Thursday, May 05, 2005

The "Real World": a "sequel"

This was going to be a response to a comment that Gaunilo left under my "real world" rant, but then I realized I should probably make it a post in its own right -- and I'm sure none of you are complaining that I have provided too much content recently, so why not? This is related to the issue raised in the other post, but somewhat more personal, which Gaunilo brought to mind in what he wrote.

Part of the reason that I have such a visceral reaction to the rhetoric of the "real world" is that I feel that I have been victim to it a fair amount -- not least at my own hands. I was the proverbial "first to go to college" in my immediate family, and I not only went, I stayed. I have more credit hours than some have had hot dinners. And some (again, including my own demons) have suggested that this is due to laziness, inability to deal with "reality", reluctance to accept responsibility, and so forth.

But when I sit down and think about it, this just isn't true. Studying is not an escape from work or reality or responsibility -- it is, if anything, more of that, overlaid on all of the work, reality, and responsiblity of "real life". A Ph.D. is not "time out", or a "relaxing break": it is gut-wrenching, insomnia-inducing hard work, which most people have to pay substantially for. (Those stuck in the "real world" have the comparative luxury of doing hard work in exchange for money.)

As Gaunilo points out, and I agree, there is an element of truth to the notion that "the life of the long-term student is purported to be an insular, head in the clouds, responsibility-free mode of existence that's out of touch with "real life."" I think that part of this notion might arise in the popular conscience partially from extrapolation of undergraduate highjinks and neglect. Another part of it might be, and I think this is what Gaunilo adverts to, that there are indeed some who use higher education as a dodge from responsibility. Certainly that's not all of us (as readers of GS such as Gaunilo himself, Thunder, Caleb, Dylan, Jennifer, Margaret, Peter, and many others would endorse. (I just realized that many, probably most, of those who drop by here with any regularity have graduate or professional degrees -- not all that surprising I guess, but not something I had considered much before.)).

Anyway, it hurts when those sorts of accusations are made by others. Together with my own accusatory demons, it sometimes makes me feel like an outcaste. Part of the way that I've tried to overcome it -- and part of how I was formed in the first place -- was to always work to build bridges between what I was studying and the experience of life. This doesn't mean that I reject anything that doesn't immediately cash out in practical or pragmatic ways (no surprise there), but it does mean that I am generally trying to have a foot in each sphere, the academy and the church (or the rest of the world), and trying hard to keep the two in conversation. I am reasonably certain that the folks I've named above and others who read GS would say the same about their work, too. And so getting my back up about the trope of the "real world" is, as Gaunilo mentions, a defensive reflex against misdirected hurt by others and my own self-doubts.

Another part of people's use of this "real world" trope might be as a defense against their own insecurities. Our culture tends to favor the intelligent; I know there are many counter-examples, but this is mostly owing to our culture's favor being more complex -- we tend to favor the intelligent and industrious, rather than merely the well-educated. But education has been seen (rightly or wrongly) as an indicator of intelligence, and more than that, of competence and (in many subcultures) acceptability as a person.

Yet there are many people with little or no advanced education, and sometimes no formal education to speak of, who are quite intelligent, albeit in different ways. My grandfather was one of them: he wasn't a high school dropout because he never got that far. He worked from a very young age, but also worked hard to educate himself. He labored later in life as a steamfitter and did quite well; he was also surprisingly well-read, thoughtful, and exceptionally well-informed about world events. Or take my father who doesn't have an advanced degree. I have no doubt that he has the intelligence and skills to have been, with the right encouragement, a mechanical engineer. But here's my point: he isn't less intelligent, acceptable, or competent as a person for not having pursued that route.

So, personal tangents aside, what I am driving at is that I suspect this sort of "real world" rhetoric might be part of a larger defensiveness against cultural and individual snobbery and marginalization. I try (I admit, not always successfully) to guard against embodying this ugly tendency and the pain it must inflict, in large part because I know the pain that being the target of "real world" rhetoric involves.

[Ed. later addition: Andy Goodliff, in his ongoing musings about children in church, touches on a related issue in this post, which is how we in the church deal with difference -- which is at bottom, what this "real world" stuff is about.]


Blogger Philip Young said...

So, I guess with no degree whatsoever, that puts me in the minority as the population of people that read your blogs.

The funny part is that for many years I know I didn't live in the "Real World". Thankfully that time is done now I think.

Thursday, May 05, 2005 6:00:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...


