An ad promoting a trip to Glacier National Park

Count on the campaign season to provide us with plenty of fodder for reflection on our life together.
Sometimes even little phrases and word choices can become windows for looking into our own houses, and for looking out those same windows to see the world outside in a different light.

A phrase that has caught my attention this season is the appeal for the value of “real-world experience”—contrasting, we are supposed to assume, the “unreal-world experience” of an opposing candidate.

“Real” seems generally to connote genuine or authentic, as opposed to artificial or pretend.

For example, a popular condiment jar says it contains real mayonnaise; one wonders what unreal mayonnaise would be like.

Another ad claims that a particular beverage is the real thing, others presumably being unreal.

But what exactly is the real world that is appealed to when one’s expertise is claimed to have been refined by it? This question reminds me of two experiences.

First, years of conversations in ethics classes where the principles of integrity, justice and community are examined and celebrated as virtues.

Inevitably, someone, often with more mileage in the business or professional world, will interject, “This is all well and good, but it won’t work in the real world.”

Fine as theory in the classroom but impractical in the world where daily life is lived.

Second, a retreat setting, where students and teachers were thinking and talking about the nature of communities defined by respect and compassion.

I don’t think we sang “Kum Ba Yah,” but we probably could have, such was the spirit of “koinonia” that we were discussing and experiencing.

A colleague observed about the spirit of those moments, “Who’s to say this is not just as real a world as any other?”

I get the impression that in most current uses of the term, the real world is the competitive world of the marketplace, where success is measured by a bottom line, and relative prestige is assigned according to how visible in that success pattern a given person or field of work is.

While not diminishing those who perform with integrity and competence in that arena, I wonder if thinking of real-world experience primarily in terms of this part of our collective life contributes to the overall health of the human family?

We have a tendency, it seems, to define the real world in terms of the borders of our own place in it.

And the more dominant that place is in our collective consciousness, the more that place becomes the real world, whose values and practices exercise a kind of functional authority on our thinking.

This tendency leads to a separation of arenas of work, where some are real world and some are not, even though they all may be essential functions in our common life.

The consequence is that some capabilities are valued more than others, and thought to be more real.

Consider a mental exercise of ranking the real-world experience you perceive among varied occupations, for example, the engineer, the manager, the teacher, the artist, the librarian, the technician, the social worker, the physical therapist, the clerical worker, the sanitation worker.

Who has the most real-world experience?

A perspective of covenant faith would seem to invite us to envision a real world that includes, but reaches beyond, all our limited arenas—a human community that is characterized by a broad-based justice and responsibility for all, more than a pattern of success in any particular segment.

Covenant faith embraces the value of the many skills and arenas of our common life, but it also offers and calls us to a vision of the real world that is beyond the limited concerns of any particular part of it.

This real world is broader than the boundaries of partisan concern that lead to higher walls and stronger gates and that prevent us from seeing what’s outside our own place in life.

Maybe the person with real-world experience is not necessarily the successful contestant in a dominant arena of our collective life.

Rather, this person sees beyond the boundaries of his or her own place with a vision of a real world that recognizes and values every member of the human family and is committed to the well being of all.

Might this be the kind of real world experience that we desperately need, on top of the many other skills that serve our common life?

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

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