On the Real World

John Snider

From time to time we hear phrases that reveal the depth of our ignorance, that reveal our unmasked selves, and that reveal our eagerness to scurry to the safest corners of the globe. Around our colleges and universities we hear the curious phrase, "the real world." This expression is often delivered with a sneer by a faculty member in business or technology contemptuous and fearful of any more esoteric learning. Their contempt grows out of their confidence that their field of study will make money. The expression "the real world" is always invoked as an admonition or even a threat as when a student complains, "I won't need to know this in the real world." Or when instructors chide their students, "They won't put-up with this type of work in the real world." The real world, the world of making money and business, is the higher and permanent reality toward which all university or college activity is directed. This real world of commercial success is held up by a thousand college presidents and deans and business managers and provosts as the only legitimate standard to measure learning.

Students are not fools and know what is valued in the university. They know their real purpose with a far greater certainty than their professors. They treat their courses only as annoying and necessary obstacles to the real business of life, which is successful entry into the world of prestige and power that comes only from making money. They know that profit and not wisdom is the measure of success, and they know which courses are likely to lead them in that direction. And so for the students there is only one real world: the world of the Chamber of Commerce, the world of the cash register, and the bottom line.

The phrase "the real world" is used, then, as a kind of charm or prophylactic to protect us from the danger of any abstraction or theory. That is, to protect us from what is not immediately apparent. In short, to protect us from thought. We have long been afraid of the dark, and so burn books from time to time to light our way. We invoke the real world because we know on some level that it is not the only world, though we desperately want it to be so. We are like illiterate peasants who know that the mysterious marks in books mean something important and liberating but are too afraid to imagine a world without manure underfoot and the crack of the overseer's whip.

What is it that the average business person or professor or student hates about the university? They fear not just the fact that intellectuals can find out exactly how they have cheated and hoodwinked the public, but they hate more than that the intellectual's ability to travel in worlds of ideas, art, literature, music, and philosophy. They are like slow-witted folks who don't get jokes. They feel left out because they are incomplete. Learning for such persons, as Thoreau reminds us, is only ever a tool for a shallow commercial scheme: "Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing." For these defenders of the real world, learning is only ever a means to an end. What can I do with this major? What job can I get? Or for the college faculty or administration, how can we sell this program to industry? But as soon as learning ceases to be an end in itself, as soon as learning ceases to be intrinsically valuable, then real learning ceases altogether.

Even the liberal arts have abandoned any higher ground and try to market their wares claiming that the business brethren really value the liberally educated student. What an extraordinary lie. Businesses want workers who do what they are told, who value making money, who will not question authority, who whole-heartedly accept the status quo, who will not worry about ethics when ethics get in the way of profit, and persons who can lie so well that they can effectively lie to themselves. Such persons may have read Shakespeare and Plato, but they are not liberally educated. True, businesses do want graduates who can write a memo, or deliver a presentation without stuttering, or attend a cocktail party and know who Machiavelli was and where Albania is on a map. But these are the superficial trivia of genuine liberal pursuit. Businesses do not want graduates who remind fellow workers that profits go to the few while the many starve; they do not want graduates who can find out what polluting the company is up to; and they most certainly do not want graduates who place truth and integrity above the business of making money. In short, businesses want sophists and have learned that sophistry requires a broad and not a narrow training. Just consider, if you are not convinced, how long Socrates would last in any company in America.

Precisely the narrowness and literalness of the "real world" comforts and reassures pragmatic Americans. In their real world there is no irony or ambiguity; there are no difficult choices because all choices have been prearranged. Things only mean what they appear to mean, and so they can live on the surface, live near the shore, safe in shallow water. They will never get out of their depth. If things are what they appear to be, if we can take our leaders at their word, if our economy is the best possible economy, and our leaders are representative of our interests, then all is right with the world, God is in heaven, and all we have to do is fit in. There is only one real world, and so we should make the best of it. Such a view can only ever celebrate the status quo, and so the role of the university is to recreate this real world, to defend it from its detractors (after all the real world is the only possible world). The task of the students, then, is to fit the mold, to do what they are told, to conform at all costs. Sadly, most students are eager to follow orders and resent the few professors who ask them to raise questions. Perhaps the most encouraging fact of all is that there are always a few students around a college who have seen through the scam and will have none of it. They almost make the enterprise tolerable. We should remember that Socrates' credo was "The unexamined life is not worth living," not "Don't rock the boat"; and above the shrine at Delphi was inscribed "Know Thyself," not "Be what someone else expects you to be."

