As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.
Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.
“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”
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The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.
“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”
But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.
“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?
“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”
Critique your own arguments
Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.
“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”
Applying to university? It's time to narrow your choices down to two
Fine, use Wikipedia then
The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.
“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”
Focus your reading
Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.
Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.
You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.
“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”
There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.
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Look beyond the reading list
“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”
And finally, the introduction
The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.
“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”
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Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d’appui, below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.
Henry David Thoreau
On college campuses, students often speak about the difference between college and âthe real world.âÂ The student speaker at the 2003 St. Olaf College commencement told her classmates that their graduation confirmed their status as âreal adults.âÂ Our students are told that they need to work hard to get ready for “the real world.”Â They know that some majorsâin science and computers, economics and businessâhave âreal-worldâ payoffs, but other majors–History and English and the arts–are relatively impractical.Â Parents and professors warn students that they’ll need to behave differentlyâmore seriously–in “the real world.”Â Theyâre advised to take internships to get âreal-world experience.âÂ Conventionally, college is understood as a counterpoint to âthe real world.âÂ In general, the academic world of inquiry and imagination, of trust and thoughtfulness, is defined as unreal. Â Once, in my presence, a group of my own students made the distinction between between professors and real people. I’ve been suspicious ever since.
Innumerable books and essays reinforce the distinction between college and the real world.Â An advice column at the job-search website Monster.com begins with the assertion that âthe `real worldâ starts once youâre out of college and on the job.âÂ Maria Shriver writes about Ten Things I Wish Iâd Known Before I Went Out into the Real World.Â Chad Foster advises Teenagers: Preparing for the Real World.Â Stacy Kravetz offers graduates a Welcome to the Real World, while The Everything After College Book offers âreal-world advice for surviving and thriving on your own.â For students not ready for the real world (but still caught up in the concept), Colleen Kindler tells about Delaying the Real World: A Twentysomethingâs Guide to Seeking Adventure.
Critics of academia (and even some friends) also describe colleges as âthe ivory tower.âÂ E.D. Hirschâs The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy says that âliving in an ivory towerâ means âan impractical existence removed from the pressures and troubles of everyday life.âÂ As an example, Hirsch offers this sentence: âLike most college professors, Clark lives in an ivory tower.â Â According to critics, this ivory tower is both a place and a state of mind where people grapple with intellectual or idealistic considerations rather than practical everyday life.Â In the bubble, in the ivory tower, in college, we seem remote from âthe real world.â
At St. Olaf, students also talk about the âSt. Olaf bubble,â the safe space of college, the place where they’re freed of many practical responsibilities (including food and shelter) to engage in other responsibilities (learning to learn).Â The image of the bubble connotes a dome that encases the campus, a protective shield against many of the problems of other places.Â Itâs an image of campus that emphasizes studentsâ separation from the real world, their freedom from practical responsibilities, and their submission to rules that inhibit their full freedom.
But what exactly do we mean by “the real world?”Â What makes it real, and what makes the rest of the world unreal?Â What does our characterization of âthe real worldâ tell us about our social construction of common sense?Â What does the ârealityâ of that world tell us about the social construction of reality?Â And how does âthe real worldâ of our imaginations affect the way we live now?
The Reality of the Real World
âThe real worldâ is deeply attractive to many college students.Â Most students believe that college should be, in some way, preparation for âthe real world.âÂ Theyâre eager to graduate and test themselves by âreal-worldâ standards, even though they expect them to be more demanding than college life. And this attraction points to a wider web of American values and cultural patterns.
If you talk to college students, you quickly discover that independence is the main appeal of âthe real world.âÂ College students look forward to a time without a syllabus, without homework, without RAs, without the paternalistic advice of professors and administrators.Â Even though in loco parentis is obsolete on most of Americaâs college campuses, students resent even the vestiges of parental care.Â Itâs a rule on college campuses that you canât like rules, and you canât like regulations or restrictions either.
In âthe real worldâ world, according to students, youâre finally on your own.Â You canât depend on other people to pay your bills.Â You have to do it yourself because thereâs no safety net.Â âThe real worldâ is the world of American individualism where the self-made man or woman makes itâor not.Â Itâs where college students find out if theyâve learned enough to earn enough to survive outside the ivory tower
This emphasis on independence fits perfectly with broader patterns of American socialization.Â In America, growing up is growing apart.Â We socialize our children for autonomy; we take pride in their emerging independence.Â We congratulate them when they can do things âon their own.âÂ In America, as soon as youâre really self-sufficient, youâre grown up.Â So âthe real worldâ benefits from its associations with autonomy, adulthood, and Emersonian self-reliance.
