A little while ago, someone offered me advice on how to get a job in the real world after grad school. This advice, though unsolicited, was undoubtedly well-intentioned, but hidden in the offer is the germ of an idea that I find quite poisonous. Implied is that the academic realm is somehow disjoint from the "real world." This phrase is often, in my experience, used in a condescending way to separate and denigrate various environments from some set of environments that are sufficiently "real" to merit recognition.
Consider one particularly harmful example of this. Since children are often told that things aren't like their school environment out there in the real world, reality as recognized by this phrase must surely exclude the first 20 or so years of our lives. Years in which we discover much about ourselves and in which our bodies change and betray us in myriad ways. Years in which we undergo challenges that we are, almost by definition, unprepared for. Years in which we experience emotions and pains which are all too real. To add to those burdens the condescending dismissal of unreality is a tragic perversion of the good intentions that must surely underlie the use of a phrase like "real world." What is seen by adults as a promise of a better tomorrow comes across as a failure to empathize with the problems of adolescence. This is why I call the ideas epitomized by the phrase "real world" poisonous: they pervert and distort our intentions and empathies.
How, then, does such a term come to be applied to academia? To many people not in academics, I suspect that the academic world is unfamiliar and arcane. Many people are not concerned with funding proposals, postdoc applications, tenure reviews, or any other of the myriad distractions from research. Even more fundamentally, the goals of an academic researcher are very different from the goals of most people employed in industry. It is all too easy, then, to fail to recognize these goals and concerns as being as real as those associated with other pursuits. Likewise, it is all too easy to compartmentalize the concerns of academics to some mythical ivory tower, locked away from daily life as surely as the princesses locked away in the towers of our more misogynistic fairy tales.
What could be more real than learning? In all walks of life, we must learn and grow to succeed, and it is this process that academia tries to incorporate and cultivate. When we lock this ideal, however imperfectly realized, out of our conception of the real world, we do ourselves a great disservice. Rather than responding to the foreignness of academia by drinking the poison of the real world, then, I encourage my friends and loved ones to ask questions of their academic friends. It can be difficult to bridge divides, to be sure, and those of us on the academia side of this divide aren't always the best at empathizing with the rest of society, but we can all do better than to dismiss so thoroughly the concerns of those around us.