To say there is one real world bounded by the demands of a job or avocation and hemmed in by economic necessity is to say there is a small world and a narrow world only. The cry "what about the real world?" is nothing more than a cry of fear. The poor student or teacher who invokes the real world is just trying to appease the darkness and possibility of the world of imagination that allures and terrifies him. The charge to be practical means to retreat in the face of possibility and difference; it means to get to higher and safer ground for fear of being over one's head. This urge to be practical is simply a demand to conform, to put the blinders on, to go back to the cave and seek the comfort from the shadows, to put one's head back into the yoke. Safety, comfort, conformity, aggrandizement of the status quo, shameful and slavish obedience to the mandarins and satraps all become the virtues of the students and teachers suspicious and fearful of the world of the imagination.

This cry for the real world is only a type of bullying. No argument is put forward to defend this real world as a world worthy of our sacrifice and homage. The invocation of the real world is always a threat: Do what we tell you or lose your job, be cut out of the economy. The time has come for intellectuals to once again declare their independence from the narrow world of things and money. Thinking and learning are defining human activities. We lack the courage to declare that the cultivation of the intellect is valuable in and of itself. Such thinking does not have to lead to anything, such thinking does not have to result in anything, such thinking does not have to produce anything for it is by definition useful and productive and self-sustaining. We are always looking for pay-offs. We speak only because we may be called upon to deliver a report to the board of directors, but we should speak because speech is uniquely human. This constant search for pay-offs is nothing more than a retreat from human potential. Rather than embrace language in all of its sacredness, power, ambiguity, and beauty, we want only enough language to write a memo or a job application letter.

The university is not just a training ground, a way-stop to some better place. The university is a place of contemplation and reflection, a place of thought, and thought for human beings is an end in itself. Reading and thinking and creating in mathematics and literature and music and art are the highest ends human beings can achieve. The partly and badly educated business students can only see the value of mathematics to their own enterprise. Math is valuable to them only as a means to count their widgets or toilet seats or beans. Because their cash register does not record imaginary numbers, they comfortably live without imagination, happy to count only what they can touch or sell. For such people numbers mean only the number of commodes sold in the first quarter or the current interest rate on their houses or automobiles. What do such people see when the stars shine out on a clear night? Or do they never look up since their heads are never lifted out of the ledger books?

Faculty and students, often badly used themselves, cannot imagine the value of any course of study that is not put to use--and use always means using others to make a dollar. And so our students ask us what use is a foreign language or what use is higher mathematics or what use is art or music? How can we reason with persons who do not value reason itself except as a means to line their pockets? We might as well ask them, as Michael Faraday did, "What use after all is a new born baby?" That learning is intrinsically valuable, that virtue is self-sustaining, that wisdom and knowledge are ends in themselves are all ideals that are anathema to them. How do such people watch a sunset, or make love, or eat a decent meal? Indeed what life do they live if they are forever asking what use is it?

The assumption implicit in this clamoring for the real world is the assumption that students and faculty and administrators know already the end to which the enterprise of learning is to be put. But if we know already why we are learning, then we do not need to learn at all since we have already answered all the questions we plan to ask. Learning must lead to a changed perception or a changed world or new possibilities, otherwise it is not learning at all. If we are already so cock-sure of ourselves, why should we take the trouble to study unless our studying is not real learning at all but merely certification, a kind of pat on the head, much like joining a fraternity where we will be made one of the boys? If learning is not to make us different and better, something new, then what value is it? If we go to school merely to become what we are already but more so, then school is not a place of learning but the enemy of learning because it will only promote sameness and conformity.

