You can file this under “I know you know this already, but let me rant”.
“Normal people”, “the real world”, “the university of life”, “ivory towers” – I have a list of cliches people use when talking about academia and higher education, which cause a mental (if not actual) eye-roll and immediately invalidate the point being made. See the comments section of any article about universities in the Guardian or Daily Mail, and it is only a matter of time before one of these pops up, giving the poster the basis to dismiss any claim. They used to just irritate me, but I’ve come to see them as not just indicative of laziness, but rather more sinister.
They are wrong-headed in a number of ways. Firstly, the suggestion that all people who work in higher education don’t lead ‘normal’ lives. That they don’t worry about money (because academics are phenomenally well paid as we all know), job security (precarity is so not a thing in universities), families (we reproduce in laboratories), health (your h-index conveys immunity), etc. This is of course, laughable, (hence we have hashtags such as #professorslooklikethis) but more concerning is that it is a means of ‘othering’ academics. We are not ordinary people, therefore we don’t need to be treated like people at all.
Secondly, what constitutes ‘ordinary’, ‘real life’, etc? My life is characterised by its fabulous ordinariness – I watch sports, go to the cinema, walk my dog, live in a bland modern house and eat more pie than I should. But even if that were not so – if I were a fifth generation Oxford Don, who spent their weekends leading a medieval dance troupe and published only in Latin, that’s still a valid, and in the world I would inhabit, a real, existence. It is not as if we live in the industrial age where the ‘real world’ might be working in mines versus the aristocratic lifestyle. Is making a film, programming software, social media marketing, or being retired living in the real world? We live in a highly diversified working environment, and one suspects there are now more people not doing ‘real work’ (however that is defined) than there are doing it.
Thirdly, aren’t we all supposed to be extraordinary these days? That’s what all those lifestyle ads tell me. Many things we now regard as part of the social norm were deemed weird, and definitely unordinary in their day. Most impressionist paintings, now seen as part of the mainstream canon of art history (and even a bit bland) were seen as truly shocking in their day. To restrict approval and action to only those activities enclosed within the current definition of normal, constrains development for all of us. I grew up in Thatcher’s 80s – it was horrible, the social hegemony was stifling. I love that so many different types of lifestyle, that diversity across a range of aspects (sexuality, race, family structure, work, hobbies) in any road you go down is now the norm.
Lastly, to say that we are only concerned with what has practical utility at this moment is to close yourself off to a lot of human experience. Not everything will have direct application now, and quite a lot might never have direct use, but as soon as you start applying that razor to society, there would be much lost that we currently cherish.
When someone uses these terms then it’s worth asking: “who else do they exclude in their definition of the real world?” & “what are they hoping to control and shut down by dismissing these people?” The answers to these questions will demonstrate why the use of such terms is not just reaching for the nearest cliche, but indicative of a more sinister mindset. In short, breaking news – this is real life.