10/15/2014 01:35 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

What Exactly Is the 'Real World'?

Just what exactly is this "real world" I keep hearing about?

Whether in classrooms or living rooms, America's children and young adults are always warned about the "real world," a place where naive childhood becomes a grim battle for survival.

The phrase is usually offered with a knowing and condescending look, as if to say, "You just wait. Go ahead and enjoy your flights of imagination, your silly play, your romantic notions and your immature ideals. In the 'real world' things are different."

This never fails to offend me. It is an arrogant way to diminish the importance of imagination, romance and ideals, suggesting that they are the playgrounds of the young. The smug, dismissive use of "real world" suggests that adulthood is deadly serious, pragmatic and competitive.

But maturity doesn't mean becoming jaded and cynical. Real maturity is when one comes full circle, realizing that imagination, romance and ideals are the "real world." The other stuff is only a tedious interlude to endure until you regain your perspective. The luckiest among us live imaginatively, playfully, romantically and idealistically through most of our days on Earth.

This false distinction between life and the "real world" is particularly harmful in education. The purpose of education has become nearly universally seen as vocational. We rank colleges by the incomes of their graduates. Politicians talk only about developing a competitive workforce, never about a loving and just society. Schools drill children in math tables and facts, pouring information into their little heads so that they will be prepared to take their productive places in the "real world." The arts are marginalized, or out of the picture entirely. Reading for pleasure? No time for that. Daydream? Giggle? Dress up in funny clothes? Nope. We've got important work to do.

Even if these "real world" warnings had merit, couldn't we at least give children a few years to enjoy life before we surrender them to our economic ambitions?

But, of course, the "real world" warnings have no merit. If "success" required the surrender of childhood, I'd still favor allowing children to be children. But it's a false choice. Preparation for a fulfilling and productive life actually requires more of the experiences we are eliminating from our schools and less homework, stress and so-called "accountability."

I frequently recount the story of a middle school student who came to Calhoun, the progressive school where I work, some years ago. She had previously attended a highly competitive school for "gifted" students, where 3-4 hours of nightly homework was the routine. She was stressed and sad. When I asked her father what brought them to our school, he cited a night when he sat with his exhausted daughter struggling to finish the pile of meaningless homework that was to prepare her for the "real" world. She asked a question. He yelled, "We don't have time for any damn questions." They applied to Calhoun the next morning. She daydreamed, giggled, dressed up, sang and read for pleasure all the way to an Ivy League college.

Policy makers and politicians cite the need for entrepreneurs, visionaries, innovators, leaders and problem solvers. Then they drive sterile policies and practices that have children completing worksheets, complying with teachers' directions, sitting silently respecting their elders.

We say we need problem solvers. Then we train children to get the answers right on a test, punishing any risk taking or original thinking.

We say we want leaders and then we reward kids only when they blindly follow.

We say we want visionaries and we don't have time to hear children's ideas.

We use trite phrases like "thinks outside the box" to describe qualities we admire, and then we present children with boxes to check and scold them for coloring outside the lines.

This is terribly sad. Education has become increasingly joyless. At both ends of America's widening social continuum, children are being driven into pragmatic conformity. Children living in poverty are seen as a problem to solve. Privileged children are seen as an asset to be maximized.

I'm too old to be naïve. Life can be difficult. The "real" world has plenty of problems to solve. But we need more imagination, joy, romance and idealism, not less.

This post previously appeared in the Valley News.