but the idea that college is a low-stress, light-work period is a damn lie.

Young Americans don’t go to college to avoid work. They work hard in college so they have a shot at earning a modestly rewarding living. Unfortunately for these young aspirants, they’re slogging toward a labor market that older generations of Americans have sullied. Rather than insulting college students by suggesting that they don’t know what hard work is, older Americans might instead consider apologizing for the pathetic employment market staring down graduates in this country.

The students I teach are professional jugglers who make a Cirque du Soleil show look like a barn dance. Among them they’re balancing academic course loads, community service, part-time or even full-time jobs, loan debt, athletic training and competition, transient housing situations, along with some of life’s other gems like a sick parent, a sibling in Afghanistan, or an unplanned pregnancy.

One of the primary reasons educated Americans are such successful professionals is that the college years are hard. “The real world” isn’t so daunting to college graduates because they’ve already spent four or five years in it. The deadlines they face are very real, and I know this because I rigidly impose some of them, and my students know that the word “dead” is in deadline for a reason. I don’t go easy on my students, but I also don’t belittle the loads they carry. College students in the U.S. are impressive people, and their hard work should be praised, not demeaned.


Justin D. Martin is the CLAS-Honors Preceptor of Journalism at the University of Maine and a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin


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