In America, unless youâre independently wealthy, your independence depends on your income.Â So students also look forward to the work of âthe real world.âÂ In order to pay your bills, you need to work.Â And in âthe real worldâ youâre not working for gradesâyouâre working for a living.Â So the stakes are high.Â Failure in âthe real worldâ is worse than a failing grade in physics or philosophy. Your job and your lifestyle both depend on your own ability and industry.[i]
For some students, the main attraction of work is the work itself.Â They feel called to serve people in some capacityâin medicine, in law, in teaching, in nursing, in business, in social workâand they look forward to helping to make people better in a better world.Â For more and more students, however, the attractions of work are mainly monetary.Â They look not to the intrinsic rewards of good work but to the extrinsic rewards of good payânot for the money itself, but for the freedom it seemingly promises.Â At least from the perspective of college, paying the bills is a sign of freedom and a foundation for family life.
Students anticipating the freedoms of âthe real worldâ often forget that freedom can be quite expensive.Â Once youâve signed the lease, youâre not free to skip the rent.Â Once youâve purchased the car, youâre not free to skip the âlow monthly payment.âÂ Once youâve charged a purchase with the credit card, youâre no longer free of debt.Â And once youâve established a lifestyle, thereâs more social pressure to upscale than to downshift. In âthe real worldââand even on campusâAmerican commercial culture works by persuading us to spend money that obligates us to spend our time at work.Â We respond by praying the great American interdenominational prayer âThank God itâs Friday,â and by celebrating the cultural institution we call the weekend.Â We often buy entertainment and commodities that have been packaged as âescapeâ thus expressing our distance and disdain for the job.Â When we do, of course, we actually buy the signs of freedom with the substance of unfreedom.Â But thatâs not how it looks from a classroom or a dorm room.
When you think about Americaâs social construction of âreality,â itâs quickly apparent that “the real world” is basically the commercial world, the world of American business.Â When students talk about âthe real world,â theyâre not usually thinking about love and relationships or friends and children.Â Theyâre not talking about spiritual life or religious community.Â Theyâre not talking about their leisure pursuits.Â Theyâre not talking about travel or vacations.Â Theyâre talking about the work world, in which people toil for a wage to support themselves.Â It’s the world of the bottom line, the world of money and the marketplace.Â This âreal worldâ is Darwinian.Â It’s âa man’s world,â although working women are now a part of it.Â It’s a dog-eat-dog world, a world of competition and one-upsmanship.Â To a great extent, what makes the real world real is its hostility.Â The real world isâin many of our assumptions about it, if not in factâunpleasant and alienating.
When students talk about âthe real world,â therefore, you donât hear many images of deep human fulfillment.Â In fact, anticipating their impending engagement with reality, students seem to take pleasure in its lack of pleasure.Â They assume it will be hard and tough and challenging. They know itâs not as easy as life in college.Â Â Their âreal worldâ is the world of Calvin and Hobbesâand not the comic strip.Â Itâs a world of people who are depravedâor at least untrustworthyâand itâs a world where life is nasty, brutish, and long. Often, talking about âthe real world,â students sound like masochists, lusting for pain.Â They seem to accept uncritically the clichÃ© âNo pain, no gainâ (and its illogical corollary, âthe spinach principle:â âif it tastes bad, it must be good for you.â)[ii]
The Reality of the Unreal World
The âreal worldâ imagined by our college students is one half of an American dualismâthe half they donât live in.Â Americans love dichotomies, because they reduce the complexity of the real world to a single pair.Â Mocking this double vision, writer Robert Benchley once said that âthere are two kinds of peopleâthose who think there are two kinds of people, and those who donât.âÂ The problem with dichotomies, however, is that they erase the middle ground, the fertile spaces between the poles.Â A dichotomous world would have North and South poles, but nothing in between.Â But the real world isnât dichotomous, even though we define it that way.