The university exists to discover the truth, not merely to represent the interests of shopkeepers. The truth requires no justification because the truth is by definition and nature primary. The truth is the standard by which we measure all the virtues: beauty, knowledge, health, courage, and decency. The mission of the university is the discovery and presentation of what is true. Naturally the truth often demands that we teach a younger generation, but teaching is only valuable if its end is the truth. We must keep the truth at the center of our spirit, otherwise the university will continue to slide into the decay of the commercial and vocational and material world--a world where pleasing the Chamber of Commerce or adjusting some trivial or dangerous gadget replaces the higher and better aspirations of humanity. Colleges and universities have lost their nerve and instead of providing leadership and moral direction take their orders from avaricious businessmen, government hirelings, and semi-literate sports fans. We are eager for a pat on the head, but people who speak the truth and act rightly never ask permission first.

This clamoring for the real world assumes that the world is always single, one-dimensional, and public. The possibility of a private or subjective world or a multiplicity of such worlds does not occur to the apologists for the status quo. If there is a real world to which we must pay homage, then it must be the same for everybody, and we must be the same for it. In the plainest words, practicality means conformity. The next time someone says, "Oh you can't do that in the real world" or "this is not the real world," he is really demanding that you fit in, that the limits of reality itself have been established and to trespass on them is to commit a serious offense. What does this promise of a one-dimensional world do for the average pragmatic American? Such a narrow world promises a measure of security. One is not expected to explore hidden worlds, worlds of the psyche or imagination, worlds in which the familiar rules do not apply, worlds where insight or courage or honesty count more than power and money, worlds where the herd is not welcome, and where conventions and imitation hold no sway, worlds where individuals are judged not by others' expectations of them but by their own honest judgment of themselves, worlds where nothing is hidden and lies are not told. These worlds, of course, are real in the highest and best sense; they are worlds open to possibility not confined and regulated. They are worlds of light beyond the shadows and chains of the cave, and they are not gained by donning the business suit or wearing the power tie.

For a short time in the late '60s and early '70s, some college students showed a genuine and refreshing contempt for the world of business, the world of asking no questions and making money. The ideal on some campuses was to make the world better, not to scramble to conform. Today we have retreated into a frightening and deadening passivity, and we lap up the dishes served to us without a word of protest. With the Pax Americana encircling the globe, affirmation and acquiescence take the place of critical inquiry. Learning becomes imitation, and assumptions are never challenged. Our so-called educated citizens accept without question that poverty is inevitable, that full employment is impossible, that computers and other gadgets always benefit us, that institutions must be managed by a highly paid elite, that experts always know best, that the motives of U.S. foreign policy are always benevolent, that police make the streets safer, and that the rich are best able to help eliminate poverty. Throughout all this propaganda, the defenders of the status quo claim that they are the only ones who are realistic. To live in the real world is to accept them as your master. But let us look at this practical real world of business. Indeed this real world, so-called, is nothing more than a fantasy. C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite sees through the charade: "These men have replaced mind with platitude, and the dogmas by which they are legitimated are so widely accepted that no counterbalance of mind prevails against them. Such men as these are crackpot realists: in the name of realism they have constructed a paranoid reality all their own." Certainly the so-called practical persons accuse intellectuals of living in a fantasy world isolated in the ivory tower, but these crackpots themselves live out a fantasy daily. They awake in a house which they falsely believe to be their own which is more likely than not owned by the banks and in any event could be seized by the government on any of a thousand pretexts. They then listen to the news which will feed them a host of lies not the least of which is that they live in a free world. They will then go off to work where they conduct scribbling or marketing or tinkering which is more often than not dangerous and exploitive and frequently trivial and degrading. Throughout the whole they convince themselves that this is the only practical way to live and that their days are necessary to recreate the only possible real world. That these persons should be the standard by which academic pursuit and civic responsibility are measured is an obscenity.

