The Academe and the “Real World”

The Real Truth About the Real World” is an interesting and informative essay that argues against faculty making comparisons between the academy (the “ivory tower”) and the “real world.” While the article makes many good points, I found it unconvincing, perhaps because I have spent equal number of years in the “real world” and in the academy (about 15 years in each).

I use the phrase “real world” often, in part because my students live in that environment when not in the classroom or not on university grounds. Most of my students work part- or full-time, so I feel duty-bound to connect the subject matter to their personal and work experiences. By doing that, I have found that it expands and reinforces what they learn in the classroom and in their various homework assignments, and enables real-time application of the learning. Pragmatism is a critical part of the Lean teaching pedagogy.

The colleges and universities are a contrived learning environment and differ greatly from the learning that takes place in the real world, the gemba, which tends to be situation-specific, self-paced, ungraded, sometimes haphazard, practical, and hard-won through trial-and-error. In general, faculty has not done a good job of connecting learning to students’ lives, their work, or their future – perhaps because most lack the gemba experience that students have had. Importantly, the consequences of success or failure in school and out of school are not the same.

However, it is important for teachers who make reference to the “real world” point out its many idiotic characteristics and practices in addition to its virtues in relation to the subject matter. The “real world” is should never be seen as the correct way to think and do things simply because that’s how its done in the “real world.” Gaps must be identified between smart and dumb ways of thinking and doing things, with the intent to steadily improve the “real world” over time, through contributions made by students while still in school and after they graduate.

In my view, referring to the “real world” in the context as I have presented is not the problem. “The Real Truth About the Real World” essay reflects frustration among faculty that the many important, fundamental things they teach, such as writing and critical thinking, are not applied by most students post-graduation. Students readily accept and conform to underperformance in the “real world” relative to what they learned in their degree programs. They largely accept, rather than investigate the “real world” as they were taught how to do.

Students graduate and our role as teachers abruptly ends. Entrance into the “real world” means students must now interact with new teachers with varying degrees of subject matter knowledge and teaching ability: themselves (self-teaching), their peers, and, most importantly, their managers. Unfortunately, managers, the most influential teachers outside the academy, are lousy teachers to our graduates. Purposely or otherwise, they undo much of what we taught students to do (and then they tell us we do a lousy job of preparing students for work). That’s what makes it the “real world.”

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