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A seal that reads "Welcome to the Real World."

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One of my greatest pet peeves—as an educator, academic and human being—is the myth that life on a college campus is not “the real world.”

And yet, this myth lies at the center of all the challenges facing colleges and universities today.

As a historian, I recognize that this perceived tension between what happens at institutions of higher education and what happens beyond their walls has existed for as long as methods and systems of education themselves.

I also understand that change takes time. And context matters.

In the context of 2023, it is time for a change. It is time for faculty members—and for all the administrators and campus leaders out there committed to the value of the intellectual mission of higher education—to embrace our existence in the “real world.”

During my recent term as the director of a new major at my university, I regularly found myself in conversations with a variety of constituents about how important it is to train college students for work in the “real world.”

Sometimes my conversation partners were trying to persuade me and my colleagues that a 21st-century approach to college education required letting “real-world” practitioners teach classes to make sure that our students could be prepared to get jobs when they graduated. Often, they were arguing that in order to attract students and satisfy employers, our new courses needed to focus on “real-world” skills—as opposed to, say, traditional humanities subjects.

This argument is one that students often embrace, as indicated by a recent Inside Higher Ed story that shows up on Google with the title “To fight student disengagement, real-world projects can help.” According to the article, in response to Wiley’s State of the Student 2022 survey, a “whopping 81 percent of students … said that it’s important or very important for institutions to incorporate company-led projects to mimic real-world work.”

It is also an underlying theme of Nathan Heller’s provocative New Yorker article, “The End of the English Major,” whose dire conclusions based on the frustratingly limited evidence of two large, high-profile research universities sent academic Twitter in an uproar.

And a quick Google search for “real-world work college” reveals that many colleges and universities have, themselves, embraced the distinction between college and the “real world” on their websites in an effort to attract students and ease anxieties about the value of a college education.

But this notion that an institution of higher education is somehow something other than the real world, combined with the idea that the driving purpose of these institutions is to prepare students for that separate “real world,” is at the heart of the very tangled web of challenges that are facing colleges and universities—and wearing down faculty and staff—today.

The fundamental problem with this notion is that it is premised on the assumption that the world of business (even more than any other professional world students might one day hope to join) is real, while the world of higher education is flimsy, ethereal or simply useless.

This myth has become more problematic than ever now, when so many people who are not trained as educators—industry leaders and politicians—are claiming the right to determine the purpose of universities and what we teach.

But such threats have power partly because of the ways that colleges and universities—and the faculty and staff they employ—have, ourselves, bought into the real-world myth.

By not rejecting this myth that the world outside of higher ed is somehow more concrete and economically productive than what happens on our campuses, we undercut our own expertise as teachers and educators and allow others to assert authority in and over our classrooms. Instead, we should be highlighting the problems created in the corporate and political worlds when leaders lack teachers’ skills of provoking thoughtful exchange, productive collaboration and transformative reflection.

By not rejecting this myth, we disregard the fact that we work in complicated organizations staffed by many different employees with myriad responsibilities for keeping the whole thing running. Colleges and universities have all the “real-world” challenges of any organization, from managing financial resources and hiring, onboarding and retaining employees to navigating complicated personnel issues.

If we think of ourselves as working in a world separate from these “real-world” realities, we ourselves become obstacles to repairing dysfunction in our work environments or modeling fully professional interactions for our students. We stand in the way of successful diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. We contribute to the weakening of the tenure system and the exploitation of contingent faculty.

By not rejecting this myth, we allow our students to avoid holding themselves accountable for their own roles in their education and growth. To see learning as something that should happen only in the ways most comfortable to them. To consider attending class optional. Even to believe that passing grades and a diploma are the only things of value that they will take from their college experience.

In 2023, there is no single definition of a college student. Residential or off campus; full-time or part-time; 18 to 22 or any other age; parents or not; holding full-time jobs or not; public or private. All of these different experiences and identities shape the real world of college.

And no matter which of these categories applies to any given student, they are all living in some part of our very complicated, highly diverse real world. Even at the smallest campuses that may still take pride in existing as a “bubble,” there is no such thing as complete disconnection from the rest of the world in the age of the internet and social media.

Similarly, the lives of faculty members, administrators and staff are far more complicated than the myth. Even before the pandemic, greater diversity, dual-career couples, the growth of contingent faculty employment—for decades now, changing dynamics such as these have ensured that faculty and staff in higher ed have their own complicated lives mired in real-world concerns and responsibilities that shape how they interact with their places of employment.

We cannot reconcile these realities of 2023 with an outdated myth of separation from the real world. But by explicitly embracing and articulating the fact that life on college and university campuses is, inherently, an aspect of the real world, we can begin to solve some of the many challenges we are facing.

By embracing teaching as necessary and useful expertise for the real world, faculty and staff can meet outside professionals on equal footing. While an outside practitioner may have specific skills or experiences to share with students, faculty members and other higher ed professionals are the ones with the expertise to help students process that new information and think about the ways that it is—and isn’t—useful to them.

By embracing the practicalities of our own roles within our institutions of higher education, faculty and staff can own the broader value of our professional skills more assertively. Even more important than inviting in outside experts is having faculty and staff who are willing to entertain discussions with students about their own professional experiences and who can help students to see their campus context as a place filled with real-world issues and opportunities.

And beyond student experiences, the many challenges of running academic departments and administrative offices as collegial, diverse and productive workplaces with responsible hiring practices cannot be addressed effectively unless we acknowledge that these issues are firmly grounded in the real world.

Finally, by embracing the reality that a college campus is the real world, we create opportunities for thinking creatively about how experiences and issues beyond the classroom shape how we and our students engage material and exchange ideas inside the classroom—and how we can encourage students to carry classroom discussion with them into all the other parts of their day. We learn to talk with students about how the habits of mind and action they create for themselves as students will carry them through their lives after college.

It is time to set aside the myth. College is the real world. Anyone who tells us differently is trying to sell us something that is only making our problems worse.

Karen E. Spierling is professor of history, past director of the global commerce program and inaugural John and Heath Faraci Endowed Professor at Denison University, in Ohio.

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