Yeah, I know I left out ALOT of people in that post: I didn't mean to exclude anyone. I don't really know if you're in the minority, maybe not; but if you are, it doesn't matter. My point is that we all live in the real world, even if it isn't always precisely clear what that is, and we need to figure out ways to get along regardless. Also, yes, there is a sense in which we are all coming to live in the "real world". I would say "welcome", but I'm not so certain I'm there yet -- I think we're walking that road together.


Thursday, May 05, 2005 6:14:00 PM  
Blogger Gaunilo said...

Wow, I didn't know my comment would provoke this kind of reaction - but I'm glad. Good thoughts.

There's even a further element in the church,too - there's academics like myself who don't have any meaningful ministerial experience, and those like yourself who've put in good time in the parish. As far as I'm concerned, that's very "real world" and there's a troublesome aspect to the issue of letting theologians loose on the church who don't do church except as spectators.

I think another element to the "real world" reflex w/r/t the long-term student cum ivory tower dweller is the lack of a quantifiable marketable skill that the education produces - this probably goes for any of the humanities, but esp. theology, which has a tenuous existence in the university as it is. I can just hear the thought "Why don't you get a real job?" going thru people's minds sometimes.

I'm tempted to say, listen to us, pity-partying away, if it weren't for the fact that PhD work is so hard and only a crazy person would take it on w/o a very good reason. And, like you say, it does hurt to be on the receiving end of these kind of comments.

Let it be a challenge to us to be able to articulate in plain, accessible language, why what we're doing is so important to the church.

I'm the first in the family too. I doubt anybody in my family has ever even thought of getting a doctoral degree! I have been fortunate to have their full support. I have friends who feel pressured to get a terminal degree, and others who feel pressured to "get a real job". I cannot but be grateful for a family and a spouse who have supported me in this crazy endeavor.

Thursday, May 05, 2005 6:42:00 PM  
Blogger Thunder Jones said...

I think that part of the problem is that so many jobs are completely awful. By staying in the academy and pursuing a teaching job, you aren't AS immersed in the market as those of us answering phones and doing sales.

In a sense, you are avoiding the bullshit of the real world that most people have to endure. If that's the real world, then staying in school sounds like a great option. People make the lame "real world" argument because they dislike what they do.

The American workplace is a hotbed of futility. Is my angst showing?

Thursday, May 05, 2005 8:59:00 PM  
Blogger Gaunilo said...

Um, Thunder...


Your angst is showing.

Thursday, May 05, 2005 10:25:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...


Mmm, now that I've had my drink...

Seriously, you both raise related good issues about the marketplace and its failure. A lot of jobs, a lot of careers, a lot of professions are just downright dehumanizing, and I'm not just talking about digging ditches. The way that the market is set up, people become machines, and we shouldn't be surprised when we feel dead in mind and soul at the end of the day. (Marx actually had a lot of insight on these very issues well before where we're at now.) (Oops -- did I write that or just think it?)

G: Yeah, I agree with you about theologians as spectators. Not that the only alternative to "spectator" is "ordained person" (not that you're saying that, just clearing my head); there is a need also for committed, baptised laity who are dedicated to a location and a tradition.

Also, I am somewhat skeptical about "marketable skills", stemming from my skepticism about the market. (-:

Finally, yes, a good challenge for us all to keep in mind, to be articulating just why this stuff matters. Seemingly abstruse doctrines such as the Trinity or meontic evil & creation ex nihilo really press us to build those bridges -- because they matter!

T: Thanks, right on, and one last thing: because the market is so awful, as Christians (and theologians at that) that gives us a glimpse into the lives of so many of the people we're called to be with and love (yes, you included! (-:). A lot of the world the modern capitalist West has called into existence is quite dehumanizing and brutal, and the church has some real resources that might help us get over it and get beyond it. (That this brutality gives us insight doesn't justify it, of course.)

Anyway, hang in there -- that it is a Christian publishing house is just that much more discouraging, I think.


Friday, May 06, 2005 2:46:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Young said...

I think with vocations that deal with people in various positions of vulnerability, there is a complex distain and envy of those who are able to occupy positions in acadamia.

The "real world" complaint is that those in acadamia are not dealing with the types of issues that those in the trenches are forced to deal with, thus they are in a way irrelevent. For example, the study of law is so different from the pratice of law its not even funny. Please note that I'm not saying that it is harder or easier, better or worse, but it is just so different.

What do you do when a client, just simply doesn't get it? How do you deal with the incessent demand for billable hours? So few of our clients come to us with the open and shut case. And those who do will not get the billable hours flowing.

Friday, May 06, 2005 5:05:00 AM  

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