Deconstructing "The Real World"

No, I have no plans to write anything at all about any MTV shows that may or may not still be on that network.  (Having been without cable for nearly five years now, it’s amazing how little I miss it.)  Instead, this little musing comes out of an encounter with a class that I’m teaching this semester, namely Emmanuel College’s capstone course, Senior Seminar.  To give a brief introduction that doesn’t overwhelm the post, Senior Seminar is a class that all students from all majors must take before graduating, and the one-credit-hour course focuses its discussion on the “big questions” of ethics, philosophy, and theology and how they stand to inform the professional lives that the students will enter when they finish college.

That students in such a class get the upper hand on me rhetorically is not unusual: because the point of the class is to reflect on the Christian faith and its interactions with all sorts of academic and professional learning, the conversations necessarily range into areas where I have no real expertise, and if students decide they want to one-up me, they have the tools to do so.

But this episode struck me as different: the students’ working assertion was not mainly that Emmanuel College’s environment stands in stark contrast to that of a public school’s expectations of secularity (a perennial topic in that class, since teacher education is our biggest major) but rather that, in a blanket sense, Emmanuel stands as a “bubble” in contrast to “the real world” presumably constituted by everywhere but Emmanuel College (or at least between places substantially the same as EC and those substantially different).

I started out my side of the dialectic by noting that the power to define “the real world” is not by any means self-evident: after all, one could just as easily interpret the world of paychecks and secularism as a world of “hollow men” (to borrow from T.S. Eliot) as compared to the full-chested human beings (to borrow from C.S. Lewis) of the Church.  Their response was not to argue but to sneer: in their minds, asking who defines “real world” is something akin to denying gravity (whose historical significance most of them probably couldn’t explain, I’m guessing) or calling into question whether in fact people who don’t eat for a while get hungry.

The rhetoric of the “real world,” of course, often travels hand in hand with the argumentum ad puerem.  If you’ve not heard that rhetorical term, it may be because only an annual report from the New England Society in 1912 seems to have used it first.  The usage I’m proposing is thus: an argumentum ad puerem is the sort of assertion that does not contest the content of a claim but rather paints the one making the claim as a mere child, one who would not make such an assertion if only he (or she) would “grow up.”  The reason I bring up (or invent) this phrase is that, in the use of “real world” in this class and in similar situations, the working assumption behind the term’s use seems to be that anyone who would contest the reality of “the real world” simply has been sheltered from “the real world,” for otherwise the claimant would certainly recognize that difference is merely immaturity.

Eventually, as I noted at the outset, I gave in not so much to the strength of my students’ arguments (there wasn’t any argument to oppose, as I can recall) but to mere fatigue: leaving class, I knew that I probably could have continued the exchange but wouldn’t have made much traction.  The way the Gospel of Mark tells it, not even Jesus could do much in the face of sneering, so I let class out, packed up, and started writing this post.

This little ditty is more of an invitation to inquiry than a point of my own: has anyone else encountered the argumentum ad puerem, or is it something that only wannabe Anabaptist English teachers face?  And when you have encountered it, has anyone had any success countering it with reasoned argument, or is it really the sort of unclean spirit that only comes out with prayer?

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