Keep It Real

One of the things that bites me is when someone contrasts college against “the real world.” At any given moment, there are twenty million people involved in higher ed: as students, faculty, staff, and administration. That’s almost ten times the number of people involved in every branch of the armed services and Department of Defense combined. Anything that twenty million people are doing seems to me to be, by definition, real.

I had yet another person reach out to me today about the book, talking as so many people have about how much they miss their students. And I do, too. But let’s be specific. What do I miss about them?

I miss how much they want, and how open they are to trying. Trying damn near anything. If we give them work they find meaningful, they throw themselves into it with an abandon that I always found breathtaking. We are blessed to work with young people during their age of optimism, before the “real world” has broken them to cynicism and limited their beliefs.

I miss how much they love each other, how willing they are to have each others’ backs, how easy it is for them to share what they’re afraid of and what they dream of, and that so many of them are able to hear and respect each other. We are blessed to work with young people during their age of inclusion, before the “real world” has finalized its sorting into us and them.

I miss how easy it is for them to try new things, and to imagine themselves to be new people. We are blessed to work with young people during their age of possibility, before the “real world” has insisted on a career path and a job title.

One of the things I fear about our wholesale adoption of the “workforce development” model of higher ed is that it introduces cynicism and transactional thinking into what could be the last protected place. The entire logic of workforce development, for colleges and students alike, is simple: “If I do X, then I can have Y.” It eliminates considerations of optimism and inclusion and possibility, setting them all aside in favor of comfort and predictability and economic development.

The Urban Dictionary offers the following definition (from 2003) of the term keep it real: “When someone does not change who they are or what they believe due to societal pressures.” College—positioned as it is prior to life’s most weighty societal and economic pressures—might represent our last (and most) real place.

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