College vs. “the real world.” Who pushes this myth, and why?

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!

Heh.  I agree with this guy–but I also really like his (pie) in-your-face attitude.  The only correction I would make to his screed is to suggest that students who are making good grades are probably working hard at college.  Students who are earning below a 2.8 or 3.0 GPA are probably not working hard enough on the academics, although as Martin points out, many of them are busy with jobs, families, and the usual rough-and-tumble of adult life. 

The attempt to construct college as not somehow part of “the real world” has always struck me as a very elitist fantasy, usually promulgated by people who themselves attended Fancypants U., and probably on Pater’s or Mater’s dime, too.  Maybe they were sheltered from “the real world” when they were in college, but the reality of the vast majority of American college students is entirely different:  they’re not at Fancypants U., they’re at reasonably-priced community colleges or state schools like Baa Ram U., and they’re usually juggling student loans as well as on- or off-campus jobs in order to pay for it partially or entirely themselves.  We must ask:  what is the effect of these fairy tales about college somehow not of “the real world?”  What is the intention of those who peddle these stories?  Here’s Martin again:

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.

Go read the whole thing–he makes a strong case for the flexibility and relaxed dress codes of the faculty lifestyle, given the harsh realities of the tenure-track job market and the fact that most of who do manage to secure a TT line don’t start that employment (or saving for retirement) until we’re at least 30.  (Of course–the not-shaving and the relaxed dress codes are mostly a dude thing–but I’ve been known to teach in jeans every once in a while, or to attend a faculty meeting in my running or yoga gear.)

26 thoughts on “College vs. “the real world.” Who pushes this myth, and why?

  1. A vanishing fraction of undergraduates really are enjoying a blithe four- or five-year party, but the large majority have to fit most of “the real world” and its dangers into their daily lives. The myth of college as fairyland persists with other elitist media fantasies (e.g. “all women who have children could stay at home and prefer to do so,” “wealth originates in hard work”) because it flatters the customers.

    Totally agree about the relaxed dressed code as an academic perk for dudes. Although I can omit makeup in a way I couldn’t when I worked in corporate America, that’s the only break I get: my clothes are policed by students, colleagues, and non-teaching staff, and I don’t expect to hear the end of their judgments until I retire or die.


  2. Great article, and the salient parts are highlighted here. But, on your 2.8-3.0/working hard distinction, please qualify it for the sciences and engineering. One can work really hard in those areas but, because grade inflation is not across the board in higher education, still earn a 2.5 and be responsible, diligent student. It’s important for social sciences and humanities types to know this. – TL


  3. Oh, this is a huge peeve of mine! Why do teaching, learning, and ideas, not qualify for membership in the real world, but manufacturing surplus widgets does? Or creating software that allows people to avoid face-to-face contact?

    Neil Evernden, at the beginning of “The Social Creation of Nature”, has an interesting take-down of the notion of the ivory tower, proposing instead an “ivory tunnel” that connects us to the roots of social understanding. An eco-phenomenological bent, but a very useful, portable concept.


  4. The many medievalists out there can correct this, but my impression is that there wouldn’t *be* much of a “real world” if not for there having been universities for it to retreat into and wait out the storm back in the pre-modern era. Even the party/not-party decision doesn’t do very much to distinguish academica from corpocratica.
    In both there are the coasters and the toasters, and the complicated currents that proceed from that fact.

    On the relaxed dress codes, agreed: it *does* trend-M from where I observe, especially on the “not shave” part, but not to all that radical an extent. It’s especially irksome when it has the trappings of expressing to the students that the instructor is not that much older and darn nearly as cool as they are. (This also trends-M). Not clear that they buy this. Jeans at a meeting is fine, but regular classroom appearances in what it looks like you sleep in sort of trivializes the whole enterprise. I once, at another institution, saw a colleague come in late to a job talk in shredded sweats from neck to ankle, sit down in the third row, and inadvertently (I hope) “crotch” the candidate from fifteen paces out! Not a good day.


  5. In a long, may be too long, academic career one encounters many facets of the “real life” paradigm. Workplaces are infested with politics, lack of reason and whims. Academic life, mainly for students, follows a relatively well known protocols. Many think that students work hard, but they are not subject to the acrimony of “real life.” Of course, outsiders ignore many of the problems student face (as the quote above demonstrates).

