Joel Belz: Real life and theory

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, September 26th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Academia and real life: are they connected? WORLD founder Joel Belz has some thoughts.

JOEL BELZ, FOUNDER: “We’ll prepare you for life,” the colorful school brochure assured me, “the way it really is.”

It has become an educational shibboleth: All schools claim to prepare students for the real world.

But do they? If that’s a significant measure of a school’s success, a painful list of them deserve failing grades. For what many schools—both public and private—offer today is an incredible distance from life as we really live it.

When we talk about something that’s not real, we tend to dismiss it as something that’s “only academic.” So almost by definition, schools live in another realm.

That is true in large measure because a school operates out of context. School is an artificial anticipation of all the problems a student is going to face and all the questions he or she is going to need to answer. The smartest curriculum designer is the person who can guess what the greatest number of graduates will find useful during their lifetimes.

Yet however typical that may be of a school setting, it’s not the most efficient way to learn. Nor is it the way we do most of our learning in life.

I’ll admit there are a few people who, when they buy any new gizmo, immediately sit down even before opening the crate and read the owner’s manual from beginning to end.

But most of us learn by trial and error. Most of us can’t wait to plug it in, turn it on, and see how far we can get. Only as a last resort do we go to the table of contents line that says, “What to do when . . .” That’s when the learning really begins.

A few folks learn for the sheer joy of it. Most of us learn only when we have to.

A good school, then, is perhaps one that resolves the tension by bringing the two realities into some kind of equilibrium. But that’s difficult—and usually expensive.

The airlines (and the military) do that exceptionally well in the training of pilots. Sophisticated flight simulators reproduce the sounds, the sights, and even the vibrations of particular flight plans so well that pilots can supposedly step from the simulator to a real cockpit and be ready to fly.

One reason I’m involved in publishing today its that my father introduced me when I was not yet 7 years old to the marvels of movable type and a tiny 3×5 Kelsey printing press. We printed real church bulletins, birth announcements, and missionary prayer cards. It surely beat just reading about Johannes Gutenberg.

Bad things tend to happen when we promote learning outside the context of reality. Schools tend to operate in a never-neverland. Schools use budgets and calendars that would drive other enterprizes out of business.

So try this: Starting with curriculum and classroom content, maybe it’s time for teachers, administrators, parents, and donors all to say, gently but firmly: “Let’s get real.”

For WORLD Radio, I’m Joel Belz.

(Photo/Flickr, Creative Commons, NCSSM)

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