Monday, April 9, 2007

Academia and "Real Life"

The ideas that a writer needn’t or even shouldn’t have an organized, disciplined apprenticeship and that writing isn’t a respectable profession (unless you’re writing best sellers), because you’re “out of touch with the world,” are very close to the conviction so many students have that because they use language every day in one form or another, then they know how to write and to write well, or even that there is no difference between writing well and writing badly, because "anything goes" in creative writing.

The denigration of creative writing programs seems of a piece with the general denigration of education so prevalent in our culture. On the one hand there is the sense that if something isn’t “practical” or “useful” (which usually means “profitable”), then it has no reason to exist. On the other hand, there is the “everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten” mindset, the conviction that learning and education are irrelevant to “real life.” “Real life,” in my experience, is a quite multifarious thing. I don’t know why “the academy” (as if there were only one: the world of physics departments is rather different from the world of English departments, but usually only the humanities are indicted under the rubric) is so blithely assumed not to be part of the “real world” in these attacks on creative writing programs. Making a living is about the most real thing there is in our society, and many, many people (not just faculty but staff, the people who actually make the institution function) make their living in academia, often a piss poor one, in one capacity or another. I don’t know why doing data entry, for example, is more “real” than teaching. In my experience, it’s just more degrading and boring. (Academics who complain about how hard they work and how little time they have are clearly people who have never had nine-to-five jobs.) For that matter, I don’t know why doing data entry inside academia (as staff and many faculty do) is any less real than doing data entry outside of academia.

School of various kinds is where almost everyone in America spends a great portion of his or her waking hours until age eighteen at least, and millions more spend many more years after that in some form or another of higher education. That is certainly as real as experience as any other. I suspect that most of those who romanticize some gritty notion of “real life” have no more experience of such a thing than that of watching police and hospital shows on television.

As Jeffrey J. Williams, a leftist English professor and former prison guard, has recently written, “It is…often said that the university is not the real world, but in my experience each institutional parcel of life has its own world. When you work in prison, just as when you work in academe, you experience a world that has its own language, its own training, its own hierarchy, its own forms of recognition, its own forms of disrepute, and its own wall from the outside. In some ways, prison is the flip side of meritocracy. Both prisons and universities originated in religious institutions and are based on the model of the cloister; both are transitional institutions; both house and grade people; and both marshal primarily the young. The difference, of course, is that the university represents the hope, prison the failing, of the meritocracy. It’s an unseemly sign that we invest more in the underside than in the hope” (“The Professor Was a Prison Guard,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume 53, Issue 31, Page B11, April 6, 2007).


scotland said...

Dear Mr. Shepherd, The song "Winsbourogh Cotton Mill Blues" and its verse about the foreman 'Junior' rolling his eyes, drinkin' coca-cola an' eatin' eskimo pies, says something about the way in which flaws perpetuate themselves in systems.

Future "real life" academic communities need not be bound by perpetuated flaws if they refuse to step in line and lose the very property of their right to self determination. I am quite astounded that a "learn now/pay later" strategy has not been the"real deal"
progressive institutions offer, and offer at the level of a legal/social contract, straight across the board. Public domain and weak recognition of intellectual rights is a hallmark feature of a watered down mass market oriented society. Our rights community is quite far from being fully evolved and this is representative of flaws in social character, on the level of individuals. It is a very sad state for considering the opinion we promote of ourselves.

Brian Campbell said...

First there is the World of Education, and then the Unreal World outside.

Lawrence LaRiviere White said...

Reginald: what about the people, some of them actual writers, who criticize creative writing programs for the kind of writing and writers they produce? This kind of criticism doesn't seem, at first blush, to match up exactly w/your characterization, though I may be missing a connection.

I believe very strongly in writing programs & workshops, though I admit they have flaws (as do most things in this glorious world o'ours).

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Lawrence,

I wasn't addressing the content of creative writing programs, but simply using the concept that creative writing can't or needn't be be taught as an example of the more general denigration of education in American culture, and of the idea that education is not "real" in comparison to other pursuits. This is an idea that many writers share, even some writers who teach in creative writing programs, and so may dovetail with the viewpoints professed at some creative writing programs.

Take care, and thanks for reading and commenting.


Andrew Shields said...

Real life is elsewhere, as Rimbaud said (and Milan Kundera partially stole as the title of a novel).

This hit home for me while I was in college when I read that soldiers in Vietnam would often say, "When I get back to the real world ..."

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