    Another facet of “real life” is more visible in engineering and sciences, although, I believe it is universal. An engineering student solve well defined problems. Engineers, in “real life” that is, seldom have the luxury of well defined problems. Problems are full of noise, statement misjudgements and scheduling problems. The point we academic have is that we must achieve, in most cases, optimal solutions – a difficult task – while in “real life” solutions don’t have to be great.

    Other college vs “real life” facets exist, but all those I am aware of behave along the predicted lines. Way back I used to respond to full time working graduate students who would make “real life,” though polite, claims in class with: your real life is unreal and totally artificial.


  6. I was going to make the point koshembos is making. I often use the phrase “in the real world” as separate from “in the textbook world.” In the real world data don’t come pre-cleaned. In the real world, there aren’t always right well-defined answers (that’s why they have to get used to that in the college classroom as well). My students don’t like it when I introduce things from “the real world” but I do it anyway so that they’re more prepared when they get out of the textbook world and what they do actually has real-world consequences for other people and not just for their GPA.


  7. Hear, Hear!

    However… I don’t understand what he means when he says that “older generations of Americans have sullied” the job market. I’m admittedly very sentitive to (and object to) signs of trying to sow generational resentment, but in what way are ALL (as opposed to SOME) of the people in the older generations responsible for the horrible state of the labor market? I don’t get it.


  8. People studying to be doctors, nurses, lawyers, etc. spend a lot of time in school after their bachelor’s degree, but I have yet to hear anyone saying that someone getting through the grind of nursing school is avoiding the real world. Is it just the Humanities that comes in for this?


  9. I remember being in Israel and being told this stuff by non-academics, usually when they were explaining to me that I shouldn’t believe my fellow professors when they took liberal stands, as many of them do, about the Palestinians. After all, they’re just academics and don’t live in the real world. But, I would say, thye’va all served in the armed forces, and later on watched their children serve. Isn’t that living in the real world? Never made a dent.

    I guess it goes with the idea that we’re hung up in our closets (or resting in our coffins) when we’re not teaching, so we don’t have mortgages and insurance and relatives to care for, unlike real people.


  10. @Notorious I don’t think it is only in the humanities. We get it in the sciences too, at least in my neck of the woods, in the way discussed above but also in that what we do in the classroom is too theoretical/mathematical and not “applied” enough. Well where do they think the foundations of the “real world” applications came from? A former student of mine complained when she first went to work in the private sector about all the basic math mistakes she saw her colleagues making. Maybe they should have paid more attention to the classroom world.

    @LouMac “ivory tunnel” I read this as irony tunnel the first time. It fits.


  11. I think Historiann is right about the class dimensions of this fantasy. Just as all the discussions of how competitive college admissions is focus on a small group of elite colleges which enroll a tiny percentage of students, this vision of college as a time when you “don’t have to work” assumes family wealth is paying your way.

    What is really interesting is that some of the people who distinguish between the “real world” and the university must know otherwise. So it’s a case of people hanging on to a stereotype that doesn’t necessarily apply to them or to people they know. I wonder when cognitive dissonance will kick in?


  12. The “real world” lecture seems to me to have its origins in the disappointments of the speaker about his or her own education. Old people are always projecting their dreams and regrets on the young, couching it as “advice.” Yuck.

    However, the trajectory of imagining maturation has altered radically over the century + in which colleges and universities have come to their present form. That period has witness the emergence of new stages of life like “early childhood,” “adolescence,” “Late adolescence,” “tweeners,” and whatnot, as well as attention to structured transitions that help the young evolve from one stage to another (by the 1920s, college was one of these, something that entered a stage of dramatic elaboration by the 1960s and now seems to be contracting.) In fact the status of actually *being* young now stretches well into the twenties, as middle and upper class young folks return home to live, stay on parents’ health insurance until age 26, begin their work careers with internships — not jobs; and assume they will return to graduate school.

    But all of this assumed, and still assumes, a bourgeois, or aspiring bourgeois, subject. And like many characteristics of the bourgeoisie, it has become he standard against which working class and poor youth are simply not seen at all.


  13. Notorious raises a really good point about vocational versus liberal arts (and truffla adds, natural sciences) degrees. And Tenured Radical provides some social history background of the extention of youth nearly to 30 (or beyond?) for members of the upper middle-class and elites. As she suggests, this is in extreme contrast to the experience of poor, working-class, and even many middle-class youths, whose divorced fathers stop paying child support (not to mention college tuition) when the children turn 18, and foster children and others in the care of the state are turned out without visible support at 18.

