We recently completed another graduation at Azusa Pacific University, where I teach literature and writing. In the celebratory dinners and receptions with students and their family and friends leading up to the ceremony itself, there is always a lot of talk the students finally finishing college and entering the “real world.”
That’s what they call it. Real.
That implies, of course, that what they’ve been doing at the university for the previous four years or so is not real, an assumption I vigorously challenge.
The course I teach most often is a survey course called American Literature Since 1865. It is real. I can tell you from about 30 years of teaching this class—and the feedback I have received from students—that the reading the students do in the course brings moments of insight and inspiration that are as important as anything they will experience after college. I’m talking about times inside and outside of class when we get lost in the literature, caught up in the stories, challenged by the poetry, awakened intellectually and spiritually by the things that matter most. Not every day, of course, and not for every person at the same time. A class day that is life-changing for one student may leave another student cold.
But some moments are life-changing. I’ve known students who have changed their major to English based on one literature course they had signed up for simply to fulfill a General Education requirement.
In my American literature survey course, we cover about 50 authors over the course of a semester. Students delve into the gut-wrenching psychological journey of Edna Pontellier as she questions every assumption about her role and identity in life in Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening. We work our way through a very different kind of journey in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, as Huck wiggles out of one scrape after another while also trying to help his friend, the escaped slave Jim, reach freedom. We analyze the opposing perspectives and approaches toward race of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.
We spend time with the fascinating but dysfunctional families in Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. We’re challenged and inspired by the poetry of T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, E.E. Cummings, Theodore Roethke, and Billy Collins. We marvel at the creative storytelling techniques of William Faulkner in his novel As I Lay Dying. We enter the worlds of a wide variety of American lives in the stories of John Updike, Toni Morrison, Julia Alvarez, Rudolfo Anaya, and Amy Tan. As students read and consider the lives and ideas of others, they rethink their own relationships, challenges their own biases, and form a better understanding of the past. Sometimes become lifelong fans of authors they had previously never heard of.
None of that is real?
Only a job after graduation is real?
Our students do get jobs, too, by the way. Or they go to graduate school, or do missions trips, or pursue dreams in a variety of ways. I don’t diminish the importance of that, or of paying off the high cost of the college experience.
What I’m fighting is this perception that college is only preparation for life and is not life itself. The years you spend in college are real years, just like the years you spend in your thirties or any other time. Why reduce the college years to simply a time to endure so you can move on to “real life”? Why not relish every phase of life? I don’t know many people in their thirties, for example, who behave as if that time is mainly preparation for their seventies.
I’ve been focusing on one of my courses as an example of what’s real, but I could choose many others from my colleagues in English, and that’s only one department. Other fields are just as crucial, and not only for job preparation, but also for life—psychology, economics, theology, art, music, history, and others. And that’s just the curricular part of college. I haven’t touched on all the other elements of college life such as friendships, service, international study and travel, spiritual worship and development, and all the fun that college students also have.
Isn’t all that real?