If you look it up in the dictionary, the word real means: “1. Being or occurring in fact or actuality; having verifiable existence; 2. True and actual, not illusory or fictitious; 3. Genuine and authentic, not artificial or spurious; 4. (in philosophy) Existing actually and objectively.”Â It comes from the Latin “res” which means “thing.”Â The same root leads to real estate, and to republican (res publica–the public things).Â In comparing possible synonyms, the dictionary notes that real “pertains basically to that which is not imaginary, but is existent and identifiable as a thing, state, or quality.”
Colleges are arguably real; they occur in fact or actuality.Â There are buildings and grounds, roads and parking lots.Â There are classrooms and dorm rooms, cafeterias and bookstores.Â Colleges are connected to basic utilitiesâgas and electricity, water and sewers, telephone and computer cables.Â Colleges have real income and real expenses.Â Many people have jobs at colleges; in some towns, the college or university is one of the primary employers.Â College people eat and drink and shit and copulate.Â At most colleges in America, you can buy a Coke, and, as we know, Coke is âthe real thing.âÂ So why arenât colleges considered as real as McDonaldâs or Microsoft?
College professors are also true and actual, genuine and authentic.Â Shakespeare realized this in The Merchant of Venice: âHath not a college professor eyes? hath not a college professor hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a middle manager is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?âÂ We exist actually and objectively.Â So why arenât college professors as real as lawyers and doctors and insurance agents?
The social patterns of a college are also verifiable.Â Real peopleâincluding professors and studentsâinteract in institutional patterns that have been established over centuries.Â Real people enact the social roles of presidents and professors, registrars and deans, students and staff.Â College cultures include observable patterns of human life: deference and authority, hierarchy and inequality, status and competition, politics and power.Â A relationship on campus is just as real as one off-campus, even though both partners may live in âthe bubble.âÂ A kiss feels just as good in college as in âthe real world.âÂ And even the virtues of collegeâtruth and beauty, wisdom and wonder, imagination and freedom of thoughtâare arguably real, since theyâre embodied by faculty and staff and students.
Environmental patterns of college life also have measurable consequences.Â The campus is not, in fact, a bubble, and college campuses are not cut off from the world.Â Every day, resources from all over the planet flow in and out of the so-called bubble.Â Trucks and cars come onto campus, along with parking problems, pavement, and air pollution.Â Few campuses grow their own food, so each campus creates its own foodshed, importing coffee and bananas, meat and milk, fruits and vegetables, beer and pizza from around the globe.Â Electricity sizzles onto campus in wires, illuminating our lives without illuminating our connections to the sources of electrical power like coal and uranium.Â Water pumps through faucets and showers and toilets and hoses.Â If a college campus is a bubble, it’s a bubble as big as the biosphere.
Still we speak about college as if it were unreal.Â Why?
Iâm not sure, but I have six suggestions.
First, I think we define colleges as unreal because students arenât paid for schoolwork, and if work isnât paid, it isnât worth much.Â When we define reality this way, of course, we forget that much of the worldâs good work is unpaidâlike parenting.Â We also forget that professors are compensated for their academic work.Â We forget that many students work to pay their tuition and fees.Â We forget that some students are, in fact, paid to think, because they receive grants and scholarships that subsidize their education.Â And we forget that, in the long run, the work of college does pay off: the average college graduate makes around a quarter of a million dollars more than the average high school graduate.Â But these logical inconsistencies donât interfere with our constructions of reality.Â If workâs not paid, we think, itâs not real.
To some extent, secondly, we think colleges are unreal because we define them as places of preparation.Â Youâre not a real lawyer until youâve completed law school and passed the bar.Â Youâre not a real doctor until youâve been certified.Â But preparation for the real world seems to be a real-world activity too.Â We donât think that food preparation is less real than eating a meal.Â We donât think that music practice is less real than a concert.Â So why would we think that academic work is less real than paid employment?
We define colleges as unreal because students and faculty deal in theory and abstractions, concepts and method.Â We consider academics unreal because they use an analytical language thatâs not always easy to understand.Â Americans have a predisposition to prefer action to analysis, and we celebrate cultural heroesâcowboys and cops and Presidentsâwho donât think too much.Â We seem to believe that thinking is less real than action, even though almost all action depends on thinking, either present or previous. Â We forget that business also deals in theory and abstractions, concepts and methodâthink of âtotal quality managementâ or âjust-in-time delivery.âÂ The standard operating procedures of business donât seem theoretical because the theory is already embedded in routines and practices.
