Rhodes to the Real World

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14 Νοε 2013 (πριν από 3 χρόνια και 8 μήνες)

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Marshall Boswell

Department of English

Rhodes College

2000 North Parkway

Memphis, TN 38112




Rhodes to the Real World


Thank you, President Troutt, Provost Borst,
Cordarius, Doug, and all of you assembled
here on this bright and miserably hot afternoon.

I am both
honored

and humbled to have
been asked to address you
today.
That this task has been given over to a member of the
faculty speaks volumes about the centrality of the academic program to the school’s
overall sense of its mission, and so I accept

this task with gratitude and genuine
excitement. A
convocation marks the official beginning of the academic year
. As a
result, a

convocation address should inspire students in the audience
to
leave this
elegant
setting
determined to wrestle as much as t
hey possibly can from the
marvelous
college
experience that awaits them. To
that

end, and after
much
thought and
careful
deliberation, I have decided to talk to you about

the Real World.


As many of you know, the Real World first aired on
MTV

in
1992
. I
t

now
stands

as the
single
longest running
reality TV show

aside from COPS. But COPS is just shaky
camera footage of
double
-
wide trailers and crazed crystal meth addicts with missing teeth
and tattoos. Sublime television in its way
. But
i
f you want to s
ee the
truly
seminal
‘reality television’ program, the inspiration for everything from Survivor to Big Brother,

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you need look no further than MTV’s groundbreaking piece of gritty televised realism,
each season of which, as you also very well know, tells th
e “true story, of seven
strangers, picked to live in a house, work together,

and have their lives taped, to find out
what happens when people stop being polite, and start getting real.”


I tell you all of this, because in the next four years, you

a
re goi
ng to hear people give you
dark and ominous warnings about the Real World.
They will tell you that, in the Real
World, things aren’t so easy. In the Real World, this or that won’t fly. People in the Real
World, they

will say, don’t have the luxuries that

you do
. And it’s true. For one thing,
people in the Real World can’t even
open a refrigerator

without a camera following them.
And they all have to live in the same house with that revolting guy who
never showers
.
And sure, they all look buff

and tan
a
nd fantastic, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have
issues
. Particularly when all the other people in the house are so
mean
. And selfish.
And
alcoholic
.


Now, obviously

MTV’s Real World has absolutely
nothing to do with the actual real
world, any

more than reality television can be said to depict reality. Or qualify as
television.

But although MTV can be blamed for a great many
crummy

things

in
contemporary

life

Pauly Shore, for one thing

we can
at least
be grateful to MTV for
complicating th
at
o
verused phrase,
The
Real World. Because
you will
hear quite a bit
about the Real World,
the

underlying assumption
being

that you
don’t live

there. You’re
in college, not the Real World. Academia is often

and derisively

referred to as an
Ivory Tower,

a p
lace
curiously
disconnected from reality where everyone lives together

3

in some

sort

closed
off, hermetic environment, like
. . . Well, like Pauly Shore in
Bio
-
Dome.

And liberal arts institutions like
Rhodes

are even more susceptible to the charge
of ivor
y towerness.
Although
I don’t sense much confusion out there about what one can
do with a college educ
a
tion, I do hear quite a bit of anxious worry over what one can
“do” with a liberal arts education. And by “do,” I take that to mean, “
for a living.” In

the
real world.



Well, t
oday I would like to
explore

three ways to think about the
r
eal
w
orld and
how

a
liberal arts education

will

prepare you for
it
.
And
at the end
, I’d like to come back to that
guy
on the
Real World

who
never showers
.


Generally sp
eaking,

when people refer to the “real world,” they mean the
world of work,
of responsibility, of money earning and housekeeping and bill paying and
parenting
.
O
ver the next four years,
some of you wil
l feel

an impatience, and a nagging sense of
guilt, ab
out your delayed arrival
to that world.

M
y first piece of advice
is to

r
esist that
guilt, that impatience.

For starters,
it is unnecessary. Y
ou

have at your disposal

here at
Rhodes

a wide

range of opportunities to connect your classroom experience to the
broader
world outside, from internships and study abroad programs to
service learning
courses and fellowships
.
If you
believe that education should be as

experiential as
possible, then
yo
u’ve come to the right place.




What’s more, your course work itself can function as a splendid source of training for
that

forthcoming world of employment and
adult
responsibility.

I’m reminded of a story

4

a professor of mine told me in graduate school.

One day a student visited him in his
office.