    Having indulgent parents with some extra dough is clearly key to the definition and duration of childhood/youth.


  14. Pingback: Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education

  15. Pingback: Enemy Propaganda | Mictlantecuhtli

  16. I do teach at one of those “fancy-pants” SLACs, and even here I would say the “real world” is much realer than the propaganda. Yes, our students do not have to shop, cook, clean their domiciles, or care for children while studying(for the most part). The worst non-real aspect is probably, as TR says in her great essay on campus alcoholism, that they don’t face serious consequences for chronic binge-drinking. However, most of our students do work because they have to, do deal with the same emotional/psychological/family crises as others, and are under enormous pressure to multi-task and be good at everything or their entire lives will be “ruined” (not replicating the lives of their parents, which they probably won’t be able to do anyway).

    Another aspect of the “not the real world” slur is good ol’ American anti-intellectualism: intellectual labor simply can’t be real work. It’s a myth now that “real” Americans build things with their hands, but a myth that some conservatives cling to grimly.


  17. Yes, it’s anti-intellectualism.

    I’m amazed at the not facing real world consequences of alcoholism, though: my students get DUIs, call from jail to apologize for missing class, are sentenced to drug court; some are on parole or have done time for vehicular homicide / DUI, how do yours avoid these things?

    To not cook, etc., you have to be able to afford to live in a dorm. To not do child care, you have to have parents who are doing it for you. To not clean, you need a maid or else you live in filth, and if you do not shop, where do you eat…? Curious minds want to know.


  18. I think TR is taking her experience at Zenith and generalizing. I don’t think most college students are that way. I did my PhD at a school that consistently rambled among the top ten party schools, and even there the experience was quite different than what she describes.


  19. Spanish Prof: Of course you’re right that we all generalize from our own experience, but that doesn’t mean that each college or uni in the U.S. is a special snowflake, and that therefore we can’t make guesses about the way that colleges and unis here enable alcoholism among both college students and the adults nominally “in charge.”

    I’ve taught at 1) a private women’s college, 2) two medium-sized private, Catholic universities, and 3) a large state university in my career, all in the U.S. At all but the private women’s college, drinking was a major part of student life, and the students at one of the Catholic unis explicitly told me that they believed that their criminal behavior shouldn’t be dealt with the same way as when non-college students engaged in vandalism, arson, rape, and the like, because they imagined that they were on their way to lives of middle-class respectability in spite of their penchant for arson, vandalism, property destruction, and the like.

    I think that TR’s students at Zenith have access to more money, and that aggravates the extent to which one can indulge in alcoholic behavior (more cash for booze, more cash for paying fines, more cash from mumsy and daddy to make bail, etc.) But I think it’s on a spectrum with what’s going on on most other campuses (women’s colleges and evangelical protestant colleges excepted, usually.)


  20. I am not saying that it doesn’t happen at all places, it does. I teach at a Catholic University and did my PhD at Big Party School. I saw instances of unnaceptable drinking I’m both cases. What I am saying is that not all the student body in either place engages in that kind of behavior. Not even the majority of them, percentage wise. Dame Eleanor Hull has a good post on TR’s.
    To sum up: do I think some students have a problem with alcohol? Yes. Do I think it is not dealt adequately by authorities? Yes. Do I think most students have an alcohol problem? No. The big stories always get the headlines, but I don’t think, percentage-wise, the majority of college students are alcoholics as defined by TR. And I think the generalization is dangerous. And maybe it doesn’t happen at Zenith, but what I see in my Catholic University is less destructive student behavior: because of the crisis, more and more students work at least 20 hours a week if not more. It doesn’t leave them much time for anything else.


  21. Pingback: Forget the SATs; the Chronicle of Higher Ed Talks College Alcoholism | Course Hero

  22. Pingback: Students in the real world « Memoirs of a SLACer

  23. College can be rewarding. It can be difficult. But the real thing we need is “self-education.” In fact, on some level, all education is self-education. So in a lot of cases, the people getting 3.0 GPAs or better are motivated enough to take it upon themselves to get good grades. However, I would rather be a student who gets a 2.0 on a hard class like economics or public speaking than a lazy student who cheats or takes “The Philosophy of the Simpsons” in order to get an “A”. So, the point is, maybe students should take “real world classes” in college. They might be better off.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.