Third, sometimes college seems unreal to students because itâs not the world of the news.Â College students often feel detached from the world, and from news about the world.Â If things are newsworthy, they somehow seem more real.Â And the day-do-day life of college seldom makes the news.Â Students feel like they donât know whatâs going on in âthe real world,â and that theyâll be more in touch after they graduate.
The disconnection of college students is, of course, their own choice.Â They have time to read a newspaper, although most of them donât.Â They could watch the news, or cable news channels, or documentaries, even though they watch videos and DVDs of movies theyâve seen a million times before.Â They even have time to check the news on-line, and some of them do.Â But on-line news is so superficial that it seems like no news at all; itâs almost as ephemeral as Instant Messenger, which tends to get more dedicated time anyway.
In the same way, in reality, itâs unlikely that college graduates will be more attentive to news about the real world.Â Given the patterns of privatization in American lifeâprivate property, private enterprise, and personal privacyâwe generally donât get more connected than this.Â After college, students will be working a job from 8 to 5, and spending time on the necessities of lifeâfood and shelter and clothingâthat are provided for them now.Â In the real world of American culture, people usually narrow their focus to life, lifestyle and livelihoodâthe 20th century version of âlife, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.âÂ Unlike Jefferson, who understood the pursuit of happiness as both a private and a public matter, we generally define our primary pursuits as private.Â He believed in citizenship; we believe in âsitizenship,â which mainly entails sitting around bitching about the politics we donât support or participate in.Â In any case, by looking for âthe real worldâ on TV, we ignore the real world on our side of the television screen.
Fourth, I think college is seen as unreal because itâs generally a world of enough.Â Students generally have enough food and clothing and shelter.Â They can go to the health service when theyâre sick.Â They can see counselors if theyâre depressed.Â Even entertainment is provided on campus.Â But American society is, by design, a system in which some people donât have enough so that other people can have too much.Â In that world, the prospect of poverty makes life after college seem more real than college life.Â We define the ârealâ in terms of privation or the possibility of privation.Â The danger of âthe real worldâ is a defining element of its reality.Â The sufferingâeven if we donât personally experience itâmakes our successes sweeter.
This explains why many students like rap and hip-hop and so-called âurbanâ fashions.Â For young people growing up in suburban safety and security (even when itâs mainly mythical), the life of ghetto kids and gangs looks âedgy, gutsy, riskyâall that adolescents crave.âÂ Romanticizing poverty and the ghetto, many students buy the sound and look of the cityâs gritty realism, and they buy into a social construction of reality that tells them that urban poverty is not just different than their own lives, but more ârealââand therefore, more valuable.Â Like other constructions of âthe real world,â this one is paradoxical.Â Students donât want to live the ârealâ life of the ghetto; they just want to use it as a way of criticizing their own lives.[iii]
Fifth, I think college is defined as unreal because it discusses and displays assumptions about human nature that are less pessimistic than people in power prefer.Â College assumes that people are rational, and that they can be improved.Â College assumes that people are goodâor at least that they have the capacity for being goodâand that itâs possible to make people and institutions better.Â College assumes that itâs important to ask big questions, even if you canât always find the big answers to match them.Â Itâs important to ask âWhat are people for?â because, if you donât, you might settle for a second-rate existence.Â Itâs important to ask âWhat are my deepest values?â because, if you donât, you might live a life you donât really value. Itâs important to ask âWhy do we act the way we do?â because otherwise you might never get wise to the whys of your culture.
Finally, college is considered unreal because, comparatively speaking, people care about you as a person.Â Most college students are supported in college by families who care for them.Â Most college mission statements talk about the development of the whole person.Â Many college classes put that care on the syllabus in the form of questions about character and vocation.Â Some college students find that their professors and teachers care for them too, although the economies of education often keep that care at a distance.Â When we think about the real world as a competitive marketplace, we forget the care and cooperation that characterize the institutions Americans love mostâfamily and friendship, church and school.[iv]
Whatever the reasons for our social construction of reality, it definitely performs cultural work for us.Â When âthe real worldâ is defined as the world of the business bottom line, it affects both our perception and our experience.Â Instead of hope, we get diminished expectations and a habit of settling for someone elseâs understanding of reality.Â Having defined reality unrealistically, weâre bound to see the world through distorted lenses.Â We mock people who see the world through rose-colored glasses, but we implicitly praise people who see it cynically in shades of black.
