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?

10 thoughts on “Deconstructing "The Real World"

  1. The latter, sir, unfortunately. And a teaching about pearls and swine always comes to mind when I think these thoughts. Is it better, you think, to fly the flag and try to rally people to it or is the risk of pushing those not ready for conversion to the potentially final decision of the sneer too great?

  2. Oh, it exists at all levels for all things. I am killing time by tutoring math and I inevitably have kids (primary through post-secondary) asking what use math is in the real world. I have thus far failed to convince any of them that this is a meaningless question.

  3. Being a Toccoa Falls grad, I’ve seen this one bandied about a bit. I got into it with a guy on the school’s philosophy forum about it my senior year. As this dude insisted on seeing it, TFC, like Emmanuel, is a “bubble,” perpetually sundered from the “real world” of death, bills, and road rage.

    It’s still a mode of thought that cracks me up. I pointed out that reality’s not something we “slice & dice,” that the cemetery on our campus was a rather rude, and awkward reminder at the very least of said “real world,” that if someone cuts me off on campus grounds I’m just as inclined to invite that person to go to hell as I am on I 85.

    Like you Nathan, I’ve never been able to get a working definition of the “real world.” From what I gather, it’s a place full of amateur cynics, affectedly jaded seen-it-alls who haven’t actually seen anything yet, and haven’t the slightest clue of the concept of irony. If they did, they’d have noticed that many of their classmates are dealing with unbearable pain, loss, sorrow, issues of sexual identity, impending financial ruin, the loss of friends and family members–all travesties that qualify for the squalid heap of the “real world” last time a checked.

  4. “Having been without cable for nearly five years now, it’s amazing how little I miss it.”

    Same here. It’s something that so many things that I used to think were vital to my well-being (cable, comic books, World of Warcraft) end up un-missed once I actually walk away from them.

    Oddly (or maybe not so oddly), something like this “argumentum ad pureum” (which I intend to start working into my vocabulary. Thank you.) in connection to the “real world” features fairly regularly in my occasional bouts of spiritual dryness and doubt. Prayer seems irrelevant, church seems hollow, reading my Bible seems pointless. And the tone of all of it is that they don’t connect to the “real world,” and the little person who lives in my brain starts saying “You don’t REALLY believe all of this nonsense, right? Isn’t it time to grow up and be realistic?” Often, what saves me is asking the same question that you do: “realistic” defined by whom? How many realities do I have access to for comparison? How do I know that my experience is the result of a true perception of reality, and not the result of a stunted perception of reality?

  5. Thanks to all of you for the comments and for reading.

    Robert, I sometimes do wonder whether I’m inoculating these students against the “big questions” by continuing to teach the course, but there are always some in there who really seem to benefit from having to dig in, so right now I’m inclined to keep on keepin’ on.

    Beth, I’ve always found Plato’s own fascination with mathematics to be central to his identity–for him, the world of mutability and decay is decidedly less “real” than that of number and form. When I get a chance to guide students through that whole text, I think they get the draw of mathematics, but when I’ve only got a few hours (Senior Seminar only meets four times that aren’t taken up by the required speech and the job-placement counselor’s visit to teach job-hunting), it’s much harder to make the case.

    Cameron, what boggles me is that students will in one breath say that EC is a “bubble” because there are rules and expectations and with the next say that the “real world” is “real” precisely because they have expectations and rules that don’t bind EC students. I’ve stopped being surprised in general by philosophical illiteracy, but the blatant contradictions still take me aback sometimes.

    Charles, I’m either blessed or cursed (I can’t decide some days) with a philosophical disposition towards life, so even in moments of great anxiety my own tendency is to take the long view of things. (Those of you who are married know that such a disposition can be less than helpful sometimes–there are times when immediate demands really ought to take priority.) But I know from conversations with students and other folks that just those sorts of questions are the ones that continue to worry educated Christians.

  6. I think I would contest the “real world” from a different perspective, which asks what the ontological weight of “money” is to a man dying of cancer, and what the meaning of a 501(k) is to those suffering from HIV in Africa. Of course some might try to respond to suffering by concluding that they should try to insulate themselves from it, but that that is an illusion shouldn’t be too difficult to demonstrate. It seems to me that the brevity and contingency of human life can’t be dismissed as not the real world.
    Of course if you talk about pain, death, poverty and suffering you’ll be shattering a few contemporary American taboos but I think that you are up to that.

  7. “Never having been a human (Oh that abominable advantage of the Enemy’s!) you don’t realise how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary. I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear What He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line for when I said “Quite. In fact much too important to tackle it the end of a morning”, the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added “Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind”, he was already half way to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of “real life” (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all “that sort of thing” just couldn’t be true. He knew he’d had a narrow escape and in later years was fond of talking about “that inarticulate sense for actuality which is our ultimate safeguard against the aberrations of mere logic”. He is now safe in Our Father’s house.”

  8. “You will

    notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”‘. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. Either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word “real” can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us. The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are “Real” while the spiritual elements are “subjective”; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist.”

  9. I guess that from the point of view of this African even in purely material terms what the students in that class consider to be the real world is a bubble in which they are sheltered from harsh reality.

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