She was concerned

about

her grades on the first two exams
, and said to him
,

Professor,
I would do anything to get an A in this class.” The professor blinked once in
surprise, and said, “Really?” The studen
t repeated, “Yes sir:

Just tell me what I need to
do
.” And the professor replied, “
How about the

reading?” In other words,
why not
approach your coursework
as if your job depended on it
? I can tell you that, as jobs go,
it’s one of the
best, most rewar
ding jobs you’ll ever have.
Speaking personall
y, I still
find it amazing that,
a literature professer
, I get
paid
to read and talk about
the work of
William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth
. That’s the equivalent of my seven
-
year old getting paid

to play Guitar Hero II on his Play Station all day. The other
advantage to th
is
strategy is that

you’ll be happier, and your professors will be happier.
As they say in
business
, It’s a win
-
win.


So yes, you’re more in contact with the real world here t
han you
might
think.
At the
same time, don’t forget that y
ou

have an absolutely rare and unrepeatable opportunity
right now to do something very few people in the history of the world have had an
opportunity to do: namely, to spend four years in relative
seclusion
training

this
extraordinary instrument
:

your mind.

And make no mistake: there is no quick and easy
way to
do it. There is no Berlitz tape series or black
-
market steroid, no
Nordic Track or
Soloflex
machine.
To requote my old professor,
you
really do have to do

the reading.


And for my money

or, more specifically, for y
ours and your parents’ money

nothing

better trains that extraordinary instrument than a liberal arts education.
It’s true that,

in

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the last twenty five years or so, th
e

term “liberal” has become as vexed and misused as
the phrase “real world.” What exactly is a “liberal arts” education
,

anyway?
Actually
,
the term dates to classical antiquity, where it
referred to

an education for “free” m
e
n
rather than slave
s
.
In fact
, the Latin root for liberal is “liber,” which means “free.” It’s
also the

same
root for “liberty” and “liberate.”
Nowadays the
term refers to a curriculum
that
marries the acquisition of general knowledge with a mastery of critical thinking
skills. The

opposite is any sort of more narrowly focused technical, professional, or
vocational curriculum
.
Because a

liberal arts education
emphasizes

learning for its own
sake, free of specific vocational application
, it also “frees” you

to think critically and
i
ndependently about real world phenomenon.
After all,

each field

of study

only provides
a partial picture of
reality
. As
the renowned humanistic

psychologist Abraham Maslow
once said, "When the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem

as a
nail."

A student well educated in the liberal arts should be able to read science like an
artist and understand art with a historian’s or philosopher’s rigor. A liberal arts graduate
will come to see that both metaphor and aesthetics
bear on

scient
ific progress and that
economics and
political science should
take into account the claims of biology, the
imperatives of history,
and
the demands of philosophical
ethics.



It turns out that the experts agree. Just recently the Association of American C
olleges
and University published a major report titled “Greater Expectations” that seeks to
articulate a vision for higher education in the 21
st

century. As Provost Borst shared with
the faculty last week
,
t
he authors of the report conclude that the single best
way to
prepare citizens for a bountiful and productive life in th
is young
century is

a liberal arts


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education.
Why? Because, the authors argue,

only a liberal education develops both

mental agility,

as well as intellectual power; a deep understanding of the world's variety,
as well as a knowledge of Western culture; ethical action in the service of the individual
and society, as well as critical judgment.”
These skills are

more important than ever,
the
authors
write,
because all of you will be entering a “
knowledge
-
based economy and an
increasingly interdependent world,
” both of which will require you
to be

nimble thinkers
and creative problem solvers.”


I w
ould add that nimble thinking and creative

problem solving will also be immensely
helpful
as you confront a real

world that is becoming harder and harder to ac
c
ess. We
live in

an age of
simulacrum, of mediated
experience,
of
hyperspace and hypertext,
of
virtual reality and reality television. Yo
u’re just you anymore: You are You Tube. Even
the cable news stations have given up on reality.
They

now
spend less and less time
reporting the news and more and more time debating it. Objectivity now means
providing “both sides” of
any

argument,
regar
dless of the relative merit of each side,
the
assumption being that there are exactly two sides to every issue

no more, no less

with

the “reality” of the issue remaining hopelessly
beyond our apprehension
. If you wish to
appear on cable news
today

and ass
ert that the earth is
round
, that it rotates on its axis and
revolves around a stationary sun, you must be matched by someone on the other side
of
the debate who
can

and will, with great conviction

assert

otherwise.
And after this
vocal and violent

debate about the shape of the earth and its position in the universe, the
mediagenic newscaster

will say, “
Hmm.

Very interesting.

Well, t
hank you both

for
coming
. I’m sure this debate will
just go on and on
.”
They report, you decide.