Even worse, though, our conventional definition of the real world makes us irresponsible by defining usâthe people of higher educationâas unreal.Â Defining college as unreal, we deftly define ourselves as unreal.Â Seeking meaning in the cultureâs construction of reality, we demean ourselves.Â In the process, we avoid responsibility for our real lives.Â If accountability is a feature of âthe real world,â and weâre still in college, we donât have to be accountable.Â Some students, in fact, seem to use âthe bubbleâ as an excuse to maintain their disengagement from the world.Â Itâs easier to blame it on the bubble than to get involved.Â These people, says one student, will eventually make a bubble of their lives as well.Â If the real world is somewhere else, weâre not responsible for it.Â Instead, itâs party time![v]
Americaâs unreal definition of âthe real worldâ has real consequences.Â It marginalizes values that donât fit the competitive marketplace.Â It teaches students to suspect care and cooperation, simplicity and humility.Â It tells them that âitâs a material world,â so it also teaches students that ideas and idealism are illusory and ephemeral.Â And students are taught to believe that interdependence is a fleeting phase of life, and that comprehensive critical thinking is something weâll grow out of.Â This is no accident.Â In America, the institutions that offer an alternative to the values of competitive capitalism are systematically marginalized or commodified.Â The business of America is business, said Calvin Coolidge, and part of the power of business is the power to define reality.
In America, and even at American colleges, ideas are somewhat suspect.Â Americans worry about the power of ideas, and so we often try to protect ourselves against them.Â In high school, the student who loves ideas is often mocked and marginalized.Â S/he becomes âthe Brain,â the nerd, the geek, the dork.Â Thereâs more regard for ideas in college, but students with other substantial talentsâa passion for sports or fashion or video games or beerâstill occupy many of the popular campus hierarchies.Â American education may be a meritocracy, but students who merit praise from professors often merit scorn from their peers.
In America, often, idealism is even more suspect than ideas.Â Idealism is the sense that what should be could be.Â Realism is often the sense that what should be canât be.Â So the social construction of âthe real worldâ is a way of hobbling our hope.Â The conventional image of âthe real worldâ helps us to adjust to the banality and evils of our time.Â Instead of learning hoping mechanisms, we content ourselves with coping mechanisms.Â We learn to adapt to the demands of our world instead of demanding that the world adapt to our visions of the good.Â In the 1960s, critic Paul Goodman advised students to “Think about the kind of world you want to live and work in.Â What do you need to know to help build that world?Â Demand that your teachers teach you that.”Â Much of the time, sadly, todayâs students don’t follow his advice.Â Too often, they prepare themselves to live in âthe real world,â instead of the world they really want to live in.Â Too often, they take courses to fulfill requirements instead of requiring courses to fulfill them and to help them build a better world.Â And students hardly ever demand enough from their professors or their education.
Americans often remind each other of our social construction of ârealityâ with the injunction âGet real!âÂ Sometimes this exclamation is just a figure of speech, and it doesnât mean much. Other times it means so much itâs demeaning.Â When somebody tells us good news, sometimes we reply by saying âGet real!âÂ We mean âitâs too good to be true.âÂ But we implicitly suggest that goodness is extraordinary, that itâs not in the order of things.Â We seem to believe that good news is miraculous in a world characterized by bad news.Â But even though we say it all the time, do we really espouse this pessimistic vision?Â In America, for example, most of us profess a faith that begins with an affirmation of the goodness of creation and ends with a proclamation of the gospelâthe good news.Â And by almost any standard, this world is amazingly out of the ordinary.Â After all, we live on the only planet in the solar system that supports life.Â âIf the landscape reveals one certainty,â says Annie Dillard, âit is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation.â[vi]
If âGet realâ is a common response to good news, itâs also often a response to statements of hope or idealism.Â In that case, âGet realâ means âItâll never happen.âÂ When a student says she believes in âpractical idealism,â we tell her to âGet real!âÂ When students hope for an environmentally sustainable college community, we tell them itâs not possible.Â We encourage students to volunteer to help young people or seniors or racial minorities, but if students want to change the structures that disadvantage such people, we tell them it wonât work.Â In such circumstances, âGet real!â is the voice of practical pessimism.Â It means âThink like meâ or Get hopeless, like me.âÂ Â It means âThink like the majorityâ or âThink like all the other people who live lives of quiet desperation.âÂ âGet real!â tells us to stop trying to make our deepest dreams real.Â âGet real!â means âConform to the world, donât reform or transform the world.â
In this instance, âGet real!â reinforces the standard vision of âthe real world,â privileging fatalism over initiative, conformity over creativity, realism over idealism.Â We can have ideals, weâre told, when other people are paying the bills.Â We can be idealistic in college, but thankfully weâll get over it.Â We, too, can adjust to the cynicism of the real world.
