Why is academia seen as not the real world?

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

I’ve just sat through a very interesting presentation (by my boss, so I would say that, but it was) about his research and he showed an image of Delft University and how they have a recruitment shop on campus where students can meet employers, learn about job opportunities, develop certain skills etc. He said it showed how the university was integrating academia with ‘the real world’.

Now that’s a phrase I hear a lot, and use myself. But the thing about me is, I’m a contrarian. If I hear someone use some sort of cliche I like to challenge it, usually privately and at length. (I’m a very boring person to know, it has to be said).
I found myself wondering why it is that people, us academics as well, contrast academia with ‘the real world’ as though the two are separate.

I usually use it tongue-in-cheek (I call it TRW) but actually it has a major role to play in a paper I’m writing at the moment on the gulf that exists between the UK design industry (as represented by Creative and Cultural Skills and design courses who, according to industry, are not doing their job properly. I’m finding that there’s no evidence to support the view and quite a lot to suggest that the way the industry views itself is based on dangerous misconceptions about the way it operates.

More on that in January after the conference I’m speaking at.

But this mention of TRW was fortuitous today because it jolted me. It’s another myth, and one we gladly play along with – that academia has nothing to do with the real world.

But it’s not true. At the same presentation a colleague explained how she’d been researching the factors that make hospitals comfortable places to work in. Now I’ve not done it any justice in that brief description; suffice to say it’s very complex stuff with some fascinating results and potential applications. In what way is that not related to ‘the real world’?

Given the major contribution the academic sector makes to the economy as a whole, and the impact it has (often invisible but there) on society (in the building outside my window they discovered the cancer gene, apparently) I think it’s about time people started acknowledging that academia is the real world.

One comment on “Why is academia seen as not the real world?

  1. Craig Burgess says:

    It’s an interesting connuderum that I always often consider too: why,if I’m apparently being taught how to be a designer on my course, is this not classed as the real world? Would it be classed as the “real world” if I was doing an apprenticeship at a design studio? Probably, and that’s probably seen as more prestigious too.

    As I’m quickly beginning to realise with the design industry, it’s very tough going. If I would have been thrown straight into a company with all the pressures of a “real life” design studio I would have thrown the whole idea of ever becoming a designer out of the window in 5 minutes, but because I’m learning the profession away from such an environment I’m given room to breathe.

    On the other hand, we are working in a design studio. The environment we work in is not so different from “real life”, and I am confident I could walk into a job in two or three years time and easily pick up the ropes so we must be learning some “real life” skills.

    Without this teaching, there would be no “real life”, we’d just all be a group of uneducated, unskilled, unemployed drones. You say academia is real life, but I see it more of the learning curve towards “real life”, or a proper job in the industry.

    Still, the term Real Life is unhelpful. It sounds like something out of the Matrix.

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