7


But the
chatte
r on the
cable
news networks
look
s

like Plato’s symposium compared to the
Orwellian
doublethink that passes as
contemporary political discourse

right now
.
I’ll
give you only one example
.

In
a

New York Times Magazine

article
published in October
2004, an unnamed White House aide archly dismissed print

rather than television

journalist
Ronald
Suskind
as operating naively
within the context of “the reality
-
based
community."
This

unnamed aide

d
efined the “reality based com
munity” as consisting of
those
who

"believe that solutions emerge from judicious stud
y of discernible reality
.

The
aide went on to explain,
“That's not the way the world really works anymore."


Well.
In the
spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you that I
, too,

am a

proud
, card
carrying
member of the reality based community.
And
I would like to welcome all of
you
here

as well.
A
gain,
there is no better
preparation

for citizenship
in this

community

than
to spend four years training your mind to study reality,
“judiciously
,


in all its
complexity and as a unified whole
, with more that just a hammer
.
And at the end of that
training
all of you will
hopefully
emerge as people who can think for themselves,
fr
ee
from the corrosive dissimulation of the spin

doctors

on cable
television
who tell you
that
two plus two equals five and that reality is no longer accessible except as a biased
byproduct of phony debate.
And goodness knows such

people are in increasingl
y rare
supply these days. An Associated Press
-
Ipsos poll released just yesterday reported that 1
in 4 adults in th
is

country did not read a single book last year. While this statistic strikes
most of us as shocking though predictable, it is music to the
ears of those who benefit
from being able to fool and manipulate an incurious and uninformed citizenry.


8


I
also take solace in the fact

that the word “art” is inextricably woven into the
concept of
the liberal arts
. I teach and write fiction for a living,

so
perhaps

I’m showing my literary
bias here, but even so, I cannot help but see a direct corollary between the
educational
benefits
of reading and examining literature with the overall goal of the liberal arts.
Literary critic Martha Nussbaum
once said
,

“Great art plays a central role in our political
lives because, showing us the tangled nature of our loves and commitments, showing us
ourselves as flawed crystals, it moderates the optimistic hatred of the actual that makes
for a great deal of political
violence,
and
moderates the ferocious hopefulness that simply
marches over the complicated delicacies of th
e human heart.” I believe a liberal arts
education can also
perform
that invaluable role. Because it compels us
to see the world
as a complex whole
,
such an education

trains us to honor, rather than hate, the actual, and
to build our values from that solid foundation.


I would like to address one final aspect of the term “the real world.” The phrase is often
used as a
shorthand way
to enlist you in a

cowardly
cynicism
from which

your education
here at Rhodes can, and absolutely should,
wean you.
“That all sounds very noble and
idealistic,” you will hear people sneer, “but it just
won’t
fly in the real world.”
For
example, not everyone
operate
s

under an Honor System.

I
f you’ve ever tried to buy a
used car, or get a straight answer from a politician running for office, or asked your two
small children whose bright idea it was to prop your Fender Telecaster against the bed
and race Hot Wheels dow
n the fretboard, then you know that direct honesty isn’t most
people’s default position.
And I have heard it said about Honor Systems that they are

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naïve, that they do not train students to compete in a dog
-
eat
-
dog world, and that they are
temporary and i
dealistic at best. And all of that is true, provided
you assume

that being a
citizen does not require
you

to be a good
one
, or that the way of the world is a given
rather than a product of the people who live
within
it. I don’t assume either of those
thi
ngs
. More than that, I declare

that the opposite is true. In short
,

your four years
here

if you take full advantage of them

will not only train that extraordinary
instrument
but will also in inspire you make the world a better place to inhabit.



Final
ly,
I promised to return to that revolting guy
on MTV who never showered
.
As it

turns out,
he was

an actual cast member from
the

1994
season

set in San Francisco.
His
name was David Rainey.
He not only refused to use soap but also
caused
so much

trouble

for everyone else that he became

first cast member to be thrown
off the show,
after which the ratings took a
nose
dive. Without him, there was no drama, no tension.
His nickname

was Puck. Puck is also a character
from
William Shakespeare’s
Midsummer Ni
ght’s Dream
. In the play, Puck is a mischievous nature sprite
wreaks

havoc and
therefore functions as the central engine of the

plot.
Exactly
like
MTV’s

Puck.
I was able to make these connections not because
I’m a literature professor who happens

to be
married to a Shakespearean
,

but because I’m

a product of a liberal arts education
.
W
hich

merely underscores my central point

you
just never know when
Shakespeare

will help you understand

The Real World
.


Thank you.