A âreality checkâ is similar to the injunction to âGet real!âÂ Sometimes a reality check is just an occasion when we tell the truth to ourselves.Â But in other situations, itâs a way of avoiding the truth about reality.Â In the first instance, a âreality checkâ asks us to examine our assumptions, and to identify the illusions that may be causing us grief.Â We might aspire to be a professional basketball player; a reality check reminds us that weâre not very talented.Â We might hope to be a straight-A student; a reality check notifies us that weâre not that smart.Â We may want to be beautiful or buff, and a reality check reminds us that we donât have the body for it.Â Usually, a reality check asks us to keep our aspirations in line with our actual abilities, so that weâre not perpetually disappointed.Â It doesnât ask us to give up hope; but it keeps us from wishful thinking.
Unfortunately, we seldom perform a second sort of reality checkâa check on ârealityâ itself.Â In this sort of reality check, people might ask if reality in America adequately addresses the full humanity of human beings, or if our social construction of reality allows for the flourishing of the natural world.Â In this instance, reality is checked by idealism.Â In the nineteenth century, for example, slavery was very real; it was one of the primary institutions of American culture.Â But a reality check showed that it didnât match American ideals, and so Americans abolished it.Â In the twentieth century, chlorofluorocarbons made air conditioning a widespread reality.Â But a reality check showed that they also obliterated the ozone layer, and so international treaties abolished the use of these chemicals.
Sometimes such idealism provides a useful reality check for the so-called âreal world.âÂ In fact, one of the primary virtues of today’s impractical idealists is to show the impracticality of the so-called âreal world.â Â In the real world of nineteen major industrial nations, for example, Americans are first in the world in greenhouse gas emissions, and first in contributing to acid rain; first in air pollutants per capita; first in forest depletion; first in paper consumption per capita; first in garbage per capita; first in hazardous waste per capita; first in gasoline consumption per capita, first in oil imports, and first in oil spills affecting our shores; first in TVs per capita; first in cars per capita, and first in use of cars instead of public transportation. Is that practical?Â Is that realistic over the long haul?Â How long can we live this reality?
In the real world of industrial nations, the United States is number one in infant mortality, number one in percentage of low birth-weight babies, number one in children and old people in poverty, number one in inequalities of wealth, number one in big homes and in homelessness, number one in credit cards and in private consumption, and number one in executive salaries and inequalities of pay. We’re number one in time devoted to TV, and last in books published per capita. Is this practical?Â Is this realistic?Â Is this good?
No.Â Â Environmentally, âthe real worldâ is a disaster area.Â Capitalism has always been a system of âcreative destruction,â and itâs been an amazing catalyst for human imagination and inventiveness. But in our time, the destruction seems to be outpacing the creativity.Â The ârealismâ of American capitalism is undermining the life systems of the planet.Â The so-called realists have gotten us into real trouble.Â And more ârealismâ is probably not the solution.
In this situation, the actual realists are Americaâs idealistsâpeople who understand both the needs of human nature (as opposed to their desires) and the needs of the planet.Â David Orr, author of Ecological Literacy, Earth in Mind, and The Nature of Design, contends that we’re living in a time when altruism and necessity coincide–when the impractical idealists are the consummate practical realists.Â And these new realists are telling the architects of âthe real worldâ to âGet real!â
All our talk about âthe real worldâ is just thatâtalk.Â Itâs words and ideas.Â But these words and ideas can affect our worlds and ideals.Â They in-form our hearts and minds, our beliefs and behavior.Â So itâs a good idea to understand the implications of this construction of âthe real world.â
If we performed a reality check on âthe real world,â weâd realize that itâs not as real as we thoughtânor does it really encompass the whole world.Â Our conventional definition of âthe real worldâ omits too much reality.Â As weâve seen, our conventional definition of the real world omits many of the real wonders and pleasures of the people and places that surround us.
