Thursday, June 09, 2005

Connotations of the term 'real world' & reflections on the 'work-education' linkage

It is not unusual to hear people say this (especially to people doing National Service, high school/JC students, and undergraduate students), "Wait till you enter the real world, then you'll know.....that all the education you have had don't count...It doesn't matter how many degrees you have."

The purpose of this post is to deliver a critique of this saying, because I think that it is far too misleading, and chauvinistic. This saying is misleading for several reasons.

Firstly, people who say such things are usually those working in the corporate world. I stress the corporate world because you tend not to hear these from people working in other equally established professions - the medical world, academia, education, real estate, the arts sector and the military. These people have failed to realize something very fundamental - which is that they (or at least most other people in the corporate world) got far precisely because of the education they have had. What they are doing amounts to 'guo4 he2 chai1 qiao2' (dismantling the bridge after one has crossed the river), ungratefully disregarding all the efforts that have been channelled into them by their former teachers spread across perhaps 16 levels of education, thinking that they could have achieved their cognitive skills on the basis of self-study alone. I would think that what they might have been trying to say is this instead: that "when you enter the corporate world, your scoreboard starts from zero once again and you will be regarded as on par with all those who have been hired, and 'work performance' shall be the most salient criterion for promotion decisions". I am not arguing against this interpretation, then, because even in academia, getting a PhD is no guarantee that one will be a great professor. What I am pointing out is mainly (a) the failure of the 'real-world' theorists to consider how 'work performance' may be affected by the earlier education and training the student has had, in terms of attitudes towards official tasks, competency, ability to convey ideas clearly, etc; and (b) the fact that without the certificates, the good companies may not even consider their applications. (Try applying for Citibank's jobs with an O-level certificate.) Most importantly, even if a poorly qualified candidate succeeds in getting the job, s/he may not be able to pull it off. If the 'real world' theorists truly stand by what they say, then if they have children, they should tell their children, "Don't study - go straight into the 'real world' at age 16. After all, all the education don't count". Would they dare to do that?

Secondly, the use of the term 'real world' by default places the corporate world in the centre of the universe, in the centre of society. This is a reflection of how corporate capitalism extends its tentacles to all corners of society. In fact, when people say that, it shows that even their brains have been taken over by the corporate world, and they are now ideologically under control, without even realizing it. The real world now, for such people, is real only in so far as it concerns profits, money, and the so-called 'bottom-line'.

Now, let me say that the corporate world (which exists for profits primarily) is not and should not be treated as the centre of the universe. In the first place, education is not a servant of the corporate world - so whether or not the education allows the person to 'hit the ground running' from Day One at work is not an issue. In the UK, it is much more difficult to get a place on a degree programme in English Literature or History than Accounting and Finance or Engineering. It would be sad if one day education exists solely for the purpose of churning out workers for companies. Also, other fields of work are equally legitimate. Is one a lesser person just because s/he does not physically sit in an office to work, and instead fries char kway teow for a living? Is one a more immature person just because s/he has never had to deal with a lot of office politics? I have encountered people who blatantly told me that working in the office, having to deal with unreasonable customers, back-stabbing colleagues, etc is the only way to learn about society. May I suggest that this is plainly bullshit, because I have never been able to detect any correlation between maturity and work environment. In fact, many people who have been in the so-called 'real world' (which is really the corporate world, according to their definition), exhibit narrow-minded thinking that is not the hallmark of mature persons.

To assign the superior-sounding 'real world' title to the corporate world is chauvinistic, and does great injustice to the millions of people toiling in various other professions - the nurses and doctors working in the hospitals, the teachers, lecturers and researchers in education, the officers and 'regulars' in the military, the independent real estate agents helping to sell houses, the chefs, the taxi drivers, the actors and other professionals in the cultural industries (e.g. artists, designers, writers, etc). Are the 'real world' theorists suggesting that these people are somehow living in a world of 'virtual reality'? If so, then even when an army officer/teacher/artist has retired, a corporate person can still slam him or her in the most nasty fashion, "You have not been in the Real world! Your life is a waste of time and resources!" People are earning money with their own labour - their own hands, brainpower, life time, and energy - they didn't go out and rob the banks or earn money through illegal means. They should be respected for that.

This, then, is the real 'real world' - a world in which you have to earn your own money, through whatever legitimate means, making use of your own talent and skills. Whichever profession you choose, excel in it. And when you are successful, all the critics will plainly shut up and swallow their words, for you have made your contribution to this society in your own unique way.


Blogger Dorothy said...

Bravo :)

Thu Jun 09, 04:59:00 PM 2005  
Blogger jllt said...

Hear, hear! The theory on being corporate-centric!

Fri Jun 10, 12:07:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Injenue said...

well said! hmm i like what you write and how you write it. is it ok if i blog about you in my next post?

Sun Jun 12, 02:30:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi! :-)

dorothy: thank you! Pursue your dreams you will...

jllt: not as profound as a theory you have recently invented -'Sianization' Theory...Do you really want me to blog about that (cos you hold the copyright, hehe)?

injenue: that is an honour I do not deserve - thanks!! :) Glad that you like the posts.

Sun Jun 12, 09:50:00 AM 2005  
Blogger jllt said...

Sure! Just remember to credit me! (read: advertise)

Mon Jun 13, 02:04:00 AM 2005  
Anonymous Ah Huat said...

With all due respect, I think your analysis is a bit off.

I do not think that this is a case of corporate workers degrading students/workers of other vocations. It is more like old birds bragging and putting down new birds. These people who claimed that they have seen the 'real world' feel that they are more experienced in life and worthy of more respect. They can be found in all vocations and all walks of life.

There is a housewife I know who likes telling newly-wedded wives: "you think being a wife and career woman is tough? Wait till you become a mother." And to mothers with one child: "You think taking care of one child is tough? Wait till you have two!"

I do not think she looks down on career women or women with one kid. She just enjoys boosting her own ego by stepping on other people's.

I think it is just a coincidence that most of the ego-stompers you have encountered come from the corporate world.

Tue Jun 14, 06:50:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Ah Huat :) Thank you for offering a different perspective which makes sense too.

However, I feel that my theory is commensurable with yours. That is, if yours is true it still would not make mine any less true.

(1) My theory says that a lot of the 'real world' theorists come from the corporate world, but it doesn't say that ALL or even most corporate workers are 'real world' theorists.

(2) My theory's central aim is to show the assumptions and connotations of the first statement I quoted (in the first para), regardless of the ACTUAL motivation of the person making that statement. In other words, it may be that people who said that did not really mean it in a negative way, but what I'm arguing is that it has a range of negative connotations that perhaps they should be aware of...

So this is my defence... :)

Tue Jun 14, 09:58:00 AM 2005  
Anonymous Heya neato said...

Heya neato. Just happend on your site and thought I would send a shout out. Good job.

Fri Jan 27, 09:37:00 AM 2006  

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