Real work in the fake world

Why do academics mindlessly repeat a slur on their profession?

January 07, 2013|By Jim Salvucci

The world of academia — the world of ivory towers, learned scholars, and ivy-covered walls — is a fraud. And I am a living fraud.

As an academic, I cannot escape the fact that I work in the fake world. What else can I conclude when people use the term "the real world" to refer to life outside academia? University faculty and support staff hear this phrase so often that we barely pause over it. Worse still, we have thoroughly imbibed it and utter it regularly.

Sure (I tell myself), the term "real world" is just shorthand — a way of distinguishing the culture of academia from everything else — but the unavoidable implication is, nonetheless, present: If you do not work in "the real world," you must work in the fake world.

I would contend that this phrase, "the real world," with its unsavory intimations and the assumptions that inform them, is a significant contributor to America's festering resentment toward education and teachers in particular. After all, "real world" echoes an even more insidious and ignorant phrase: "real work." The implication, as if you needed an explanation, is that some type of work — usually manual labor — is the only work worthy of the name. Only, say, blue-collar jobs are "real." The rest is fake. Take that, you shiftless office drones! Or maybe only high-paying executive jobs produce anything of worth. Take that, you Ayn Randian parasites!

Academics take it on the chin over this real work/real world nicety. You have heard it all before — they only work half days, only nine months, all those holidays, and so on. Everyone imagines they know what goes into teaching, maybe because they were once students. How hard could it be? I once had surgery, so I now can impugn the work ethic of physicians, right? Those lazy sawbones!

The passive-aggressive innuendo of the "real world" slur bothers me far less, though, than its ramifications for education's foundational mission: to foster human progress.

At college, students hear the misleading phrase incessantly, often from their professors' own lips, and absorb the fetid connotations. "Real world" suggests that their college experience is a mere rite of passage, an artificial convention meant to delay students' entrance into, well, reality. It is so much rigmarole dressed up as rigor. "Real world" says that their teachers are out of touch, that classes are "only theory," that it all should be forgotten once they are out and in the "university of the real world." Some assume that the more education those teachers have had, the less they know about the "real world" and the less relevant their teaching is to a students' "real" goals. I have had students and parents say as much to me.

Every time we use the phrase "real world," we suggest that the world of the mind has no place in the world of the "real." We attack the integrity of formal learning in our society — and in the most oblique, dishonest and cowardly way possible. We insinuate that our schools and colleges, our teachers and professors, our students of all ages are embroiled in a colossal waste of time and money. A fraud.

I readily concede that we can all identify pointless elements in our educations. We have suffered the apathetic teachers, the burned-out administrators, the meaningless exercises, and the aimless course requirements. And we are right to decry them, but we cannot then fantasize that the "real world" does not offer a superabundance of waste and self-righteous foolishness that easily overmatches that of "the fake world."

For we have also endured the lazy logic of faceless corporate and government bureaucrats, the incompetent managers, the greed-mad investors, the fees for the privilege of paying bills, the incessant solicitations, and the erroneous charges. No sector has a monopoly on error, abuse and self-delusion. No one world is more or less real, and none is perfect.

What is more, all these worlds need each other to function and survive. I do not believe I have to belabor this obvious point. The world of academia and the world of other work, any kind of work, resent each other at our collective peril.

So long as we tell ourselves and tell our students and teachers at all levels that one "world" has a privileged place in our culture; so long as students are seen as lazy non-contributors to our society; so long as every teacher is a suspect "other" in our community, not worthy of membership in "the real world" of "real work," then education will continue its descent. Learning will keep losing relevancy, and human progress will remain a near-Sisyphean pursuit.

Jim Salvucci is a professor of English literature and dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Stevenson University. His email is

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