If you've gotten a "real" education, you're actually leaving it
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.