Another unreality of âthe real worldâ is that it only includes the human world.Â By any sensible standard, the real world is much bigger than human games or gains.Â The real world is the biosphere, a delicate balance of organisms, fluids, solids, and gases that supports life.Â And if the real-world activities of human beings threaten the web of life, thenâquite simplyâtheyâre not realistic.Â While weâre at college, we may have minimal effects on the bottom line of business, but we have environmental impacts that are real and substantial.Â And paying attention to campus ecology can remind us of that crucial reality.Â âThe real world,â as it happens, is just part of the world, and itâs manufactured every day by people like us.Â So if we realized all the implications of our social construction of âthe real world,â we might begin to realize alternative visions of reality.
One meaning of the word ârealizeâ is âto comprehend completely or correctly.âÂ Comprehending âthe real worldâ of American culture, we can see that itâs not reality, but a social construction of reality.Â The predominant image of âthe real worldâ is, happily, just a half-truth.Â Itâs true to some of our experience, but not to all of it.Â Itâs like Catch-22.Â In Joseph Hellerâs novel, Captain Yossarian is threatened by Catch-22, the simple proposition that âspecified that a concern for one’s safety . . . was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask, and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.âÂ Ultimately, Yossarian discovers that âCatch-22 did not exist . . . but it made no difference.Â What did matter is that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for their was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up.âÂ When something as arbitrary or unreasonable as Catch-22 or âthe real worldâ becomes a part of the social construction of common sense, only uncommon sense can guide us back to reality.Â When âthe real worldâ results in real problems, sometimes the lofty perspectives of the ivory tower can offer a corrective to practical everyday life.
A second meaning of ârealizeâ is âto make real or actualize,â and the example given is âto realize an ideal.âÂ In the first definition, we get our thoughts in line with reality.Â In the second instance, we get reality in line with our thoughts and ideals.Â Itâs this sort of realization that Iâm most interested in. Â Itâs this sort of realization thatâs possible on Americaâs college campuses.Â Sometimes the practices of the ivory tower can offer important alternatives to practical everyday life.
We donât just go into a real world thatâs already made, but that we make the real world in our everyday lives.Â Â We make it by our beliefs and behavior, by the way we act and the way we talk.Â So we need to be careful what we do or say.Â If we continue to talk about âthe real worldâ as if it were somewhere else, weâre likely to miss the real world all around us.Â If we continue to prepare to go out into âthe real world,â weâll be unprepared to affect the real world we inhabit now.Â If we act like âAnimal House,â the real world will be âanimalistic.âÂ If we act like citizens, the real world will include the common good.Â When we act on our ideals, we make them real.Â Â As we learn an ethic of sustainability, and as we enact it, we can make a real world thatâs really worth living in.
The real world is out there.Â But itâs also in here, in our hearts and minds and souls.Â Itâs not just there in the business world; itâs in our families and neighborhoods, and itâs right here in our college classes and the cafeteria.Â If we want real-world experience, we donât have to get an internship.Â We donât have to move off campus.Â David Orr contends that colleges are for designing minds, and for designing ideas and institutions that make it easier to be good for one anotherâand the whole creation.Â He expects colleges to apply the theories they profess and to practice the values they preach right on their own campuses.Â Orr agrees with John Dewey, who said that âeducation is not preparation for life.Â Education is life itself.â So we can begin to realize our ideals in the real world, where we are right now.
[i] Many students, of course, are working already, both on and off campus, so theyâre gaining âreal-worldâ experience.Â But these part-time jobsâor even full-time jobsâdonât seem to affect the way they think about college and the âreal world.â
[ii] In fact, we often seem to think that pain necessarily leads to gain.Â The âspinach principleâ of life, for example, suggests that if it tastes bad, it must be good for you, and conversely, if itâs pleasurable, it canât be substantive.
[iii] Alex Kotlowitz, âFalse Connections,â in Consuming Desires, pp. 70-71.
[iv] Of course, thereâs a lot of care and cooperation in business too, but within a âreal worldâ worldview, you canât talk about it.
[v] Thanks to Breanna Peterson for some of the insights in this paragraph.
[vi] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 9.