This World, That World and Some Other World

Le Monde Flottant... The Floating World
Image by L’Ubuesque Boîte à Savon via Flickr

I don’t like the term ‘real world.’

It is often used in sentences like ‘Every lesson in school should relate to the real world.’

Formulations like that make me think schools are like the Floating World of ancient Japan or the artificial world of the holodeck on some Star Trek spaceship.

Schools are the real world, just as much as slums or split-level suburban homes are.

As different as slums and split-levels appear to be they have much in common just as the schools in slums and in suburbs have much in common.

An American slum building and a split-level each provide some manner of shelter from the elements, a place to sleep, plumbing, and some separation from what it occurring outside its walls.

The schools in poverty-riddled slum areas also have much in common with the schools in the wealthy suburbs. This comes as a surprise to some people who prefer to focus on the differences between them.

In fact, almost all schools in America have much more in common than whatever differences may exist.

They all have classrooms and teachers.

They all have textbooks.

Sure the textbooks might be newer in one place than they are in another, but when you get right down to it a textbook is a textbook and they’re all pretty terrible.

And when you get right down to it a school is a school and they’re all pretty terrible.

But they’re not terrible because they belong to some world other than the ‘real’ one.

There is just one real world. It just looks different in different places.

Perhaps you are wondering “if the real world looks different in different places why do the schools all look pretty much the same?”

That is what I wonder about.

I recently listened to a graduation speech. I’ve listened to quite a few graduation speeches.

Graduation speeches have a lot in common with schools and textbooks, they’re all pretty much the same and they’re all pretty terrible.

Listen to a graduation speech in the South Bronx and listen to one in South Salem and you’ll hear the same notes of thanks and relief, the same platitudes, and the same exhortations to create a better world, some other world where things are more, grander, greater and finer.

That world doesn’t exist.

That world will not exist.

Nothing will change even when it seems everything is changing.

Nothing will change especially when it looks like everything is changing.

The other world today’s students are supposed to create will look very much like this one just as this one looks very much like the one my generation was supposed to create when we graduated 40 years ago, and very much like the one my father’s generation was supposed to create when he graduated 60+ years ago.

My guess is that 60 years from now the graduation speeches will still sound the same and those graduates are supposed to create that better, grander, world.

And they won’t either.

This is not an accident.

This is, despite all the platitudes about how education changes the world and is a way out of poverty, etc., precisely what our system of education is designed to do: keep things pretty much the same and pretty terrible, at least for the great majority of people.

This is what schools do: they perpetuate the present from generation to generation.

Oh sure, things change. Many schools have gone from blackboards to white boards to interactive white boards, but they’re a lot like textbooks and graduation speeches, pretty much the same and pretty terrible.

They’re terrible because though they give the impression of being very different they each focus the student on the front of the room and remind the student of who holds the power in the classroom.

And schools in the South Bronx and South Salem (and South Carolina and South Dakota…) give the impression of being very different but they all remind the student of who holds the power in society and how they’re supposed to sit still, listen quietly and raise their hand to participate.

This is as true today as it was 100 years ago and 200 years ago.

This is why the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.

And none of it is an accident.

And it is all pretty terrible.

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6 Responses to This World, That World and Some Other World

  1. Michael Josefowicz says:

    Ouch! Thing is the world has changed and does change every day. We agree that the deep realities of what it means to be a human has been pretty much the same for the last 6,000 years or so.

    But.. consider the world in 1960. Now a mere 45 years later, what a difference. An Afro American President of the United States? Rachel Carson wrote a little book “Silent Spring” back in the day. Today it’s a global meme. Students for A Democratic Society was on the fringe talking about “controlling the decisions that affect our lives.” Today the Soviet Union has disappeared and democracy is lumbering it’s way around the globe.

    This November it’s plausible to believe that California will legalize marijuana.

    I’m just sayin’ yes,lots of things still suck. Wars and stupidity still reign supreme. But I think the general direction is at least going in the right way.

    • Deven Black says:

      Michael, the changes you have cited are on the order of switching from a blackboard and chalk to a whiteboard with smelly markers. Little surface alterations are not change, they are taking in or letting out the seat of the pants we’ve been wearing for millennia.

  2. elona says:

    Bring on the bread and circuses.

  3. Shani says:

    I like to ask my classes to keep it real. In fact, in Business Studies it is almost a motto. The aim is to try to have my students complete their class work and assignments for real rather than for school/teacher/grade. For example, instead of treating an assessment task requiring a business plan as a school assignment, do one for real, even if it is for 10 years down the track, plan for it now. So I may not use the term “real world” but I try to keep my classes as real as possible.

  4. Pat says:

    Thanks for this thought provoking post. I used it as a springboard for my own post http://successfulteaching.blogspot.com/2010/07/what-is-real-world.html. I disagree with you but I appreciate you getting my thought processes flowing! If you read my post, you will see why I don’t think that school is the real world because students are too sheltered, protected, and doesn’t hold the same consequences as the “real world.”

    • Deven Black says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful response to my post. I have made a detailed and, unfortunately lengthy, response in a comment on the post you link to. Perhaps we can continue the dialog and each publish the whole of it to make it easier to follow.

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