Some Quibbles I Have with the Rhetorical Formation “the Real World”

The news is a Category 5 shitstorm these days and it’s difficult to surface any rage-inducing story for any more than a few moments at a time. One in particular that’s driving pins into the back of my eyes is a pair of moves from Missouri and Iowa to eliminate the concept of tenure in their state university systems. These moves come on the heels of Wisconsin’s relatively succesful attempts to neuter the concept of “tenure” beyond any utility. These attacks are only going to become more and more common as increasingly Republican-led state legislatures defenstrate the American education system.

I am not a scholar of higher education or of education more generally.1 Nor am I a professor, on the tenure track or otherwise. I am a graduate student seeking a Ph.D. in English at a land-grant public university: a generally unenviable place to be in the general hierarchy of Life, I would suppose, but I enjoy it and I do pay all of my bills on time. I don’t want to talk right now about the role of tenure in higher education, because I have not experienced enough or thought on it long enough to have a considered opinion beyond “tenure is a good thing that protects vital academic discourse even as it’s a decidedly imperfect system that adversely structures the industry of academia with negative impacts on both research and the mental health of those both on and off the tenure track but that doesn’t mean we should through the baby out with the bathwater per se.” Rather I want to talk about an idea repeatedly raised in the above-linked interview with the dunderheaded Missouri congressman filing the bill to elimate tenure in that state.

Rick Brattin states (it’s not really an “argument” as such so I can’t use the word “argues” here) that he’s filing this bill out of concern for students in Missouri universities. He sees the university system as adversely burdening its students with too many classes that lack “real world relevance,” and sees professors as sirens luring impressionable youths into “useless” fields (which Brattin never names, but one can safely assume that we’re pulling an old-fashioned humanities vs. STEM thing again here). These students graduate with degrees in, say, English, get out into the “real world” and find they can’t get jobs and so have to go back to school burdened by debt.

(I cannot say this is an entirely strawman proposition because I have friends who have chosen to do just that, although never for these imagined “useless degrees” and rather because, as is their rights as Adult Humans, they realize that their interests and skills grow and change over the course of a life and it’s okay to change your vocation in this world after twenty-two—but I digress.)

I just want to meditate on the phrase “real world” for a moment. I hate it. I cannot write neutrally about it. It is a phrase filled with contempt no matter who deploys it. As a rhetorical move, it marks a space of belonging that the speaker always inhabits and the listener rarely does. It is a phrase of moral and ethical absolutes, of surety concerning how the flows of human life should run, and of faith in the superiority of a particular allocation of those flows over all else. When Brattin speaks of the real world, it is obvious what world he refers to: the world of business, of exchange, and of capital. It is a world filled with goods and services rather than ideas and impulses and feeling. (Again, I cannot write neutrally about it, I’m just too full of rage.)

I hate this phrase not just because of how its use implicitly devalues all that cannot be represented on the balance sheet. This is not so I can stand athwart history and say the professors and artists are the only ones who got it right. I hate this phrase because it also devalues those of us who are in business, in exchange, in infrastructure, in “normal,” useful jobs that make our world run.2 It presumes that people in those kinds of jobs have no use for art (history), written language, music, what have you. That the mass of nurses and engineers and whatever other job is de trop these days don’t think about, care about, or make art in any way.

I know that to rage at this minor phrase is perhaps missing the broader intent of this bill: to strip thinking bare so that a public becomes pliable and useful to its managerial class. I have to think, though (if only to get through the day), that such a public will always be an imaginary, and that there will always be voices, however marginalized, screaming for the value of a messy, imperfect, not-always-useful-but-always-joyous humanity. That, to me, is as close as we can get to the “real world”; it’s these dreadfully boring, managerial, capitalistic voices that seem to me more the fiction than anything else.

  1. Really great voices on Twitter for these sorts of things, from policy implications to on-the-ground battles, include Tressie McMillan Cottom, Sara Goldrick-Rab, and Richard Grusin, among many others. 

  2. To say nothing of the fact that the last time I checked being a professor is an actual job that you can have that pays your bills and does exist in this spatiotemporal plane and thus is as far as we can define it, real? But let’s just set that over here for now… 

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