The idea that education is intended to prepare students for “the real world” sounds innocuous enough. It’s not. The idea that the real world is always just beyond the horizon of the classroom is problematic if we mean to teach students in a way that is relevant and meaningful. Education is not going to be useful some day; it is formative now. Education is not for some eventual pay-off, but for the good of the person here and now.
When I was a junior high school student, high schoolers told me how much more serious high school would be. Then, when I was a high schooler, university students said, “Just wait until you enter college!” While a university student, I never tired of hearing professionals tell me, “Enjoy school while it lasts and just wait until you get into the real world.”
This forever “not yet” is unfair to students at each stage of their development. Every grade, every academic year should be age appropriate, fittingly challenging, and intrinsically worthwhile. We ought not belittle any part of the process. What a way to lose heart and to see education as a utilitarian exercise of “jumping through hoops” or “checking all the boxes.”
The teachers who I have admired most are those who have taken me seriously. Nothing is more elevating than to have someone say, “You matter. This matters. Here and now, let us do our best.”
I am reminded of the quotation of Isak Dinesen: “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost!”
If I am to teach true things, if I am in the classroom day in and day out, how can myself and other teachers (as not some far-off aim) strive, with our students, to be people of character who appreciate the world and who wonder about it?
The real world… starting now. That’s inspiring education.