In the last Sociyology post, I referred to the “Real World” spiel in order to illustrate one technique that might effectively be used to degrade another person in the eyes of an audience. In this post I move away from the typical sociological angle in order to personally address this spiel, detailing why I believe it to be poorly placed at the best, sinister at the worst, and worth challenging all the way through. To better illustrate my points, I provide the Real World with an opponent: the Ivory Tower. In its modern usage the term basically refers to the university, evoking a place disconnected from the everyday world, where privileged people indulge in useless(/pointless) research and sophisticated (/wanky) discussions. Urban dictionary describes the Ivory Tower like this: “A disparaging term that refers to elitist detachment from, and especially criticism of the everyday world, or of common sense and beliefs – Let those scholars criticize our beliefs from their ivory tower; we all know how the world really works”. If it helps, you can imagine the Real World as a land of industrial worksites, clubs and pubs, and white collar businesses, where real people, alike in consumer dignity, have to work to pay bills and save up for holidays. You can imagine the ivory tower like this:
Before we jump in, I want it to be clear that I’m not proposing something as vulgar as cutting the Real World spiel from the public domain in an attempt at censorship. Such a thing is far beyond my powers, and if I had such powers and used them I’d have to consider myself a super villain… or at least irresponsible. As always, I’m simply endorsing that special something that occurs when taken-for-granted grey social sludge is transmuted into sociological strange-alicious. Nevertheless, it remains that certain assumptions are often at play in the Real World spiel which trivialise certain life choices, values, and career path while championing others… which is rude.
“Those working in the Ivory Tower do not know what it’s like in the Real World; they don’t operate within it, and are consequently less equipped to deal with it”
The above statement encapsulates the many varieties of the Real World spiel that I’ve experienced personally or observed sneakily. While there is of course much more to the spiel than this straw man in terms of context, there is rarely more by way of complexity. The assumptions at play seem to remain the same whether the person is getting at the value of the target’s job, the scope and worth of their experiences, how this reflects on their capabilities, or how this all reflects on their character and the character of the system they operate within (that is, the University system, not the molten capitalist core at the heart of the Real World). What follows are a number of points that I think are fair to raise in response to the above statement and its variants. The responses start off dealing with the individual being targeted, before leading into more general points regarding the Ivory Tower, the Real World, work, and hypocrisy.
It’s narrow minded to use a person’s job to account for everything they do, have done, or will do. In spite of this, the assumption is often made that an academic’s job constitutes the entirety of their life – to the point that, with some measure or sincerity, someone can actually imply that an academic never left the Ivory Tower. While it is tempting to imagine an academic this way (especially the cliché genius who stays in his books even when he’s away from them), trying to find such a specimen in the social wilderness would be a fool’s errand.
The reason for this is that academics aren’t workers who just happen to be human, but humans who happen to work, just like brick layers, bar staff, and lawyers. Along with being an academic a person may be a parent, facing the challenges that parents are likely to face. They may have worked previous jobs outside of the Ivory Tower, or even be doing so while in the Ivory Tower. They may have traveled, experimented, or struggled with the same issues that pop up regardless of a person’s job title. Nevertheless, in order to hold Real World hardships over such a person, these human elements must be ignored, so that their job can more easily be treated as the sum total of their being. But, humanising techniques aside, what of those institution loving individuals who went straight from school into university and the Ivory Tower workforce?
When I was in high school, I witnessed a fair proportion of my classmates leave school early to pursue a trade. Many of these people are still in their trade, and probably will be for the majority of their life. Their job might involve financial hardships, and most certainly painstaking labor. It will also involve opportunities to hone their craft and make the money required to do whatever they do when not working (this is sounding quite familiar). These people went straight from high school to training to the workforce, just like young academics such as myself. Many of my laboring classmates and I are at similar stages of our respective careers, though our training and work differ. Yet they seem to avoid the criticism of over incubation, which seems to be reserved for those career paths that take place in institutional workplaces, rather than rafters. I’m yet to see the same spiels directed at those who have spent the last few years in an office on a mine site, in the aisles of a shopping complex, or the classrooms of an education institution that isn’t marked by ivory.
So far the Real World spiel has been responded to by pointing out its tendency to ignore or trivialise the biographies of actual people in the actual world according to a selective bias that, when fairly addressed, stays afloat like a Swiss cheese paddle boat. But what about the bigger issue of contributing to society? (We won’t linger on the beastly assumptions that such an attitude implies; suffice to say that such bullying is socially acceptable when it’s done in the name of society.) Experience has shown me that those who endorse the Real World spiel would consider all those workers mentioned thus far as doing their part to some extent – the programmer, clerk, and factory worker all make a contribution that has an actual presence in the real world – while the Ivory Tower and the academics that operate within it do not.
This can be dealt with by pointing to what goes on in universities both in terms of work and GDP contribution. In regard to work, an academic is generally expected to take up a teaching workload (and if they are not expected to, poor pay will likely leave them seeking it out anyway). This can involve coordinating units and teaching hundreds of students, many of which will take what they’ve learned out into the Real World. When it comes to GDP contribution this is a significant dimension, given that Australian tertiary education for international students alone is expected to grow to a $19 billion industry by the end of the decade (I intend to build on this in a future post, which will deal with the changing role of production in a consumer based society where everyone is expected to “share the load”).
Regrettably, even these points are likely to miss the mark when dealing with a devoted proponent of the Real World. So far as I can tell from the conversations that I’ve had, this is because the conflict between the Real World spiel and its Ivory Tower opponent is just a black head on the oily face of a bigger problem: The strange conflict between those who value practice and those who value theory/ those who deal with the Real World of real issues, and those who stand accused of conjuring up issues through ceremonial circle jerks. Such a discussion will have to wait until the another Sociyology post, which will conclude this series by addressing the trauma of trying to justify theory and the sinister threat that the speals such as the Real World pose to such efforts.
I’ll tie up this post with a sentiment that I have used numerous times in response to the Real World spiel – one that has been quite successful in spite of its failure to address the more responsible reflections given thus far:
The rat race sucks. Criticising people who chose an academic career because they seem to have avoided some of the rat race’s hardships is like saying that the runner who chose the path through the meadow rather than the woods didn’t participate in the race. Academics (whatever variety) certainly have it easier in some regards to some workers and harder to other workers in other regards. Why ignore this reality in order to criticise someone for making a life choice, seeing it through, and enjoying the comfortable living that may (or may not) eventuate from it? We all want a comfortable life, and while most people accept that we all deserve one, this won’t stop a lot of people from implying that you don’t.