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If someone asked you to find, “The Real World,” in which direction would you point? Throughout my teaching career, whenever my students would speak of, “The Real World,” they would almost always point outside of the classroom window. Apparently, their conviction was that what took place in the classroom (at least until they had entered my class room) was somehow tainted by the un-real. They had come to believe that what took place in a class room was contrived, merely theoretical, or otherwise untested by the unyielding facts of “The Real World,” that is, the world outside of the classroom.
I don’t know what other instructors in other classrooms said to their students when these youngsters would point outside of the classroom window towards what they had decided was the locus of reality. My response was always the same. I would insist: “No! ‘The Real World’ is an honorific. Such a title should not be tossed around casually. What is outside of the classroom is what I call ‘The Realm of Common Experience’ (R.C.E.). What we are doing here in this classroom—conversing with great books and with each other, striving after truth, goodness, beauty, value, and principles—this is ‘The Real World.’ What we do here, in this classroom, is to prepare you to navigate within the R.C.E. Right now, we are outside of Plato’s Cave, preparing you to go back into the cave, so that you can lead other people out.”
I think of these things as my students and I slog our way through another round of final exams, with the stress and grace I had spoken of in last week’s column. Looming large—for better or for worse, depending upon whom you ask—is graduation on Saturday morning. Some of my students will graduate that day. Consequently, they (and their families and friends) are asking whether their education has prepared them for “The Real World.” How might you answer that question?
Several years ago, I was driving along a highway and happened upon a billboard for a local university (I forget the name of the school). The billboard read, “The graduates of other schools get degrees. OUR graduates get JOBS.” Well, okay. I’ve been unemployed and employed, and correspondingly hungry or not hungry, so I’m quite sure that employed and not-hungry is better than unemployed and hungry. There is nothing wrong with being gainfully employed. Some of my best friends have jobs. People who are employed and have money left over after paying their bills allow people like me to teach in a classroom with windows, air conditioning and electric lights. But being employed cannot be the apex of human life, or we would not need schools, but just enough seeds and shovels to keep people busy growing food to stay alive, so that they can keep busy with seeds and shovels to grow enough food to stay alive, so that they can….on and on, in a pointless circle.
Yes, I know that there are circulating countless stories, both anecdotal and documented, about students graduating with “useless” degrees, some as venerable as Latin and Greek to more recent innovations, such as an M.A. in the Beatles, to the academic study of puppets. And of course, there are very many and very disturbing accounts of students managing their time and finances poorly while accumulating debt. It is neither surprising nor lamentable that many are raising challenging questions about the time and money that students spend in higher education.
Educators, parents and students should rightly insist that an education includes a rigorous development of the habits of reasoning, reading, writing and computation. These are necessary not only for employment but for functioning well in our complex society. But shouldn’t we also expect more of higher education? Shouldn’t we cultivate within our students their human capacity to know the truth, enjoy the beautiful, and love the good? Shouldn’t we cultivate within our students their human capacity to create and innovate? Shouldn’t we cultivate within our students their human capacity to immerse themselves in nature and reach for the divine? And shouldn’t we cultivate within our students their human capacity for noble friendship? A higher education worthy of the name would do all that and more, even while developing within students the habits of mind and character necessary for gainful employment.
My point is this: a true university, in particular an authentic Catholic university, is the most identifiable and concentrated outpost of “The Real World” that our students are likely to find. (Second, of course, to a church where the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered reverently and the Blessed Sacrament is reserved nobly and prominently.) In “The Real World” of Catholic university life, students may be prepared to enter “The Realm of Common Experience,” which is replete with illusions, falsehoods, distortions, and—let us never forget—people made in the image and likeness of God, created for love and glory. The goal of a genuinely higher education must be oriented towards forming students to go out into The Realm of Common Experience prepared for the missions of witness, service and rescue.
I remind my graduating students that their education does not end with their schooling. I urge them to keep on reading, thinking, and conversing. If someone you know is graduating from college, you would do them a great service by giving them one or more of the following books: “The Intellectual Life,” by A.G. Sertillanges, O.P.; “Another Sort of Learning,” by James V. Schall, S.J (I recommend everything written by Schall); “The Abolition of Man” by C.S. Lewis; “A Brief Reader of the Virtues of the Human Heart,” by Josef Pieper (I recommend everything written by Pieper).
If someone you know is graduating from high school and moving on to college, I recommend: “The Best Things in Life,” by Peter Kreeft; “The Idea of a University,” by Blessed John Cardinal Newman; “How to Read a Book,” by Mortimer Adler; “How to Speak, How to Listen,” by Mortimer Adler; “The Making of Men,” by Paul Weiss.
If someone you know is graduating from high school and entering the work force, I recommend: “Three Philosophies of Life,” by Peter Kreeft; “YOUCAT: The Official Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church”; “Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy (5th Edition),” by Thomas Sowell.
When I write next, I will consider whether it is sometimes wise to “fast” from reading headlines in order to avoid becoming obsessed (and depressed) with bad news. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.