Call the world outside university anything you like, just don’t call it ‘real’

Alison James has five reasons why we should stop saying ‘in the real world’

December 8, 2015
International students
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There are few things in life that really get my hackles up. Queue-jumping. Litter. Invasion of personal space. But in education, four little words are guaranteed to send me into orbit.

“In the real world”.

“When students leave us, Alison, and go into the real world.” “They’ll get a wake-up call in the real world.” “It's tough out there in the real world.” And so on.

“The real world” and “real life” are used extensively to differentiate between the educational experience and whatever happens elsewhere. Because they are age-old and widely adopted they may seem unproblematic phrases, just name tags. They can mark out the divide between safety and risk. After all, if you mess up when learning or practising you mostly get the chance to redeem mistakes that might otherwise have dire consequences (death, jail, bankruptcy). And yet calling one “real” can be undermining, and here’s why.

1. Describing life outside university as “real” assumes that life within one is not. As far as I am aware (I have seen The Truman Show, so I appreciate I could be wrong) I do not work in a pretend world. Teaching people is not just about preparation for some future reality. It is reality. Reality for our students as they take on the unknown, stretching themselves, their skills, their knowledge base. And for our fellow academics. None of the ones I know are isolated from involvement in the world, cocooned in some intellectual duvet. They are industry collaborators, practitioners, juggle portfolio careers, are socially responsible, with relevant knowledge and current experience in their field. They know what is going on.

2. The term is vague. What on earth does “real world” mean when compared with higher education? Paid? Professional? Wider? Outside? Contracted? Authentic? Up a mountain? If so, let us say so and be specific about what we mean, not use some off-the-cuff shorthand. It is also misleading – engaging in degrees at work, distance learning, flexible study, placements and partnerships mean that students are regularly traversing the boundary between study and life beyond it. So the separation is unnecessarily blunt and the line between different kinds of activity often become blurry.

3. “Real world” sets up a value binary. It suggests that activity in this arena has more social, economic and human validity than that which does not. It forgets that what went before is needed for what comes after. It implies that the knowledge, capacities and dispositions that students are fashioning at university are of inferior substance compared with those they will grow through future experiences. It undermines the many indirect benefits of a university education that don't fit neatly into metrics schemes. It contributes to the frustration expressed by some employers who want oven-ready graduates, fit for a specific job, rather than those with a range of capabilities who can be developed further. It undercuts the importance of lifelong and lifewide learning, by implying that learning is only worthwhile if it can be channelled into something obvious.

4. It can be used to justify behaviours that hamper learning. Almost as an act of kindness (yes, this is sarcastic) it conjures the harsh reality outside the cosy, idealised confines of the classroom. “I’m doing them a favour because in the real world...” Cruel and humiliating feedback, unfairness, preferentialism, indifference, prejudice, snobbery are all passed off as acclimatising students to life outside. Such behaviours exist everywhere – not just in any specific “world” we may inhabit – but it does not make them helpful or ethical. Nor is experiencing them the best training for dealing with them, even if some students cope with the school of hard knocks better than others.

5. “The real world” does not always allow for some of the freedom to think and experiment fostered by good teaching. This is an integral part of engaging students in the practices and ethos of the discipline and may involve learning things playfully, imaginatively, creatively. Such approaches may not be universally welcome in the workplace but through them moulds are broken, new ideas hatched and surprising connections hooked together.

To conclude, I am not suggesting that you can't call anything “real”; performing CPR to save a life as opposed to practising on a dummy is clearly for tangible physical benefit. What I am arguing, however, is that in adopting a blanket or careless coupling of “real” with “life” or “world” in comparison to university we do a disservice to difference.

Life activities do not take place in hermetically exclusive categories or competing arenas. One is not automatically better than another, they just have different purposes. So call the world outside study “professional”, “industrial”, “commercial”, “wider”, anything you like. Just don't call it “real”.

Alison James is associate dean, learning and teaching, at London College of Fashion.

Read more: Campus close-up - London College of Fashion

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