Because art and philosophy have always promised different and alternate worlds, the defenders of the status quo have been skittish around real intellectuals. If we do not long for a better world, we will be condemned to live in this one. An educated person seeks to change the world for the better, not to find the one comfortable place where easy imitation leads to affluence and safety. We should not be asking the business world how we can serve them, but rather we should be demanding that they become responsible and serve the common good and the higher good. We have become afraid of our responsibility to lead--afraid of our own insight and intelligence. We are so afraid of losing money in our universities that we quake every time a potential benefactor rattles his change purse. But we should stop worrying. What we have that can be bought is not worthy of us and what is worthy cannot be sold for money alone. We need to remember that any real world was first an imagined world. So the real world we create must first live in our imagination. We study utopias in order to make the city on the hill easier to construct. If we imagine what already exists as the only possibility, then we abdicate our task as educated persons. The defenders of the status quo are efficient enough to defend privilege, and so the imagination must be destroyed or at least confined so that alternatives are not suggested. We may remember with some occasion to reflect that it was a small child and not the professors who told the people that the Emperor was marching along without his clothes.

The university should be different for it is not of the practical commercial world. But today the university is embarrassed by any difference and seeks to align itself wholeheartedly with the business sphere. College presidents call themselves CEOs and more likely than not have degrees in administration or management. For them, the reading and writing of books has given way to endless meetings and memos. C. Wright Mills does not mince words when he describes these "educated" leaders:

The characteristic member of the higher circles today is an intellectual mediocrity, sometimes a conscientious one, but still a mediocrity. His intelligence is revealed only by his occasional realization that he is not up to the decisions he sometimes feels called upon to confront. But usually he keeps such feelings private, his public utterances being pious and sentimental, grim and brave, cheerful and empty in their universal generality. He is open only to abbreviated and vulgarized, predigested and slanted ideas. He is a commander of the age of the phone call, the memo, and the briefing.

A university is not a business and should not seek to be one. The awe with which an uneducated person walks into a vast library is a good thing, though rare these days. But this awe is now replaced with an easy familiarity or even a contempt or disdain. What good after all are the classics or foreign languages or philosophy to the business world? We have selected George F. Babbitt as the spokesman for our age. We do not want Socrates but the Regular Fellow. To be practical means today to do only those things which we know in advance will be approved of. Practicality and safety and conformity all become interchangeable. Practical success only means economic success, and since such success almost always comes at the expense of some other person's soul or dignity, to be practical means to be selfish.

In response to these lamentations we will hear the argument that the business world after all pays our salaries, and so we owe them our allegiance. After all, aren't we biting the hand that feeds us? Let us put this damnable lie to rest. Public universities are financed by public taxes and the fees of students and their families. Whatever contributions they receive from businesses are only a small fraction of the taxes businesses ought to pay but have weaseled out of. But yet, this public and collective wealth is used to train a compliant work force in the business ethic to enrich a very few members of the community at the expense of the rest of us. As a faculty we are in debt not to the rich but to the public community, and more importantly we are indebted to the great thinkers who have gone before us. We are indebted to the truth. We fail the larger community when we do only the bidding of the few, and we fail the larger community when we ignore the search for the truth.

When the barbarians come out of the north to torch the libraries, what they really seek to destroy is possibilities. They are terrified that their own lives are not the only lives to be lived. They fear their possible better selves, and so destroy whatever chance they have to become better. We know that there are better and more learned people in the world. We resent them because they demand more of us by indicating our failings. And so we simply say they are not living in the real world; but, of course, it is we who are not living in the real world of higher truth and beauty. We choose the literal and familiar world and turn away from the higher more dangerous ambiguous world, the world where value is not measured by money and where beauty is powerful enough to redeem or destroy us, a world where civic duty does not mean following rules but accepting responsibility for our own fate. Only in such a world will we ever become fully human.

Contents | Home