Today I came across a post called “‘Meaningful’ School-to-Career” on the blog In Pursuit of Excellence. The blogger asks,
Schools provide young people with a solid academic foundation to build the rest of their lives on. But schools are also supposed to prepare students for the real world….How can the real adult world they will soon enter be brought into focus and elevated in importance for kids? Or, should we just let them be kids while they can, and let the real world smack them between the eyes when the time comes?
Below is the comment I wrote in response to this question, a question that, although I receognize its validity, never fails to irritate me.
The “school vs. ‘real world'” dilemma is a tricky one, and one that I think sets up a number of false dichotomies. Here is a typical conversation I might have with a student who feels that my course doesn’t relate to the “real world”:
Student: “Finding themes in short stories doesn’t relate to real life.”
Me: “Really? What do you mean by ‘real life’?”
Student: “Well, the job I’ll have, for example.”
Me: “The job you’ll have someday is your life? What is your life right now?”
Student: “These stories don’t relate to my life right now.”
Me: “Do you think that the ideas in this story have anything to say about anyone’s life, anywhere in the world? Do you think people like the people in this story might exist? Do you think that events like those that happen in this story might actually happen to someone somewhere?”
Student: “I guess.”
Me: “Do you think it’s possible that you might someday meet someone somewhere who has had an experience with something in common with something that has happened in this story?”
Student: “I don’t know. Maybe?”
Me: “Maybe. So it’s possible. Do you think it might even be possible that something that happens to you someday might bear some remote resemblance to something that happens to someone in this story?”
Student: “Not really.”
Me: “That’s why we study themes. Because if we understand the larger themes of a story, we gain a greater insight into our own lives. If you don’t see anything in this story that relates to your life in any way, then you and I need to work harder on helping you understand the larger themes of the story. That way, you will see the relationship between this story, and all stories, and your own life.”
[end of comment]
Now, I recognize that telling a student all this is not going to make the student love the story or love searching it for greater meanings or identify with all the characters. But the idea that we need to make schoolwork “relevant” to the “real world” raises the question of what that means.
What if students’ (and society’s) concept of the “real world” was not limited to specific job-focused skills? And even if we focus on the workplace, what skills are “relevant” to that environment? What about the need for employers and employees to cultivate compassion, empathy, an ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective, insight…all things that are developed through the active study of literature?
I don’t expect adolescent students to immediately recognize this: that analyzing stories, poems, plays and essays, even ones that seem removed from their experience, can make them better people: better friends, better sons and daughters, better parents, and better workers. But they can be taught to recognize that, and I think that’s part of what school learning is for.