Childhood is full of myths. One that still mystifies me as an adult is a daunting place called the “real world.” We often see it referred to in quotation marks, which gives it an undefined, abstract quality. No one seems to know with any certainty what we might find in this “real world,” although I haven’t heard too many great things about it. It seems to be a place fueled by competition and dominated by a monetary and status reward system. And while it isn’t hard to get into, it’s apparently difficult to survive there.
There are however two things that are clear about the “real world”: parents are supposed to protect their children from it and school is supposed to prepare them for it. This begs the question: why, if we feel the need to protect our children from this “real world”, would we simultaneously allow others to prepare them to actually enter it someday? And at what age and under what criteria are they ready to do so? While on the one hand the “real world” sounds scary as hell– there are drugs there, and hunger and war and corporate greed and very few “good” jobs– society tells our children that if they do well in school in order to prepare for a successful career, they will have a good chance at coming out ahead in this “real world.”
But what is this place, really? Is it a planet in some distant galaxy we shuttle our kids off to after college? Is it an experiment or endurance test that one must pass in order to return to the fake world we currently live in? Or perhaps an alternate universe where everyone is left to fend for themselves with no sense of community. And once we enter this “real world”, intentionally or by accident, what if we don’t like it there or don’t agree with the rules? What if we are ill-prepared to face it? Will we disappear, disintegrate? Or, dare I say, fail?
The myth of the “real world” isn’t a product of science fiction. It’s a product of our fear –as parents, as educators, as government officials– that our children will fail in the world. And we are sending the message, loud and clear, and on a daily basis, that if they do fail in this “real world”, that they have failed not only themselves, but their families and society. So we dangle a mythical carrot, a formula for “real world” success, in front of our very young children with educational slogans like “race to the top.” What child doesn’t like a good race? Except this one is purely metaphorical. Because actual running is increasingly being banned in many school playgrounds, private communities and even parks. Girl Scouts are no longer allowed to climb trees. But let’s get back to the “real world.”
If Common Core testing is meant to single out and usher the best and brightest through the system and into the “real world”, what happens to the others who get weeded out, the ones who don’t do well in the school environment, are different, don’t conform to what society deems normal, or simply see life in a unique way? Will they be judged and left behind? Weren’t we promised not so long ago that no child would ever be left behind? Doesn’t a race imply a winner out in front?
It seems to me that the “real world” is a self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuated in part by a one-size-fits-all, box-em-up and ship-em-out approach to education. For decades now, we have been planting the “real world” with seeds of consumerism, competition, disillusionment, anxiety, fear and greed– all in the guise of success.
And yet weeds are mighty. Especially the beautiful but scraggly ones that no one thinks will survive. They often put forth bright and intriguing flowers. I like to think of unschooling as the fertilizer for those weeds. Self directed learning is growing and spreading as an alternative to the myth of the “real world” by allowing children to live and learn with freedom and integrity in the only world we have. The “real world” doesn’t exist outside anyone’s doorstep. It doesn’t exist across a vast ocean beyond our control. There is only one world, and we all live in it together. We don’t need to protect our children from or prepare them for it. They are already part of it. They are its future. We need to guide them through it, in all its boundless beauty and deep darkness, with compassion and conviction.
Knowing how to plant and nourish a garden has been and always will be more valuable than passing a standardized test or conforming to someone else’s definition of success. Let them get their hands in the dirt and they’ll figure the world out. Weeds and all.